Peter Hammill - Balance: The Mine

Out, forward, beyond the edge of the cliffs, eternal sky sweeps down to crash into the sea at the horizon...brilliant, endless blue beyond the reach of either mind or eye. The light, the gulls and the waves move in circular repetition, the ritual of time: half the mechanical turning of a clock's hands, half the freedom of summer dance. The cliff, the vantage point, is a dividing knife- edge between that global time-scale, out there, and our own linear one.

There are those who are marked down for the sea. When they stare out like this, the rhythm of the waves traps them into a trance, and the water nourishes the seeds of oblivion in their minds. The trance is not of hypnosis, or sleep, or any such straight line: the sea, neither cruel nor kind, allows only those already party to its universal magic, purified by its spells, to hold it to themselves. Thus when finally they slide into union, serenity and order with the water, there is no sudden change, no sharp dividing line between the past and what will not be. A last string of bubbles trails as farewell to the land, whose creatures they have ceased to be; part of the whole, becoming wholer, they swell already to play their part in the endless cycle of ocean. On the land suicides, even in that moment of final extremity, end themselves with something of an eye on the future: the discovery of the body, the mourning, the continuing life, in others' memories, of their last act, the last frame in the film of their lives. Those that the sea claims relinquish not only life but all name, action, memory, and bodily form to the undulating rhythm of its embrace.

Suicide is not for many of us, though, as individuals, even if a day like today, a place such as this is so bright, so distortingly crystalline, so intensely vital that it turns the mind towards the shade....

And the sea is not for all of us: it knows its own, and with its furious assault on the base hurls me back to where I stand at the top of the cliff. Down there, where the elements meet in a maelstrom of rock, foam, spray and thunder there are no half measures: the ocean attacks, erodes, withdraws and attacks again; the land, for now, will not succumb. The balance, the tension of opposites, locked in the endless cycles, lost without each other...this is Nature.

And here is the evidence of Man. Twenty yards back from the cliff edge, parallel to, but a world away from, the public footpath, is a barbed wire fence. Signs on the concrete stanchions which support it deny both entry and information. We may run from the mysterious order of the sea and Nature: we may run from the city, which also makes its erosions, claims its ground; we may run as far as we can, but always we are confronted with the signs of ourselves. We find that we go, that we have been, before ourselves everywhere.

We have been here, and one of our possible futures lives here, in the squat, solid buildings a mile away, low against the hill. Set back from the cliffs, where Nature's forces meet in such constant violence, sits the research station which will feed the fires of some coming bio- chemical war. There is no real paradox here: like the land, like the sea, that war of the microbe will be neither cruel, nor kind, nor even human. After all, impartiality has never been numbered among the human attributes. We shuffle forward to a linear beat: we and our works are more implacable even than Nature.

There is a triple balance here, between the sea, the land and the World and Words of Man. There is a balance, but, especially on this anvil of a day on which I have chosen to take this walk, it unbalances me. I am, after all, a man, and I wonder what place is mine here.

I have been standing on this spot, looking around, for too long, and hurry on before I become rooted by the symbology. The area of public land which the path crosses, bounded on one side by the barbed wire, on the other by the cliff edge, becomes wider. Some way on, I come across more of Man's landscape; though this is evidently disused, passive.

Emulating the plateau of the clifftop, sat upon it like a slab, is an expanse of concrete. It is pitted, rough, old: the uniformity is broken randomly by rusted hooks and rings, by clumps of hardy weeds and grasses thrust through dog-leg fissures. Here and there are cavities, as though enormous teeth have been extracted from their beds. These must once have rooted machines, long since removed for scrap: the concrete was once a platform, a work surface. As time has claimed it, it has gained in geography, and now sits as powerful complement to the natural formations of rock and sea. Lines of energy and purpose endure, though, in this new-found lie in the land: towards the seaward end. There, the remains of an anteroom, now clogged with vegetation, are sunk in the ground; the roof is gone, but what was its level is the same as that of the surrounding concrete. The open end of the room joins with a ramped incline sloping up to ground level, in which are embedded rusted rails, obviously for the movement of small trucks. I move down the ramp, to examine the room more closely. There is no floor: the room is the head of a shaft, a pit. All this was once a mine.

The shaft seems to drop down the full length of the cliff, if not even lower; a pebble dropped down it takes several seconds to send back a sound denoting arrival and rest. My mind jumps to mystery. The timbers which surround and support the maw of the shaft are blackened, warped and cracked, as though fire had raged up from the workhead, devouring miners and machines. A single beam, once horizontal across the roof of the shaft to support pulleys and tackles, has slipped to an uneasy angle. The wood creaks with age, and the imagination makes of it a funeral keen for the men who must have died below. Even in the brilliance of the summer day, the abandoned mine takes on a sinister air, as dark and dank as that which rises from the black pit.

But I know that it is nothing: the wood is charred not by flame but its antithesis, rising moisture from the sea below. The shaft has been destroyed in a slower, more leisurely fashion, suited to Nature's patience. The mine must have been abandoned long ago, when whatever its contents were proved no longer precious or useful enough to justify the working. Man on his linear path again; progress, progress....sideways. There is, in fact, no mystery here, not even the ghost of the past; already, long since, the forces of land and sea have begun to reclaim these, their preserves, into which men once so laboriously burrowed.

Fifty yards away, there stands a chimney, perches precariously among the elements. It could almost be a tower from which first warning could be given of approaching danger from the sea. There is a certain mystery here: there is no building at the base of the chimney from which smoke would be extracted. Instead, on its seaward side, there extends from the base a brick tunnel. It is four feet high, and reaches almost to the cliff edge. This gives the edifice the appearance of a snake poised to strike, the chimney rearing into the air and the tunnel--the tail--supporting it.

I walk along the side of the tunnel. Halfway down, time and vandalism have taken their toll and there is a hole--gaping wound in the reptile hide--where the bricks have been prised apart. It holds the simultaneous invitation and threat of a fractionally opened door to a darkened room; and if I crouch, it is just large enough for me to enter.

It is necessary to move almost on all fours to make the length of the tunnel and, after the initial splay of light at the opening, the passage is in darkness. Interior bricks have fallen to the floor, and the way is rugged and uncomfortable, but a shaft of light falling down the chimney at the far end beckons me on.

I arrive there; there is room to stand, to move a few paces at the base of the stack. There are no bones or trinkets on the floor, of course...but this still seems a magic place.

Vertically above me, a brilliant circle of blue sky; the light rains down from this and sparkles on the walls, shining and glinting as on cut glass. But I see that the inside of the chimney is made of the same brick as the rest of the building: it is not that which shines, but tiny, beautiful crystals encrusted on it, like snowflakes, like diamonds. They dance for the eyes in the light, and make of the place an enchanted cavern.

The walk, the crawl were worth it: the crystals, the womb-like towering of the chimney, its ceiling of tactile blue. How solid the sky seems when, like this, only a few square feet of it are visible! How good to be alive, how good to experience, how good to see! And what crystals are these?

The hand reaches out to touch them. A few flake away easily from the wall and cling to the fingertips, which carry them towards the tongue....

What was mined here?

And what is the taste of experience?

It was an arsenic mine, and the taste is that of the flowers of that element. They have been left unclaimed from the smelter flue where is was sublimated from the mined pyrites. This is all that remains from past purpose. In our search for knowledge, understanding and balance between the forces around us we are rarely more than a fingertip away from eating our own death.

Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko, 1998-2017