This photo was taken at Snailbeach Mine in the wilds of the Shropshire Hills. From the 1780s through the nineteenth century this was the most productive lead mine in the world, employing over 300 workers. But the history of lead mining in the area is much older than this, and for centuries the mineral was mined all over the nearby Stiperstones hills.
The Romans were certainly here. They left behind a great lead ingot weighing over 87 kilos and impressed with the inscription ‘IMP HADRIANI AVG’. This meant that not only did it belong to the Emperor Hadrian, but also that Snailbeach was an imperial mine between the years of his rule, 117-138 A.D.
The Romans used lead for water pipes, cooking vessels, paint and to sheath the hulls of ships. Of course some of these purposes proved highly toxic to the users.
And it is now hard to imagine an association between something as hard, industrially wrought and poisonous as lead and these delicate harebells that seem to thrive on the waste ground near the mine ruins. In fact this whole area, with conservationists’ help, has been so reclaimed by wildlife it is now part of the Stiperstones Site of Special Scientific Interest. The birdlife of the area includes red grouse, ravens, buzzards, peregrine falcons, curlew and the rare ring ouzel. There are grayling and green hairstreak butterflies, fox and emperor moths. The vegetation includes heather, cowberries, whinberries and rare mountain pansies.
It is so heartening, isn’t it, when so much on the planet seems environmentally challenged. Here in this corner of Shropshire at least, the natural world has overcome – reclaiming this once poisonous, highly industrial environment.
For those of you interested in mining history there is more about Snailbeach HERE and HERE. The latter link includes lots of useful teaching information and has a great video of aerial views of the area, which is anyway worth a look if you want to see more of this fascinating part of Shropshire.
Friday February 14 1992 was the day I ran away to Africa. I was finally fleeing a marriage with too many guns in the closet, and much else besides. And I was leaving behind home, possessions, an aged father and three much loved labradors. The springer spaniel, though, I would not miss. The little beast was demented and I wished the husband joy of her.
At the time of departure I had very little money, and I had left a legal aid solicitor to handle my divorce. (With guns in the closet I discovered that such matters are swiftly expedited). When I boarded the airport bus in Wolverhampton bound for Heathrow all I had with me was one canvas grip stuffed with some summer clothes, and a small cabin bag containing paperbacks, my Olympus-trip, a mini cassette player and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I also had an Air France ticket to Nairobi and a stash of anti-malaria tablets.
Long ago at Mzima Springs – the way I was then…
I was off to be with the man with whom I was smitten, an entomologist working out in Kenya on a three-month contract to control an introduced crop pest, the Larger Grain Borer. I knew little about him, and still less about my destination. Years before, in a frigid Scottish university, I had written a masters thesis on the socio-economic relations between Mbuti hunters and Bantu farmers of the Congo. I had never been to Africa, nor wanted to go there. I had read too much about forest buffaloes, ants and yaws in the Ituri Forest to find the idea appealing. I was not the sort of person who craved adventure or who had travelled much. I was a museum researcher and an armchair anthropologist. When I set off from rural Shropshire on that dank and gloomy day, it was to meet up with the flesh-and-blood man who had sent me the plane ticket. I did not expect to look out of a plane window somewhere over Somalia, and fall in love with a continent.
It was un coup de foudre as the French say. Ludicrous and nerve-shattering. Perhaps I should not have flown Air France, (although with hindsight I have to say it was one of my best flights ever). But as we approached Nairobi the condition only grew worse. It seemed there was a plane jam at Jomo Kenyatta International; the 747 could not land. Instead, it circled and circled Mount Kenya. I could not believe it: this god’s eye view of the vast exploded volcano presented to me again, again, and again. Then, as a final flourish to this extraordinary entrée, we made our descent over the green highlands of Kikuyuland, the smallholder farms so lush from the short rains.
Those landscapes fused onto my retina, bedded in my cerebral cortex, and I was changed.
My man in Mombasa – the way he was then…
When I finally met G at the airport, he seemed like a stranger. I noticed that his hair needed cutting and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an oddly tropical look, this when I had only known him in the thick jumpers and anoraks so essential for surviving winter in rural Shropshire. It was a disquieting discovery to see that I did not know him at all in this landscape. As he drove me into the city I gazed out at the plains bush country around the airport, found myself blinking at the crowds and traffic chaos in downtown Nairobi. Someone had turned the colours up: it was all too bright, the road reserves dazzling with pink bougainvillaea, yellow cassia trees; the bright clothes and brown faces, the white smiles. When I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands I was still in tourist mode. I thought I had come to Kenya for a couple of months at most. Neither of us could have guessed that we would not live again in England for another eight years, or that our Africa journey had only just begun. And so yes, to thieve a line from Ms Brontë, and one so apt for this Valentine’s occasion – “Reader, I married him”; I married the man who bought me a plane ticket to Africa. How could I not?
Andy Warhol became interested in China in 1971. “I have been reading so much about China. They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong. It’s great. It looks like a silkscreen”.
The following year he began work on the portrait, which grew into ten variations, all based on the portrait that appears in Little Red Book: the thoughts of Chairman Mao.
