Peter Lanyon: Liminality & Psychogeography

The art of Peter Lanyon – who died 53 years ago today – is, like all great art, uncompromising. For those seeking “Cornish Art”, it has none of the serenity of the calm seascapes on offer in every gallery in every tiny cove. But if you’re prepared to look beyond the initially daunting surface of Lanyon’s vast canvasses, there is much on show that should strike a chord with many who come to experience (and I use the word advisedly) the liminal zone – where sea meets land meets sky – of Cornwall. There’s nothing wrong with the calming blue landscapes on show elsewhere: there are worse things than a memento of a Cornish summer in the grip of a bleak, grey Scottish winter. But Lanyon’s work is a distillation of Cornwall: its long past, and the ever-present moment of vivid experience.


You need only stand on any headland – Lizard, Cape Cornwall, Trevose Head – to recognise in the 270° sea, and 180° sky, what works such as Silent Coast, High Ground, High Wind, and my favourite, Thermal, exemplify: the experience of being in a place where edges meet and clash.

Lanyon, in his travels across Cornwall, wanted to come “on a place unawares”, and capture the first sight of it before it settled into familiarity. In the days before he took up gliding, he would do this by running up to a sudden view, or turning over to see it upside-down; by hanging onto a cliff-face, or by diving. “A formal conception of landscape”, he said, “is a horizon set low, dividing the canvas in top and bottom” which “presupposes a fixed viewpoint”.

His greatest works are his gliding paintings of 1959-1962*, and though they may depict a view of Cornwall few of us are lucky enough to share, they are more conventionally beautiful and accessible to the casual viewer than much of his earlier work. At least, the names (Thermal, again) quite clearly match what the canvas shows: airy blues and whites rising and spilling and colliding. His own intrusion to this barren kingdom is symbolised by the streak of red seen in Solo Flight and Soaring Flight.

For walkers on the South-West Coastal Path, for surfers at Fistral or Praa Sands and for sea-kayakers off the Lizard, though their pursuits differ there is a shared goal of the sheer in-the-moment experience. Lanyon’s work re-presents this. In simple terms, from the mid-1950s, he didn’t seek to paint a place, but the sense(s) of being in that place. Compare two paintings of Portreath. The first, Portreath (below), from 1949 is an abstracted but still-recognisable portrayal of the fishing village near Camborne. The latter, Offshore (1959) only shows symbolic elements of green and blue, but the energy imbued in the work suggests the winds off the coast, and an approaching storm. If the sky is vertical in a Lanyon, it’s probably because he was lying down at the time, catching the view unawares. Offshore shows what it felt like to be there, not what it looked like.

Peter Lanyon: Portreath (1947)
Peter Lanyon: Portreath (1949)


On his return to St Ives after the Second World War, he had sought a reconnection with the countryside of his youth, and this process informed his work throughout his life, even when working abroad (in Czechoslovakia, for instance; the USA; or Devon). This led first to an appreciation of the history of a place (and the role of human labour in that history), then to portraying the sensation of being in a place at a particular moment, and then, as he sought ever-new ways of experiencing the world around him, into the air (and, ultimately, to his death after a gliding accident).

From the late 40s to the late 50s his work is dark, earthy and rooted in particular places. His palette is redolent of the greens and browns and blacks of the Penwith peninsula’s farms, fields and walls. He wanted to bring out the smell of dung in a farmyard in the work Bojewyan Farms. This is one of a series of agricultural paintings done in the early 50s after a walk from Pendeen to St. Just, through the near-barren farmlands which still cling to the cliff-edges of Penwith on the most western face of England. The map he later drew of the walk shows the route and the paintings it inspired:


As if working out an atavistic guilt over his family’s wealth from the local mining industry, his work at this time is filled with references to human labour: thick black mineshafts, and what Cambridge art historian James Fox described as one of the most significant pieces of British art in the 20th Century, St. Just (1953). This not only commemorates the men killed in a mining accident at the Levant mine near St. Just in 1919, but stands now as an elegy for an entire lost industry.

By ironic coincidence, this walk (which we would now think of as an exercise in psychogeography) traces the route of the B3306, today widely considered as one of the most “picturesque” roads in the UK. But for Lanyon, the act of walking, of touching the Cornish hedges, of feeling the road and fields underfoot, was the crucial thing linking him to the landscape.

