Friday, October 3, 2008

A Very British Futurism


Fillipo Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto in 1908, in which he declared:

"We will glorify war - the world's only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for."

The Futurists' celebration of speed, machinery and death is one of the odder trajectories of early Modernism. Curiously, the now derelict motor racing circuit of Brooklands in Surrey echoed in a peculiarly British way the same obsessions.



Brooklands was an obscure piece of early Modernism, or more precisely Futurism, a cousin to the equally dramatic testing track on the roof of the Fiat Lingotta factory in Turin. It was built in 1907 and comprised a huge concrete bowl, a banked oval around which cars – themselves monstrous early 20th century inventions with aeroplane engines and proto stream-lined bodies – would hurtle in a Marinetti like celebration of the violence of technology. It being England and the early 20th century, Brooklands combined this pointless bravery with minute social snobbery, coining the term “The right crowd and no crowding”.



One of the most famous drivers to race at Brooklands was John Parry Thomas, a part time inventor and engineer who became a professional racing driver. Thomas lived in a cottage within the perimeter of the track, the still centre of the kind of perpetual motion machine he might have attempted inventing. Parry became obsessed with achieving the World Land Speed Record and he built himself a car called Babs in which to achieve it. Babs in fact started life as the Highham Special, built by Count Zborowski, an absurd Marinetti like figure responsible for the original Chitty Chitty Ban Bang.



Babs was a bizarre looking creation with a long stretched tail that looked like the exaggerated suggestion of speed of a child’s drawing made manifest. Or a futurist sculpture. The car was a literal embodiment of speed and a machine dedicated to the task of achieving the World Land Speed Record. The WLSR was a kind of Futurist happening, a celebration of power, speed, macho glory and, frequently, death. Parry achieved his ambition of being the fastest man on dry land but died on the Pendine Sands in Wales during an attempt to regain the WLSR. The vast chain that drove his car flew off and partially decapitated him as he drove at over 120 mph. The car was buried where it stopped, in the sand, only to be dug up in the 1970’s and reconstructed, an eerie relic of sorts.



Brooklands was also an airbase and home to aeroplane manufacturers Vickers and Hawker. It was requisitioned during the second world war and badly damaged, mainly by the MOD as they sought to camouflage its highly distinctive oval form from German bombers. Since then, it has remained a partial ruin, its broken up and overgrown concrete hidden by a circle of trees within the Surrey stockbroker belt. It is now owned by DaimlerChrysler Ltd, its outline interrupted by new housing, light industrial developments and the Mercedes Benz heritage centre. Sections of the banking survive, a strange Ballardian ruin lurking in its suburban setting.

5 comments:

owen hatherley said...

lovely, i shall look out for that. reminiscent of a surprisingly convincing article in the Idler years ago comparing Marinetti and Mr Toad...

Murphy said...

Very interesting post, but no mention of how the Brooklands model is ubiquitous for North American motor racing. One wonders; where does the futurism run out of steam, as it were? Is 'Days of Thunder' a futurist film, or is the difference class-based, perhaps?

Charles Holland said...

Owen, I think it's visible from the train from London. I was taken there as a child and was rather spooked out. That sounds very Idler......

Murphy, yes you're right Indianapolis and Daytona etc are modelled on Brooklands and equally dangerous although lacking in the pipe and moustache Edwardian Futurist chic. Days of Thunder I'm not so sure about although it is obviously one of the best films starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman ever made. Perhaps RollerBall with James Caan is closer to the Futurist spirit?

spadamchrist said...
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thewindunderthedoor said...

How excellent! This reminds me a little of the abandoned velodrome that was tucked away in an inner-Sydney suburb not far from where I once lived, being slowly strangled by weeds. Velodromes also have a strangely Futurist ruthlessness to them - all that smooth concrete built in aid of travelling faster and faster. Then again, I suppose the Futurists would have scoffed at bicycles.