When each morning's swarms of 747s arrive from North America, form into line and drop their wheels over London, window-seat passengers may read a telling message from the country that lies below. As the aircraft turn away from the sun to descend westward into Heathrow, they pass four giant cream-coloured chimneys that rise from a crumbling cathedral of bricks. On the south bank of the Thames, by a big patch of grass and trees, the ruined power station at Battersea signals. A beacon on the flight path of time.
For two generations this building was a wonder of the industrial age. When gantry cranes first dragged its 31-ton switches from off to on in 1933, the London Power Company which owned it was hailed as a miracle of enterprise. At its peak in the 1950s, Battersea burnt a million tons of coal a year and sucked 340 million gallons of water daily from the river. Even after it shut, in 1983, its fluted 337-foot chimneys remained as icons of a golden era. They spoke of battleships and ocean liners, of steam trains, mines and mills.
In the depths of the inter-war depression, the construction of this colossus gave the finger to pessimism. When, in June 1935, the third of its eventual six turbo-alternators was synchronised - a massive 140,000 horsepower Metropolitan Vickers - the empire listened to the station's roar by wireless around the world. This one piece of machinery, 120 feet long and with an 85-ton rotor spinning 25 times a second, generated 105,000 kilowatts per hour at 11,000 volts. It was a spider in the newly formed National Grid - juicing the soaring labour-saving inventory of employed people's consumer goods.
But from the air today you might easily decipher Battersea as a vast signpost pleading "Help!" Although classified as a grade 2 historic building, its central roof, once 100 feet above the ground, has gone, along with most of one exterior wall. The inside, much of which was an art deco masterpiece, has been gutted, and all of its machinery scrapped. Outbuildings have been demolished and the 15-acre site is a now rat-infested waste. Of what calamity could this be a remnant? A firestorm? A civil war?
On cursory inspection, the fate of this building is a peculiarly 1980s tale. After a competition to decide Battersea's future, a syndicate led by one John Broome was given the go-ahead to turn it into a leisure centre and entertainment park. Among the novel features they proposed were electronic golf, a dance floor and gym. There would be a swimming pool, jogging track, weights room and health spa. There were to be cinemas, shops, restaurants and tea rooms. There would be an oceanarium, carousels and Disney-style rides. An all-in ticket, priced #3.50, would admit you to everything.
Not least among this plan's supporters was the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who praised Broome, a leisure entrepreneur, for what she called his "vision". She particularly warmed to his intended "theming" of Battersea, which was meant to turn the great Deco hall of turbo-alternator No 3 into "The World of Dickens" and give a similar adjacent industrial cavern a new "Tudor look". Between the buildings and the river, where once 85,000 tons of coal had been piled, a "Tivoli-style gardens" would be laid out, while the entrance to the station was to get a "Victorian" glass canopy.
It was a ludicrous scheme, which appeared to have been drafted on folded and gummed manila. Although the developers boasted that by 1990 Battersea would be entertaining "a quarter of the moving population of this country for six hours at a time", a street-corner market researcher could have told them that this would never be so. Fun park families know all about London's traffic. And the clientele of leisure centres, whether private or municipal, is heavily skewed towards the young middle class - who would hardly come from Chelsea with their Turbos and towels to some hideous house of schlock.
But for all its obvious absurdity, the plan was at one with the times. The enthusiasm with which Thatcher ploughed up the landscape of work required, at least in partial justification, some renewed aspirations for leisure. The return of 1930s-style mass unemployment was the stick to a sceptical nation, but among the carrots was the notion that life would be better for some. Not only would people have more leisure for themselves, it was posited, but slumped manufacturing businesses would be replaced by burgeoning new activities on this allegedly fertile terrain.
"There is much industry to be had from people's pleasures," was how Thatcher explained it to The Director magazine in the year that Battersea closed. It was one of her more endearingly candid interviews with her own people's publications. "We must expect that a lot more of our jobs will come from the service industries - from the McDonalds and Wimpys, which employ a lot of people - and from the kind of Disneyland they are starting in Corby. Leisure is a big industry."
What better proof, in the heart of the capital, than the coal-burning citadel of power? Notwithstanding the taste, this building revamped would have become the epitome of the Thatcherite transformation. What, indeed, could be more appropriate to greet foreign visitors flying into Britain than a relic of the passing industrial age turned into a leisure centre? The prime minister herself fired a laser beam launching Broome's ingenious conversion, switching her gaze from the hell of the jobless to the heavens of frolics and fun.
That the building is derelict speaks for itself, but Thatcher, as was her habit, was stabbing a hot but neglected button. In the same way that she realised that most people agree, when prompted, that their taxes ought to be lower, but do not otherwise think much about it, she was also aware of a strong unstated instinct that leisure is a primary goal. And since it was clear that British industries would need replacing with potent money-spinners in the imminent "information age", many pundits and politicians joined her efforts to steer the public mood.
Most eloquent among them was Peter Walker, her energy secretary, who in 1983 took time out from plotting coal's closure to write a polemic on leisure. "With care and thought we can now have a better lifestyle," he gushed in a newspaper article. "And possibilities for time for far more pleasure, for travel, for reading and for those activities that bring genuine happiness and enjoyment to the individual. It is a whole new concept of life that the information society is going to provide. We have the opportunity of creating Athens without the slaves, where the slaves will be the computer and the microchip and the human race can obtain a new sense of enjoyment, leisure and fulfilment."