In late 2000, Tate St. Ives mounted an exhibition (Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey) commemorating that walk. For the first time, it grouped together in one space the paintings Lanyon refers to in his map, each of which portrayed a stage of the journey and the associations of that particular spot. In the accompanying catalogue, Andrew Dalton writes that Lanyon

“thought of these works as representing more than a mere tour of the region. He wished to express a complex, multi-layered experience of these places which addressed his sense of the industrial, agricultural, spiritual and mystical aspect of Penwith…to evoke the deeper meanings locked within the landscape.”

Lanyon is buried in the churchyard of St. Uny in Lelant, in a corner sheltered by a small sycamore, beneath a gravestone of granite and slate, those two emblematic Cornish bedrocks. It may seem an incongruous resting place for a man whose greatest works depict the experience of taking wing and soaring above the clashing territories of wave and shoreline, but he was – fanatically – a Cornishman, and this was his territory. Engraved on the slate of his tomb are lines from one of his own poems.

I will ride now

The barren kingdoms

In my history

And in my eye



*This is not to discredit the work that follows from them in the final two years of his life. Though his purpose – to capture the sense of being in a place – changed little in his final years, the style and method did. Alert to changing tastes, and the rise of Pop Art in particular, his response to the new forms of art sees a lightening of touch, an introduction into his “serious” art of the humour he was well-known for. If he lacks the irony of Pop Art, he shares a kindred playfulness, and the bold – but lightly applied – colours of works like Saltillo or Mexico, which almost look like they’ve been done in acrylic rather than oil, reflect this.



Dalton, Andrew: Peter Lanyon: Coastal Journey (Tate, 2000)

Fox, James: The Art of Cornwall (BBC, 2010)

Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon:  At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)

Garlake, Margaret: Peter Lanyon (St. Ives Artists) (Tate, 2002)




Alain Robbe-Grillet: early fiction (part 3)

In this final part of my study of Robbe-Grillet’s early fiction, with today being what would have been his 95th birthday, I’ll look at the novel which, for me, sees him reach the high-point of the nouveau-roman; and a series of experimental (in the true sense of the word) short fictions. By the time of their publication, Robbe-Grillet’s focus had already moved into the world of film-making, his first forays into which I’ll also look at briefly with emphasis on his cine-romans.

By 1959, Alain Robbe-Grillet was the enfant terrible of the French literary and cultural scene (inasmuch as a 37-year-old can be any sort of enfant). Critics had by now a well-established idea of the nouveau roman as a movement even if, as always happens, those lumped together into a scene deny its very existence. The New Novel represented, to the critics, “l’ecole du regard” or “school of the look” being obsessed, as they saw it, by an utterly objective fascination with superficial details. Robbe-Grillet, in his articles for the Nouvelle Review Francaise and later collected as Pour un Nouveau Roman (Towards a New Novel) explained with great patience and in great detail, how his works, on the contrary, were not objective and anti-human, but were utterly subjective and anti-humanist.

His next novel would be the last which by nature of its content was likely to appeal to a broad readership, before his own sexual obsessions drove his work in both cinema and literature.

Dans le Labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth)

I have previously explored the different techniques which each of his works employs (as a writer I have long been keen to examine how he does what he does): in particular the ‘hole’ of The Voyeur and the ‘absent-I’ narrator of Jealousy. In the Labyrinth documents – though it may take several readings for this to become clear – the writing process itself. It expresses itself through the fits and starts, backtrackings and wrong turns of finding a satisfactory narrative path, and the magpie-like collection of phenomena that are woven into a work of art. Its very form is that of the process of the novel itself being written.

The story ostensibly being told is that of an unnamed soldier from an unspecified army, in retreat after losing at the Battle of Reichenfels, and his search for the recipient of the parcel he doggedly carries. That’s the story in a nutshell, on one level. The other story is the writing of that story by a narrator who frames the soldier’s tale, bookending the work, and whose intervention in the tale is evident in places when elements of the story are retraced – with variations – or discarded entirely. The result is a wonderfully claustrophobic maze-like trudge through the empty streets of a deserted town and at the same time, the repeated turns and culs-de-sac of the narrative process.

