Monday, September 9, 2013

Shipwrecked on dry land

A few weeks ago I finally made it across to Llanech-y-Mor to take a look at the Duke of Lancaster. This former cruise ship moored up on the Dee estuary had featured in the last few months in quite a few national newspapers, including The Guardian, Telegraph and Mail. It’s newsworthiness based on its transformation from rusting hulk into a giant steel canvas for a European street artist movement, The Du-Dug Collective-Welsh for The Black Duke. The story of The Black Duke from its birth in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1956, to its current status as an art installation and political battlefield is as surreal and outlandish a story as the most fevered imagination could conjure up. It is a story that is crying out to be made into a film documentary. A tale involving cold war paranoia, political corruption and a cultural divide.

According to the Wikipedia entry regarding, The Duke of Lancaster, it was built as a passenger cruise ship which operated from 1956 to 1979. After being decommissioned by the owners-British Rail it was sold to a Liverpool based company and brought down from Barrow in Furness to an empty dock at Llanerch y Mor on the Dee Estuary. The new owners originally planned to get around the archaic planning laws which ruled against trading on a Sunday by exploiting a loop hole in the planning regulations which saw ships at sea outside of these restrictions. Furthermore, it’s rebranding as ‘The Funship’ was aimed at developing the ship as a floating market with bars, restaurants and accommodation to exploit North Wales’s tourist market. 

For a while it was successful but very soon came up against the dead hand of corrupt and inept local politicians. The then Delyn Council slapped enforcement notice upon enforcement notice upon the owners, claiming the ship was in breach of trading regulations and threatened the council’s own monopoly trading status. At this point it’s appropriate to point out how Welsh councils and their planning committees are essentially composed. Councils in North Wales are overwhelmingly made up of what would be described as a white petit bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, farmers and small businessmen, with a sprinkling of professionals like solicitors and educationalists. In many North Wales authorities, these frankly low calibre politicians fly under flag of ‘Independents’.

In planning applications involving licensing and trading there is more often than not, barely disguised self interest involved. Those politicians whose livelihoods are threatened by an enterprise like The Duke Of Lancaster will usually fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo and protect their own interests. Throw in the role of freemasonry which unites many local politicians with the North Wales Police- within whose ranks freemasonry is endemic- and you have a powerful  force for continuity and planning conservatism. I recommend you read ‘John’s Story’ on the Duke of Lancaster website for the full tale of political shenanigans surrounding The Black Duke’. 

If you want evidence of the ineptitude of North Wales local authorities,witness local government reorganisation in the 90’s which saw Denbighshire inherit massive debts from the failed, bankrupt Rhuddlan Borough Council and more recently, Ynys Mon ( Island of Angelsey) council declared such a dysfunctional basket case authority that The Welsh Assembly government appointed a team of commissioners to run the authority.  It has since had its powers returned.

If these political intrigues are almost beyond belief then the DuDug collective’s account of the history of The Duke of Lancaster takes the story into the realms of Hollywood. According to the group, the ship-which was built during a time of cold war paranoia- was intended to be a floating centre of government in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. While Britain suffered a nuclear conflagration, The Duke of Lancaster would sit out the conflict in the Atlantic with passenger role comprising of government ministers and members of the Royal Family. According the DuDug website... “The ship included: sleeping quarters, war rooms, amphitheatres, kitchens, dining areas, infirmaries, brigs, psychiatric cells, barbershops, storage rooms, sewage treatment facilities, body storage/disposal areas, gun ranges, and decontamination showers. Most importantly, she had the most elaborate and powerful communications equipment ever installed aboard a ship, at that time.’

For a full account, I recommend following the linked pages of the owners and the arts collective. 

As far as my own visit was concerned. Despite arriving on a wet grey day, I was expecting some sort of carnival atmosphere surrounding the ship. Street Artists hard at work, tourists taking photographs and traders plying their wares on the quayside. What met me was an impressive but nevertheless neglected rusting hulk moored alongside a weed infested dockside which was hidden behind fencing and razor wire. A porta-cabin with two cars parked outside suggested security goons were in residence. Somewhat disappointed by the state of affairs I followed the path to the waterfront. The fence continued down towards the waterline. Fortunately the tide was out and by scrambling down over seaweed covered rocks I could get around the barrier and into the dock. Not wishing to trigger the release of a couple of slavering Rottweiler’s  I knocked on the cabin door to ask permission to take some photos. I was met by an unsmiling  young guy with an expression of ‘how they hell did you get in' on his puzzled face. Permission was not forthcoming and I was thrown out of the dock. Well...not literally thrown out as in marched out with my arm wrenched up behind my back. I walked out the way I came in but not at all impressed with the hospitality on offer.

Thinking about the Duke of Lancaster situation today, I can’t help ponder the irony of a Liverpool based enterprise being moored in the cultural wasteland of Deeside. Given the city’s  transformation into an international venue for arts festivals and music  gatherings, and the local authorities willingness to exploit the city’s magnificent waterfront and maritime heritage, then you can only but wonder at what fate would have delivered if the ship was moored on the Mersey?  It could be a major arts and tourist centre with studios for local artists, galleries, bars, cafes and a flea market below in the massive car deck.  Unfortunately, when the owners bought the ship and looked at possible moorings, Liverpool City Council was as dysfunctional an authority as any in Europe and sadly for the owners, it was most definitely the right place but at the wrong time.

In the mean time, thank God for The DuDug collective ! It least someone is fighting on behalf of The Black Duke!


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