On the corner of Hackney Marsh, where the A12 crosses the Lea Canal, there once stood the factory of Lesney Industries Ltd, manufacturer of Matchbox toy cars.
When I first came across the factory in 2008 I couldn’t tell immediately that it was abandoned. A river-barge bobbed expectantly against the wharf. A giant hook seemed to swing in the loading bay. But when I stared directly at it, the hook was still. In one of the hundreds of uniform windows a face appeared. Just briefly. I was sure.
Or was I?
A closer look and I could see the window was smashed. Sunshine glanced off the shards. Beyond was darkness. It was eerie. The entire factory facade played tricks on the brain. What seemed at first to be life was only decay dancing in the light.
Many windows were intact. Others were still propped open, the memory of a musty day in the office. Someone sick of the smell of Embassy No.1s and over-heating fax machines. Bob in accounts, he always had sweat circles under his arms. Stank the place out in the summer. Then in winter he moaned about the cold. Kath the receptionist couldn’t stand him. At least that’s what she told everyone in the canteen, almost every day. How they laughed when she was caught with his hand up her skirt at the 1989 Christmas party. The last one before the factory closed.
Bob and Jill. Who would have thought it? He was a dirty bastard that Bob.
I fell for the factory immediately. The blue lettering of the ‘Lesney’ sign reminded me of factories and offices in Glasgow in the ‘70s when I was a young child. In the ‘80s my Dad worked for Glossop Superalloys in Derbyshire and occupied the same kind of building: modern, utilitarian, cheap. The company made bits of metal to go in Rolls Royce engines. Dad was a personnel manager there. In the school holidays I’d visit his offices at lunchtime and go fell-running with him and his workmates.
I remember the offices were scruffy, featureless cubes, filled with paper and files. The corridor carpets charged you with electricity as you scuffed along. The changing rooms smelled of sweat and cologne. For me it was the most adult place in the world. Where men went to do their work. Making things. And when they weren’t building they were running through the hills like moustachioed gazelles in Ron Hill tracksuits.
I was naive to imagine that Lesney was still functioning. We don’t make things these days. We pass money and information around. We try to keep everyone fed and alive. And when we’re not passing around money and information we walk our dogs past empty factories.
We don’t make things. Certainly not toy cars. The Chinese have that sewn up. Just ask my phantom friend, Bob from accounts.
“I blame Thatcher” he says. “That free market crap. Now we’ve lost it all.” His face is drawn. There’s a picture of Kath on his desk. He works at an old people’s home now. He once made toys for kids, and now looks after for the elderly. Old people are bigger business than die cast model cars. Besides, what else could he do after Lesney? Fly high in the City? Get a job in the media? Work for a video game company?
I liked to think of Bob as forever roaming the Lensey factory, giving it the big I am to the office girls. And not only Bob but generations of workers for whom this block of brick was the hub of daily life.
Sometimes when I passed the factory I’d see their ghosts in the windows.
Then in 2010 the bulldozers came. They began to tear down the toy factory. Every day another chunk of wall came away. Slowly they exposed the internal organs of Lesney. I could see the old carpet flapping in the breeze, bits of furniture and wiring sprouting from broken walls.
When they ripped away the canal facade, corridors hung in the air. I imagined the ghosts of bell-bottomed workers with sideburns and mullets striding across the skyline. They went about their business, unaware. That June 1973 deadline needed to be hit, and to hell with what was happening in June 2010.
Like the past, the future was another universe.
After a month of demolition only the far corner of the factory remained by the canal, like a ruined castle turret. Rubble filled the loading bay. The beautiful blue Lesney sign was almost gone. All you could make out was the outline and a final remaining “U”, hanging on for dear life. And then that was gone too.
One day I came there and saw nothing but diggers crawling over a pile of stones. Mechanical cockroaches on a corpse. Men in hard hats held up charts and pointed authoritatively at parts of the ground. A few days later they started building.
Go there now and you’ll see Matchmaker Wharf development. More flats to house the exploding population. I see this new edifice growing almost every day. But I still see the factory too, or at least its ghost, and imagine the old toymakers in their flared suits, walking in the sky.