The book begins with an authorial preface; a typically destabilising effect in which Robbe-Grillet claims “the reality [of the story] is strictly physical…it has no allegorical significance”. Again, as with Jealousy, Robbe-Grillet denounces depth and meaning, and warns us that all that exists is the text. As he was later to say of L’Année dernière à Marienbad, the characters have no existence before the film starts, and none after it ends. In the Labyrinth is, structurally, a counterpart to the script Robbe-Grillet wrote for Alain Resnais’ film.


In a film by Frederic Compain, Robbe-Grillet says of In the Labyrinth that “it’s probably the first of my books, for whom no pre-established anecdote existed before the writing started [and is] the first of my books without a central figure, or central conscience, towards which everything converges”. The narrator here is no je-neant: he comes and goes, with reference to himself, and the soldier is his pawn, at one remove from us. In his autobiographical Ghosts in the Mirror, Robbe-Grillet says “characters…are kinds of phantoms: you can hear or see them, you can never grasp them”.

That remove is blurred early on as we begin the first of our plunges into the depths of this novel. James Lethcoe produced a graph (below) which plots the “levels of reality” in the novel, and is similar to the diagram used by Alain Resnais while filming Marienbad to help him place each scene in the correct slot within the temporal schema.

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As we can see, the bookending “meta” level in which the narrator directly addresses us is Level 0.

This first person soon disappears, having lulled us into a false sense of security about the narrative mode we can expect. This voice makes decisions about the weather: “outside it is raining…outside it is snowing”, but even after the narrative has entered Level 1 the writer is still making changes to the setting of the “story”: “outside it is raining…outside it was snowing”. This prevents us from establishing a continuous timeline, as with Jealousy and its many references to an unspecifiable “now”. As if to remove any remaining doubts as to the unreality of what we’re reading, we come across a description which nests within it a by-now-recognisable Robbe-Grillet trope: the snow removes “all depth from the landscape as if this blurred view were a badly painted trompe l’oeil” (my italics).

The soldier’s journey through the snowy, deserted streets is one we will see over and over again, with varying start- and end-points. What gradually becomes clear is that this journey may only be taking place in the author’s mind (and as Robbe-Grillet said upfront, in any case only exists in the reader’s mind at the time of reading). We can gather this from the use of triggers. Contrary to the hole in The Voyeur, but like the guilty, evasive gaze of Jealousy, these triggers are textual generators: items described which spin off what initially seems a narrative tangent but may signal a change between Levels. These include a lamp, the shadow cast by that lamp, the act of flicking a cloth across a table and, crucially, a print depicting a cafe scene full of soldiers entitled “The Battle of Reichenfels” which is, of course, the battle the soldier we are following has just fled: so how is this possible?

Each time one of these triggers is activated – every time a table is cleaned, for instance – we shift to another Level. This has the wonderfully disorientating moebius loop effect whereby the print will be described – the positions of the figures within it, etc. – and then we are in the mind of the soldier in it, who is also the soldier we have been following, who apparently exists in the same continuum as the print which features him, and so, spiralling, on.

That these recurring events are being arranged in the mind of a controlling author is also demonstrated by the decisions made about their placement: we see this in examples such as “no. Door ajar. Passage. Staircase…no. No. No. The door is not ajar”, and in the earlier decisions about what weather this story will take place in. In some cases, a certain train of events will start, be halted, the story will backtrack and we will then take a different route to the same outcome, which this time will be allowed to play out to the full. Examples of this include the appearance of an enemy motorbike: “Then they heard the sound, very far away, of the motorbike. No. It was something else.” “The” motorbike suggests something already known or anticipated, but it is not time for its appearance for another four pages. The use of the past tense here should also ring alarm bells as to the event’s reality. A little later “the soldier is lying on his bed…his coat is unbuttoned. No. It is in fact another wounded man”: it is not yet time for the soldier’s death, either.

In true postmodern style, this back-tracking and changing highlights the unreal nature of what we are reading. As he writes in his autobiography, the Nouveau Roman “tries to expose and stage accurately the multiple impossibility with which it is contending and of which it is constructed…this intended conflict [becomes] the very subject of the book. Hence the…digressions, cuts and repetitions, blind alleys, shifts in perspective, dislocations…”

Here, this is further aided by typical Robbe-Grillet touches such as suspect numbers (the soldier’s number is 12,345) and doubts about chronology: “yesterday…you saw me yesterday?” The soldier gives the boy he meets a marble. “Where is it from? From my pocket. Before? Before I don’t know”. Yet the mood – of a lonely, snow-covered town – is perfectly sustained and highly atmospheric.