In 2012 the portraits were part of the touring art show ‘Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal’. The exhibition, organised by the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, marked the 25th anniversary of Warhol’s death. The Mao portraits, however, did not make an appearance in either Beijing or Shanghai when the show went to Asia in 2013. The official Chinese view was that the portraits were disrespectful in suggesting that the former leader wore make-up. All the same, Mao Zedong’s legacy is currently undergoing some re-evaluation in China. There are even admissions that mistakes were made. It is a start…
This week’s Word Press writing challenge, with its musical theme, has set off a whole host of notions. In fact this may just be the post where all the strands of my ‘writer on the edge’ blog come together. This, though, is only a proposition and by no means a promise. One thing I can promise: there is some very fine music at the end. And for those of you who do not know the English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and George Butterworth (1885-1916), then please consider this an early solstice gift. And if by chance you do not care for it, or indeed anyway, by all means pass it on.
So to return to the notions. Those of you who have read my past posts will probably know that I live on the edge of Wenlock Edge, a twenty-mile limestone scarp that bisects the county of Shropshire from the River Severn above the Ironbridge Gorge, to Craven Arms on the borderland with Wales. Aeons ago this now wooded, much quarried ridge was once a shallow tropical sea lying somewhere off East Africa. Today, and especially now through bare wintery trees, you can look out from its summit and scan a great panorama – the farm fields, villages and hills of Shropshire.
As I’ve said in other posts, there is a lot of history in this place – over 400 million years’ worth. Too much to embrace. But in the recent past (geologically speaking), you might have looked out from the easterly end of the Edge onto the smog-laden valley of Coalbrookdale as the Quaker ironmasters stoked their blast furnaces and helped fuel an industrial revolution. Travel back a further 1500 years and to the north you would have gazed on the impressive public buildings and sprawling settlement of the Roman city of Viroconium. Or in earlier times still you might have witnessed the building of the great Iron Age hill forts on the Wrekin and in Mogg Forest, or perhaps glimpsed some Bronze Age smiths plying the ancient ridge-top trackway en route for Wales.
The Edge, then, is full of spirits, and it is not surprising that it has long inspired artists, writers and composers. And so we come to the music, or rather, we come first to the work that inspired the music – A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. This collection of sixty three poems has been described as a gift for composers. The poems are written in the style of traditional ballads. And if at first they seem too obvious in their rhyme and rhythm, then look again. These are songs of loss and fleetingness – lost youth, lost love, the soldier’s death. That they are set against some scene of suggested rural perfection only heightens their poignancy. The work, too, somehow anticipated the bleak waste of the Great War, and so it was that, when the time came, A Shropshire Lad went with many a soldier into the trenches.
Housman’s sense of melancholy and loss stem from his own life: his mother died when he was twelve, his brother Herbert was killed serving in the Boer War, and his deep love for another man was unrequited. Nor did his workA Shropshire Lad have a very good start. Although it has remained in print since publication in 1896, in the beginning Housman could not find a publisher and had to pay to have the first five hundred copies printed. At first, too, there was a lukewarm reception. But within a few years, and much to the writer’s surprise, its popularity suddenly grew. This in part was due to the fact that several composers seized on some of the poems and set them to music.
In 1909 came Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge. The work’s title is taken from the opening line of poem XXXI: On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble. You can hear the storm-driven trees in the opening of the first video clip where English tenor, Ian Bostridge goes on to talk about his recording of the work with Bernard Haitink. You also see him in rehearsal singing one of the most moving poems. It is written in the voice of a ghostly young ploughman returning home to see how his girl is faring. Here are the first two stanzas.
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
The entire Vaughan Williams song cycle sung by Anthony Rolfe Johnson is performed in the third video below. Other composers inspired by the poems include Samuel Barber and Ivor Gurney (The Western Playland and Ludlow and Teme). I could not find clips of these works but I did find George Butterworth, who was a friend of Vaughan Williams. He set eleven of the poems to music including Is my team ploughing. He also composed the orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. It is yearning, elegiac piece, performed in the second video and accompanied by Shropshire scenes. Butterworth himself was killed on the Somme in 1916, his composer’s career barely begun.
So, you may ask, how does this all fit with ‘Tish Farrell – writer on the edge’? Well I suppose it comes down to this. As a fiction writer, or indeed a blogger, my focus is ever on the evocation of place (both through time and space) and how it resonates through the lives of the people and events I write about. And so I love the fact that the place where I live and have known most of my life has inspired so much creative work. And, indeed, continues to do so. In fact, I’m planning to feature more of it on this blog – the artists of the Edge. I am, anyway, fascinated by the process by which, in wonderful synergy, one person’s work inspires another’s creative response, thus building into a body of cross-referencing works. See what good things we can make when we listen in good faith to each other.
Wenlock Edge of course has its own music. I hear it most when I’m working on my allotment – the windrush in the woods, the mewing buzzards, the calls of rooks and jackdaws, and through it the chiming of the church clock. I screen out the traffic sounds of course. So here we have it: the rural idyll that never was, the music of Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth evoking the peculiarly human need to long for something we cannot have, and finally Housman’s own words from poem XL:
Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.
And now, courtesy of Gutenberg Press, here is your copy ofA E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
We have a copy of this photo on our landing wall, taken by the Team Leader some years ago. I suppose it’s a case of familiarity making you forget to look at things with due care and attention. In fact, come to think of it, I may have scanned the slide back to front and upside down. But then that should be OK too for this particular challenge, and whichever way, I think it deserves a more appreciative audience. The man who caught this image by chance doesn’t seem to think that it’s up to much as a photograph. What do you think?
'Out of Africa Always Something New'
Not homeland, but sourceland;
Scored in genetic code,
Branded in bone:
Thorntrees' jasmine scent,
Red pepper dust on the tongue,
Sifted on skin,
While beneath our feet
Shards of the earth's dark heart;
DP Challenge: Playing with Space
Copyright 2013 Tish Farrell