Poetry in motion

JAMES HEARTFIELD journeys through the poetry in motion of logistics

FOUR AND a half hours from 85 per cent of Britain is the unsung town of DIRFT. Nobody spells out the acronym, Daventry International Railfreight Terminal, though they might, as explanation expand to DIRFT Logistics Park. Four and a half hours is important because that is the maximum that a long-distance lorry driver can travel before he has, by law, to stop for a break.

Off Junction 18 of the M1, DIRFT is within four miles of the major M1/M6/A14 interchange at the heart of the UK. It connects with the M6 going westwards to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, the M1 going north to Leeds and south to London, and the A14 going east to Felixstowe.

DIRFT is a town like no other. Nobody lives there (though 700,000 live within 30 minutes drive-time, in Daventry and Rugby). It is 185,800 sq m, with as much again earmarked for further development.

As economic growth has shifted from heavy industry to consumer goods, from the mill towns to the high street, distribution looms much larger. In your fridge, in your home, through your letterbox, goods from all over the country, from all over Europe, will have passed through DIRFT. Seeing the elegant economy of effort in planning the lorries’ routes it is not hard to see why 65 per cent of all freight goes on roads, while just eight per cent goes by rail. But for all those who dream of an enhanced role for rail in a more rational transport network, DIRFT is helping to put retail goods on trains.

DIRFT’s location and infrastructure help Tesco ‘to distribute frozen foods to 70 per cent of the UK and distribute 6,500 different clothing product lines to more than 770 outlets’, according to its IT and logistics director Philip Clarke. In DIRFT, and nearby, Tesco has one million square feet of warehousing, including freezer space equivalent to 23 million domestic freezers. The Royal Mail built a 24,386 sq m cross dock processing centre there to rationalise their national transport network. Asda Wal Mart runs six trains to Grangemouth in Scotland – just some of the 120 trains out of DIRFT each week.

The only traffic at DIRFT is made up of great container lorries elegantly gliding from roundabout to roundabout, before backing into the loading bays of vast white oblong warehouses, picking up another load, then setting off to another destination, four and a half hours from DIRFT, and it is this quiet poetry that is recorded by the artist Andrew Cross in his latest piece, Three Hours From Here: An English Journey. Since graduating in fine art from Bath, Cross has moved, without quite meaning to, into photography and now film. His latest work takes its title from JB Priestley’s book subtitled A Rambling but Truthful Account of What One Man Saw and Heard and Felt and Thought During a Journey Through England During the Autumn of the Year 1933.

Like Priestley’s, Cross’s journey runs from Southampton up to Manchester, but by way of DIRFT, on the latest model articulated truck – thanks to the generosity of Scania. Seen wholly from a camera fixed in the lorry’s passenger seat, the journey is shown in one-and-a-half minute segments, in sequence, with the mileage to and then from, the destination shown. It is a method that suppresses the director’s selection of images, to before the point when Eisenstein started moving his camera about, except that now the motion of the lorry substitutes for the cameraman’s shoulder.

‘It is the antidote to Stephen Spielberg’s film Duel,’ says Cross proudly as he shows me sequences on his monitor at his studio in Bethnal Green, East London. Where Spielberg’s film makes the truck driver into a revving, jerking monster, the motion of the Scania is strangely ethereal, floating, with all the noise subdued. It is true that the truck driver’s vantage point gives a lurching, hovering motion that can make you a little seasick. ‘It’s the viewpoint,’ says Cross. ‘You are 2m off the ground. Most people never see it.’

But there is another effect. The movements are not human, though they are not anything else either. They are mechanical, and have had all the short spasms given by the radii of human limbs abolished. Gliding is the best description I can think of. At the opening, at Southampton Container Terminal, a dockside crane crosses the horizon very slowly, before the movement transfers (as the goods) into the lorry you are watching from; like passing a baton, but without the reach or snatch.

Rather like driving, the experience of Cross’s cab’s eye view is hypnotic, white line hovering in one mirror, cars creeping up in another. The ordinary motorist’s fear of the horny-handed trucker (realised in Duel) is reversed; you flinch at the hire cars (always red, it seems) which flit nervously around the stately ocean liner of the Scania.

‘It is England,’ says Cross emphatically. ‘Look how green it is.’ And it is true. What Stanley Baldwin called ‘Deep England’, the ‘green and pleasant land’ is undeniably there, speeding past the windscreen. Though the captions tell us we are going past Newbury, these roads do not seem to scar the landscape, but open it to view.

Arriving at DIRFT, always the end and beginning of a journey, the Trumpton-like round of little roundabouts and slip roads unroll queasily. It is the traffic of Patrick McGoohan’s Village in the Sixties’ TV series The Prisoner. Traffic, without pedestrians, it turns out, is less Mad Max, than what Henri Lefebvre called the quotidian, ‘everdayness’, with all the lurching friction of older trucking subdued by hydraulics and computerisation.

Cross’s eye is drawn to the same architecture of timeless modernity that interests JG Ballard. While Ballard’s spiritual home is the airport terminal Heathrow, Cross has organised a conference at Stansted, with delegates taking coffee and dining alongside the departing. His gatefold collections of photographs of Slough (before David Brent and The Office) and Watford catch the structure of roads and intersections that eschew the hateful lustre of ‘heritage’. ‘It’s not ironic,’ he tells me forcefully, and it is not.

He admits a little shyly to something of a truck fixation, which has replaced a previous interest in railway engines, both of which can be seen in his two rather beautiful books of photographs, Along Some American Highways, and Some Trains in America, as well as the neatly stacked boxes of 1:1220 scale replica Marklin and Walthers trains.

At its heart though, Cross’s project is democratic. He is interested in the working processes that make life possible, even though they are mostly invisible to us. There are echoes of the GPO Film Unit movies, most obviously of Grierson and Auden’s Night Mail, recording the rail journey from London to Glasgow. But more generally, there is an interest in the litany of jobs and professions that make the reproduction of human life possible. ‘I don’t understand the objection to wind farms,’ he tells me. ‘Where do people think that things come from?’ DIRFT, it seems, is the most likely answer.