Battersea's role in Athens without the slaves has yet to be decided, but, as a power house, a pleasure palace or a plain old ruin, its message is as much about the future as its structure is a voice from the past. Will the replacement of manufacturing industry by the global infobahn liberate the masses from toil? After more than a decade of the revolution that Thatcher began, are there long-term trends behind the fickle business cycle that promise you and me a better life? Or is bold talk of leisure a confidence trick of capitalism - a stroke pulled to suit the time?
On the morning of St George's Day, 23 April, 1931, a marquee was erected at the uncompleted Battersea for a curious gathering. While builders cemented the structure, engineers measured spaces for the turbo-alternators and electricians tested cables to suburban switching stations, a party of great and good dignitaries held a stone-unveiling ceremony. Herbert Morrison, Labour's transport minister, gave a post-luncheon speech and a transatlantic phone call was taken from Canada's governor-general.
It was just eight days before the futuristic excitement of the Empire State Building's opening, but the assembly in London, as the stone explained, was looking into the past. A century before, Michael Faraday had made one of the landmark discoveries of the industrial revolution - showing that a copper disk rotated between magnets would produce electricity. "Science has no frontiers," the governor-general's amplified voice boomed across the riverside site. "The whole world is its parish."
Those invited were from the high bourgeoisie, including 21 knights, seven MPs, three Lords and the Dean of York, so among the party there must have been some considered positions on leisure. But there was another centenary connection that was probably not on their minds. It had been in Faraday's 1830s when the precondition of having leisure, time off work, began. At first it was only for those aged under 13 in the mills, whose hours were cut by parliament to a maximum of eight a day. This was mainly a restrictive practice by the owners to block parvenu rivals - and many of the liberated children promptly went down the mines. But it was a big step in the day's division that we take as natural now.
Britain led the industrial world in the move to shorter hours. The fight began in earnest in the 1880s, escalated into huge demonstrations in 1890 and was victorious after the First World War when the employers caved-in. In the wake of the Bolshevik uprising (when even the British royal family felt it wise to withdraw a holiday invitation to their beleaguered Russian relatives) the eight-hour day seemed a sensible concession to a truculent working class. Saturday afternoons had been granted to most already and the week's annual holiday at the seaside was rapidly on the rise.
By the early 1930s, when Battersea was preparing to fuel the new arsenal of irons, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, the prosperous suburbs could hardly stop talking about the new "leisure boom". On the Faraday centenary, there were 344,000 cinema seats in the county of London, a sevenfold rise on 20 years before. There were 9,500 bookies in Britain, a rise over the same period from less than 3,000. Even in the most bug-bitten slums there were still day trips to the country, greyhound meetings, boxing, the wireless and concerts. The war did not stop the momentum, moreover, which continued in the following decades.
But at some point, buried within this boom, time started slipping away. Even as work was formally curtailed - with compulsory hours falling, paid holidays rising and retirement enforced earlier, any gains were being debited from elsewhere in people's lives. By the 1980s, this phenomenon had become such a politically-sensitive paradox, that Thatcher's "Disneyland-at-Corby" intervention was a masterpiece of leadership. The bad news about leisure from jobs was revised as good news about jobs from leisure.
On such subjects, the hard data usually belongs to business, so not much is floating around. In the United States, however, where a similar trend has been under way, a Harris survey carried out before the 1990 recession found that the average person had 37% less leisure time than in 1973. If you took commuting into account, the organisation found that the average working week had lengthened - from just under 41 hours to nearly 47.
The Henley Centre in Britain has made similar inquiries, studying changes in the availability and pressures on our time. It found that between 1985-6 and 1993, total essential commitments (including work, travel, household chores and other unavoidable tasks) on average rose more than 3% for men (to 71 hours) and nearly 4.5% for women (to 86). Breaking these figures down, it found that, over the same period, full-time working females experienced a 10% loss of free time; full-time working males more than 4% and unemployed males 3.5%. Even retired women felt a 2% loss of time.
It could take forever to explain all this, but the most immediate reasons are the structural changes that modernising capitalism requires. With sharp rises in the numbers living alone, and particularly of single parents, old domestic "economies of scale" are shrinking in shopping, child care and bill-paying. And as the collectively-financed powerhouses of health and social services withdraw long-term support for the growing numbers of old, sick and disabled people, these responsibilities fall on relatives and friends. The celebrated tax cuts have, in part, been paid for with deductions from people's time.
But if quantitative matters have gone askew, what about "quality time"? Perhaps post-Battersea Britain may be dawdling less, but still be closer to Walker's Athenian order, with its "new sense of enjoyment, leisure and fulfilment". Possibly, the appreciation of life-enhancing recreation and access to the richest corners of the world's cultures is rippling through a new classless, tasteful and educated society. Or, maybe, brain-dead channel surfing sounds more like "leisure" today.
The slave-owning philosopher Aristotle, to whom Walker was of course alluding, felt that this was the key question in the whole leisure thing. For him, leisure was not a period of time, but referred to a state of mind of being free from the need to labour. Activities in this mental frame should have no ulterior goals. "We think of it as having in itself intrinsic pleasure, intrinsic happiness, intrinsic felicity," he wrote in Politics. "Happiness of that order does not belong to occupation: it belongs to those who have leisure."
Since the sum of Western ideas are largely footnotes to the Greeks, attempts by intellectuals at redefinition have failed to displace this view. By Aristotle's way of thinking, leisure activities are not so much the kind of things that were later planned to transform the power station - often intended to prepare for, or aid recovery from, the effort of work. Nor was unemployment a life of leisure - because that was tainted by fear. In fact, he felt the only real quality things were music and contemplation.