At the end, the soldier is dead, and the first person narrator reappears. But the presence of the cafe print, objects in the room which have appeared in the “story” and the fact that despite the snow, “outside it is raining” suggest, like The Usual Suspects, that the story has been built out of almost nothing. Have we been in a labyrinth, or up the garden path?

Instantanes (Snaphots)

Robbe-Grillet’s next purely literary appearance was the 1963 publication of Snapshots (bundled together in the UK with his collection of theoretical articles, Towards a New Novel), a collection of very brief short stories. Although undated, they read like warm-ups or exercises: initial forays into the use of a device he will later expand on in a novel; in this context, they look back across his work to date, but also – in the case of the final story – point toward his future.

The first is arguably the best-known, later being anthologised in John Fletcher and John Calder’s “The Nouveau Roman Reader” (highly recommended, particularly for the introduction): “The Dressmaker’s Dummy”. Consisting solely of the description of the arrangement of objects in a room, it seems – right up to the penultimate sentence – to provide Robbe-Grillet’s critics with ammunition. As I mentioned at the beginning, “L’ecole du regard” was one disparaging term for the Nouveau Roman because of Robbe-Grillet’s scientific-appearing, highly detailed descriptions (has any writer used the word “parallelepiped” as much?). But “The Dressmaker’s Dummy”, like Jealousy, proves ultimately to demonstrate quite the opposite.

The objects described include a coffee pot, the eponymous dummy, a wardrobe which has a mirror, and a further mirror on the mantelpiece.

So far, so objective. However, not yet described, is the tile upon which the coffee pot rests: not described because not currently visible. The description, having inventoried the primary objects, then expands to include what the action of the mirrors means is actually seen. That is: three dressmaker’s dummies: the object and its reflections. Everything that is reflected, however partial its re-appearance, is described with as much narrative respect as a tangible object, in the same way as Robbe-Grillet’s “objectivised hypothesis” gives equal footing to phenomena existing only in the imagination as to those in the “real” world.

The final two sentences deliver the epiphany: that is, a revelation for the reader, if not the narrator. Because in a move which reveals the subjectivity of the entire piece, the design on the tile (“an owl, with big, somewhat terrifying eyes”) is described. Yet this could only be done by someone who knows what it looks like; an objective “camera” eye could not tell us this, only a je-neant narrator.


“The Way Back” is a startling little description of a walking trip around an island which is attached by a causeway to the mainland. The narrator makes clever use of time and perspective to create a moebius loop in which a view of the island from the mainland prior to crossing, morphs into a view of the mainland from the island prior to returning. The story is told in the first person plural and we are never sure which of the named characters – if any – is telling the story. This further adds to the confusion over “point of view” in more than one sense: there is no “I”. Roch C. Smith, in his Understanding Robbe-Grillet says the “switch of tenses disorientates the reader just as the narrator is confused by the viewpoint”.

“The Beach” is probably my favourite of these shorts. It displays a scene of perpetual motion in which everything moves but nothing changes. Three children walk along a beach, the gulls they disturb fly a little way off and land, and the action is repeated. The constant, repetitive motion of the tide mirrors the “action” (such as it is) of the vignette, providing the perfect metaphor for the author’s experiment. Even the children’s speech seems to loop: like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, it beckons or seeks to initiate change that never happens. The children leave no track because “the sea is constantly obliterating the star-shaped trace of the feet”. “The Beach” reminds me of the novelty lenticular rulers or postcards which frame a brief scene of action which movement animates.

“The Escalator” attempts a similar effect with slightly less impact. However, the key here is spatial relationships. The loop of a moving escalator in the Metro – another example of movement without change – provides the scene, and the passage of people in respect to each other is described in detail. Robbe-Grillet, in Towards a New Novel, defended his work against charges of being anti-human by saying it features people and is written from a person’s viewpoint. This story is a case in point: the people become obscured because of their position relative to the person watching them. An omniscient, god-like narrator would not feel the need to impose such a restriction; here, the narrator is implicitly human, with the limits which that entails.

