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
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
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
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
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.