Factory living

Not far from Tilbury docks, Tom Blass discovers the Bauhaus grandeur of a maverick Czech shoemaker

Just a stone's throw from the eponymous dock at Tilbury is a town born of shoes. It isn't on any heritage trail or way marked with tourist signs, and the hotel no longer takes guests. Catering facilities are limited and themed activity-centre or park-and-ride facilities have yet to be constructed for the benefit of visitors.

For aficionados of Bauhaus design, lack of official interest enhances the "bleak chic" qualities of an unexpected modernist treasure trove that has largely been left to moulder in peace.

The Bata insignia on the factory roof is just discernible from a mile away. Until you get closer, it looks quite new. "Sixty turned up to have a look around the other day," said the security guard at the old factory gates, "although today you're the only ones." He almost didn't let my photographer friend Alex and me in. But eventually he capitulated, evidently proud to be guarding a unique jewel of British and Czech industrial history.

Tomas Bata believed that what Henry Ford had done with cars, he would do for footwear, providing affordable shoes to the masses along with decent conditions, housing and recreation for those that made them. Starting on home soil, a team of Corbusier-inspired architects helped articulate this vision in the Czech town of Zlin, using clean, modernist lines and acres of glass.

Detractors would describe Bata as a bully who inflicted punitive sanctions on the work-shy, was overly sympathetic to fascism, and came down hard on union membership. Even his death in a 1932 air crash was blamed on megalomania - he allegedly coerced his pilot into flying, against the man's better judgement.

None of this would hold up the project at East Tilbury, chosen as the launch pad for his British ambitions and replicating the Zlin factory buildings, houses, cinema, school, hotel/ballroom and fire station block for block, in effect creating a self-enclosed industrial/living community that would thrive for almost five decades.

Just as the jungle swallowed up Amazonian rubber-boom cities, so Essex threatens to reclaim Bataville. This is the Essex that the middle classes find difficult: Staffordshire terriers, football shirts, pineapple hairdos, tattoos, the cross of St George and S6 number plates. Against such a backdrop, Bata's flat-footed modernist semis appear dislocated and at odds, but, despite their avant-garde credentials, no less pinched and worn than their mock-Tudor, pitched-roofed contemporaries elsewhere in the vicinity.

It was the early 1980s when the company sold off the housing, and today few people remember the "Bata days". Peter was strimming grass outside one of the old factory buildings, now turned over to self-storage and archiving space. His parents were both part of the original team of Czechs brought over to show the local people how to make shoes. As a man whose life was shaped by Bata, he has given it some hard thought.

It was, he concludes, a good thing. In the main a strong, happy community, crime-free and safe. Reflections like this, of course, are the hallmarks of nostalgia - as Loudon Wainwright III pointed out, the good old days are "good because they're gone". But Peter insisted that East Tilbury was different. People had been proud to work for Bata. Outsiders would travel miles for the excellently sprung dance floor at the hotel, and there was ample time for the cinema, egg-collecting and the odd fumble by the river. He is uncomfortable with the idea of it having been a benign dictatorship. It was true that you'd be hauled over the coals for absenteeism or lateness. But that's just what things were like (in the good old days). The flipside was that if you showed flair you were rewarded for it - like his friend Mike, who ended up building a Bata factory from scratch in the middle of an African jungle.

It was the redundancies in the 1980s that dispelled the notion that the company cared for the sake of caring, or that philanthropy had been anything other than a commercial expedient. The "community spirit" quickly unravelled, while the housing sell-off brought in outsiders and, with them, a new rootlessness. More crime. Less of a sense of belonging - coinciding with the official proclamation of society's demise and, paradoxically, with the rise of Essex Man.

The landscape around Tilbury is haphazard and appealing: big ships coming into dock, the looming power station, fields of rape, ponies (colourful, shaggy and friendly-looking - a different kind of animal from the trim, sleek beasts of the Home Counties). It's a wild, post-agricultural space post-dated by the Thames Gateway - lambasted locally as being all about enrichment of bigwigs and nothing about quality of life.

Until the new houses go up and the "oppor tunities" arrive, Tilbury will just get on with being itself. Washing the car at the weekend, beer and football, yes, but not just that. Along the riverbank by Tilbury Fort (remember Elizabeth mustering the troops?) a kid shouts: "Oi, mister, I caught a fish." He has sharp Saxon features, a crew cut and trainers, and an air pistol tucked under his jacket. "But I put it back." Modestly, he indicates the fish's length with his hands - about the size of a child's shoe.

Just along the river, a middle-aged couple propped up on camp chairs share sandwiches and binoculars with which to watch an avocet dabbling in the receding tide.

Hedged by privet, a shrewd-eyed statue of Bata stands outside the factory gates in a patch of Rizla-strewn lawn. There is also evidence that the young people practise birth control. Structurally the town remains intact, largely under a preservation order and apparently sold for a song. But the factories are stripped bare of machines; the cinema is now the town hall and the hotel a block of grubby flats above a supermarket.

The Bata company still produces shoes, but in Asia and central Europe. Meanwhile, and though only vestigial traces of East Tilbury's Czechness remain, its inhabitants good- humouredly endure the stares of the curious, photographers, architects, shoe fetishists and writers who see in their semis the fading footprint of a quirky, shoe-topian vision.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.