The final story, “The Secret Room”, points towards Robbe-Grillet’s future. Structurally it describes a scene – a torture chamber, in which a young girl has recently been killed – which at the end is revealed to be a picture on a wall. The content, however, is an indicator of the direction Robbe-Grillet’s work would take henceforth.

The cine-roman and beyond

Intrigued by the possibility of film, and though ostensibly happy with L’Année dernière à Marienbad, he was keen to take control and launch his own directorial career in which he would have full control – as does an author – of the finished product. His first attempt, l’Immortelle (The Immortal One, 1963), is a stilted, clunky affair (which, in highlighting the artificiality of the enterprise, was partly the intention), but still watchable.

As John Fletcher notes, along with his later work, l’Immortelle plays on the cliches of genre fiction and the reader’s expectation, and takes place in a romanticised version of Istanbul. His subsequent works would take pulp thrillers and spy stories as their template, but his later use of sexual violence goes far beyond what relatively harmless titillation genre fiction offered.

As with Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet published what he called a cine-roman of l’Immortelle: essentially a description of the film, shot by numbered shot, accompanied by black and white photos and with an introduction by the author. The cine-roman aimed to provide a lasting record of the cinema experience in the days before VCRs, but it is notable that it should have flourished among the more literary film-makers of the Left Bank. It enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1960s. Fellow nouveau-romaniste Marguerite Duras published several: Hiroshima Mon Amour contains an introduction and supplementary background information on the characters such as would never appear in Robbe-Grillet’s, and is arguably more of an illustrated script with bonus features. The cine-roman of Chris Marker’s La Jetee is possibly the finest example of the form. Almost every image from the film – which is of course composed entirely of static images – is present, with the voice-over text in as close to the appropriate place as possible (although there is an argument that this is not a true cine-roman because La Jetee is not, fundamentally, cine). In the case of Marienbad, while the film was ultimately Resnais’ work from Robbe-Grillet’s script, the cine-roman of that script was entirely Robbe-Grillet’s, and there are differences in content and of tone between the two. Robbe-Grillet was thus able to maintain control over “his” element of the film-making process.


In Robbe-Grillet’s own words, he likened the cine-roman to the libretto of an opera, as a memory aid after watching the film and as a means of “analysis for those for whom the images and sounds of the film have gone by too quickly to assimilate”.

Robbe-Grillet’s next film, and arguably his best, was Trans-Europ-Express (1966), which starred Jean-Louis Trintignant and was partially set on the eponymous train between Paris and Antwerp. Robbe-Grillet himself takes a lead role in which he proposes a film, which is what we see Trintignant play out. As Robbe-Grillet discusses the story with his associates and changes are mooted (like In the Labyrinth), the action onscreen changes accordingly. The result is a fun and witty film, with a charismatic performance from Trintignant. It’s a pity no cine-roman of this exists in English.

To the fore, though, is the role of sadmasochistic sex (one reason for the film’s initial notoriety and cult popularity). Though far from the explicit levels of his subsequent films, it highlights the problem that exists with any analysis of Robbe-Grillet’s work.

The signs were there from as early as The Voyeur, and he himself was always candid in discussing his sexual proclivities: he was attracted to young girls. That these girls exist in his work (particularly from the mid-60s onwards) as sexualised objects, and more often than not as victims of sexualised violence, is deeply troubling. His unpleasant sexual politics, overwhelming as they do the content of most of his later work (Djinn excepted) are the reason this essay ends with Snapshots. However, it cannot be wished away, and cannot be disregarded. John Fletcher finds his portrayal of female sexuality “at best misleading and at worst sadistic and perverse”, and his justifications “not wholly convincing”. His portrayal of women – of girls – remains a “but” in any appreciation of this important writer.

As with all revolutions, the wheel turns and this year’s craze is last year’s embarrassing memory. Almost inevitably, the nouveau roman was succeeded in the 1970s by the nouveau-nouveau-roman, with theorist Jean Ricardou as it’s prophet and cheerleader. His work is far less accessible than Robbe-Grillet’s, and perhaps it’s main legacy was in a turning away from such overt experimentation among French literary fiction. As for it’s impact in the UK, the nouveau roman was influential among a small circle of British writers in the 1960s (Ann Quin, Alan Burns) but most of them (BS Johnson apart) are arguably less well-known in the UK now than their French counterparts.

