Big-shed nation

They sit by the road, windowless and vast. But what are they for? Joe Moran on the warehouses, logis

A new word has entered the vocabulary of environmental protest: megashed. A well-organised "stop the shed" campaign is currently centring on a disused RAF airfield just outside Andover, next to the busy A303, where Tesco plans to build an enormous distribution warehouse. Yet big sheds - those huge, windowless warehouses you see at major road intersections - have been around for nearly 40 years, and for most of their history they have been left off maps, unmentioned and ignored by the general public. So why is a diverse band of campaigners - including the former transport secretary George Young and the lead singer of the Troggs, Reg Presley - suddenly getting angry about them?

If you thought about them at all, you probably imagined big sheds to be a product of the dere gulated planning regime of the Thatcher era; in fact, big sheds were pioneered by a socialist retail society and championed by a minister who would later become a tabloid demon from the hard left. In the late 1960s the Co-op hatched a plan to build huge warehouses that would serve whole regions and increase its bulk purchasing power. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as the minister of technology was then known, awarded it a £150,000 innovation grant, in return for which it agreed to share its know-how with the industry. So in 1970, the Co-op built its first distribution centre at Birtley in County Durham, just off the A1. Birtley wasn't just huge, it was automated, with goods stacked on high racks reached by robotic cranes commanded by a giant ICI computer, allowing a then-astonishing 5,000 boxes an hour to be despatched to the shops.

The big-shed revolution really began in 1972 with the completion of the M6 and the linking up of the first thousand miles of motorway. LSSBs (large single-storey buildings) sprang up suddenly on low-lying land near motorways. Britain was losing its industrial base and importing more goods from abroad, and these imports needed more space to store them. The innovation of the Thatcher era was "just-in-time", a system first used by Toyota in Japan in the 1950s, which delivers goods only when they are needed, so they do not sit on a shelf losing value. By centralising their warehouse stock and keeping goods moving, firms could release cash flow, perhaps even sell things before they had to pay for them. Logistics, a trendier-sounding word than "haulage", was this new art of moving things around. Firms could outsource the whole operation, from finding warehouses to driving the juggernauts, to companies offering total "supply chain management solutions".

Logistics depended on location, and the property hot spot was right at the heart of the trunk-road system, in the Midlands. When the M69 from Leicester to Coventry opened in 1977, it created a "golden triangle" of motorways with the M1 and M6, giving the area the best transport links in Britain. From here, lorries could reach 92 per cent of the population and return the same day. Here is found Europe's biggest distribution park, the 500-acre Magna Park, founded in 1988 by an unlikely alliance of Asda and the Church of England. Companies that migrated there channelled their goods through the golden triangle to an extreme degree. Toyota's Magna Park warehouse, for example, was only 50 miles from its manufacturing plant at Burnaston near Derby. But instead of parts being shipped straight there, they were sent from Derby to its European distribution centre near Ghent in Belgium and then on to Magna Park - a journey of 583 miles - so the stock could be maintained at the minimum level.

Terminal architecture

Most of us might think this a strange way to run a business, but that just shows how little we know about the invisible workings of this big-shed economy. The late architectural critic Martin Pawley called these buildings "terminal architecture", meaning that they were hubs for the unseen networks that sustain and control our daily lives. Giving nothing away on the outside, big sheds just look like dumping grounds for goods, but they are far more dynamic than that: goods move at such a rate that they can arrive and leave within the space of a few hours. In the new internet-shopping warehouses, such as the Amazon shed near Junction 13 of the M1, hundreds of "pickers" run around mountains of Harry Potter books, Nintendo games and Duffy CDs, guided to their destinations by hand-held navigational systems within minutes of orders being placed online. The big shed is designed to get stuff on the road as quickly as possible.

So why is the megashed suddenly on the political agenda? Since the mid-1990s, the development of out-of-town shopping malls and retail parks has been more tightly controlled. But central government and regional assemblies have carried on giving free rein to the megasheds, because they see them as essential to support the boom in internet shopping and the ever-growing number of imports. Faced with rising land prices, the big shed is invading other areas of the country. One of the great beneficiaries has been UK Coal, because much of the land that it bought cheaply when British Coal was privatised in 1994 turns out to be conveniently located between the M1 and A1, with good connections to the newly important north-eastern ports. Some of the critical pits in the 1984-85 miners' strike - most poignantly, Rossington colliery, near Doncaster, nicknamed "Red Rosso" after its diehard support for the NUM - are being turned into distribution parks.

The supermarkets are now also expanding the megasheds into the regions, because they have so many stores that a single distribution centre in the Midlands is no good to them. Some of the newspaper reports about Tesco's Andover megashed suggested that it would be one of the biggest buildings in Europe. In fact, it is nowhere near as big as Heathrow's Terminal Five, and at 915,000 square feet will be a fairly standard-sized megashed. But since that is bigger than the footprint of the Millennium Dome, it is quite big enough. So omnipresent are the big sheds becoming that a state-sponsored quango called Community Resilience UK has plans, in the event of a natural disaster or major terrorist attack, to requisition them as emergency mass mortuaries.

Antony Gormley, one of the few people to find aesthetic interest in the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, says that mega sheds are "as much a part of our history as the rural barn". As works of architecture, they are more cutting-edge than any giant Gherkin. Built quickly from prefab materials, big sheds are as impermanent and recyclable as garden sheds - the steel walls and roofs can be melted down for scrap, the concrete floors broken up and used as hardcore for roads. Some are built by "clad racking", which means simply plonking all the equipment on site and covering it with a plastic membrane, instead of walls. If only our houses could be built so cheaply and innovatively.

Yet big sheds also encapsulate the strange ethereality of the modern economy, the way it controls our lives while we have only the dimmest awareness of its workings. The recent banking crises, or the chaos at Terminal Five, do not seem to have shaken the baffling political consensus that the private sector is a paradigm of competence and efficiency - even though anyone who has ever rung a call centre, or waited in for something to be delivered, will know that the so-called "service" economy is more than capable of surly incompetence. But the big-shed universe is super-efficient at all the stuff that happens before the pesky customers get in the way: finding warehouse locations, cutting margins, working out how much the shipping will cost in pounds per cubic metre.

Britain is the world leader at moving stuff around. As the rest of us know so little about it, this logistics economy could largely ignore all the voguish talk about local sourcing and carbon footprints, and get on with what it does best: searching for limitless economies of scale. Until now, perhaps, when the megasheds are becoming so big that we are noticing them at last.

"Queuing for Beginners" by Joe Moran is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
Show Hide image

The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop