Master Rock: an epic story of an engineering project

Master Rock, a book by Belfast-born writer Maria Fusco, tells the story of the building of the Cruachan Power Station from three perspectives: John Mulholland, one of a group of diggers from Donegal in north-east Ireland who were known as the ‘Tunnel Tigers’; artist Elizabeth Falconer (wife of architect John Falconer worked on part of the design of the power station) whose three-section 48 by 12 foot mural in wood and gold leaf is located in the machine hall; and the perspective of the material itself, ‘Granite’.

There is magical eccentricity about this book, and it is no surprise to learn that it was commissioned by Artangel, who among other things funded artist Rachel Whiteread’s House and Jeremy Deller’s modern pageant/re-enactment The Battle of Orgreave.

Over 92 pages, Fusco creates a powerful modern mythology, interweaving the different voices, giving a sense of scale to the meeting of migrant workers, art and the geology they interact with. It’s a modern fairy tale whose wider context is Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’, where modernity and engineering meet 450 million year old granite.

(Image above from Master Rock, Maria Fusco, Bookworks)

Fusco’s book mixes poetic narrative, visual poetry and history. A helpful afterword has useful, occasionally astonishing detail such as the tropical plants which “flourish in the station’s humid tunnels.”

The Tunnel Tigers, one of a group of 3,000 labourers carving the station out the granite, were renowned for their skills. In 1955 they achieved a world record by tunnelling 560 feet in just one week while digging on the St Fillans section of the Breadalbane hydro scheme in Perthshire.

(Image above from Master Rock, Maria Fusco, Bookworks)

The storytelling of Master Rock delivers wonderful granular detail around the interaction between the human and the granite. Fusco imagines Elizabeth Falconer musing on the biological changes generated by the interaction between the human and granite, as the material trains the artist to see. “The eye sorts surface to instigate change, for the eye is pained by too much similarity, thereby misting to madness. The eye requires instruction in pattern so it may distinguish tiny differences between things which, at first, appear to be the same. For example, no two rocks are alike.”

Fusco takes us walking with tunneller John Mulholland, and his sensory experience on seeing the mountain for the first time: “All round a brown smell of things growing ran through. Skiffs of rain soaked slow into our coats, freeing the smell of us. Our heads must have been cut to come here.” Master Rock tells the story of a reckoning between human beings, climate and 450 million year old granite. Thirty-six men died in the building of the project, 15 underground while digging. Fusco notes in the afterword that John Mulholland is the youngest of four brothers; the others died from lung disease derived from their type of work and lack of safety measures. 

(Above, Master Rock set to archival footage)

The book was designed by A Practice for Everyday Life, whose work includes exhibition design and publication of Bauhaus: Art as Life at the Barbican Art Gallery, an exhibit nominated as one of the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year 2013. Their arrangement of archive images and type which float in generous white space lends blend mystery and modernity. The negative space envelops the reader with a sense of scale, the exception being the pages of photos of the Tunnel Tigers and their temporary camps, framed in a contrastingly claustrophobic black.

The marvel of Master Rock is how Fusco creates such a richly layered perspective. Her talent for extracting the mythic and the epic from an engineering project is a skill worthy of a Tunnel Tiger. 

Maria Fusco's Master Rock can be bought for £12 at Bookworks

Book tickets for Maria Fusco in conversation with Joanna Walsh at King’s College to launch Bookworks’ Master Rock

To see the performance of Master Rock click here

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