Much as I like Robbe-Grillet’s early work, I can see that adherence to the principles he laid down in his Towards a New Novel does not make him an easy writer to contend with. He rejected the humanist concept of “character”, or the use of inner psychology, arguing persuasively that such techniques belong to the nineteenth century, and can’t map the human experience in the twentieth (far less the twenty-first). No doubt his work, if more widely known, would be decried as pretentious. It dares to look beyond the paradigm and suggest that the fictional mode we unthinkingly consume as “realism” is a construct like any other. But there is nothing necessarily wrong with ‘difficult’ or ‘pretentious’ writers – I’d argue that we need them now more than ever – and it’s a shame that Robbe-Grillet’s forms and techniques are not emulated or developed further in the way that they deserve.



Lethcoe, James: “The structure of Robbe-Grillet’s Labyrinth” in The French Review (vol. 38, no.4, Feb 1965)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Snapshots and Towards a New Novel (Calder, 1965)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Last Year at Marienbad (Grove Press, 1962)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Immortal One (Calder, 1971)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (Calder, 1988)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: La Maison de Rendezvous (Grove Press, 1966)

Duras, Marguerite: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Grove Press, 1988)

Smith, Roch C: Understanding Robbe-Grillet (USC Press, 2000)

Resnais, Alain: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Studio Canal Blu Ray, 2009)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1966-1974 (BFI DVD, 2014)

Leutrat, Jean-Louis: L’Année dernière à Marienbad (BFI, 2001)

Van Wert, William F.: The Film Career of Alain Robbe-Grillet (Redgrave Publishing, 1977)

Cornwall: two landscapes

Driving west on the A30, it’s impossible to miss the post-industrial landscapes of clay- and tin-mining country. Whatever your feelings toward them, they are impressive, and very different from each other.

Clay mining – the Cornish Alps – sprawl over the area north and west of St. Austell (and give the Eden Project it’s home). Tin mining – a larger part of the Cornish economy for a far longer time, dating back millenia rather than centuries – is spread across a much wider area. Standing on Carn Brea, the low hill that looms over Camborne, Pool and Redruth, you can see from right to left, pretty much all the tin areas before you: St. Agnes, Camborne-Redruth, Godolphin, St. Ives, Wendron. Only that of St. Just is hidden by the low spine of West Penwith.

One ancient industry and one more recent, in one of the few areas of Britain where mining heritage is still highly visible. In Fife, Lothian, Yorkshire, South Wales and Nottinghamshire the winding gears have (mostly) long been dismantled and recycled. Although mining museums (such as those in Newtongrange and Wakefield) keep alive the history, regardless of your views on either the environmental impact of fossil fuel use or the assault on the trade union movement by the Thatcher government (of which coalminers bore the brunt), that there are so few signs remaining of this once mighty industry is dispiriting1. You can destroy the buildings far quicker than you can repair the fractured communities.

Cornwall has – for far longer than the coalmining regions – had to pick up the pieces after industry’s demise, and it still has one of the lowest standards of living in Britain. The county has been hugely subsidised by the E.U., just one more thing which makes the Leave vote incomprehensible.


The tin industry was not – unlike coal – destroyed by a vindictive government, but by the vagaries of an early global market. Falling prices killed the mines slowly, wheal by wheal2. Ironically, the cheaper tin which flooded the market was often sourced from countries whose own industries were founded by Cornish migrants fleeing successive waves of unemployment (the Heartlands “cultural playground” in Camborne/Pool commemorates this in its “diaspora garden”).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, these fluctuating tin prices led to miners starving. There were riots in Truro and Redruth; tinners would break into merchants’ houses looking for grain. In an early, but sadly recognisable form of working-class demonisation, they were scapegoats for all ills, and “held responsible for any disturbance, any breach of the peace.”

Several of the “iconic” engine houses have been preserved or refurbished: Levant, Geevor, East Pool, King Edward and Robinson’s Shaft (at Heartlands), and today’s (service sector) employees do not, hopefully, risk their lives on a daily basis (their pristine condition is misleading however: no tin mine would be that clean when operational, but heritage tourism doesn’t “do” dirt and grime).

The winding gear of South Crofty, across the road from Heartlands, stands proud, visible for miles. It remains mothballed since its closure in 1997 spelled the end of 3,000 years of tin mining in Cornwall. Successive attempts to re-open it have foundered, and its future remains uncertain3.

Previous attempts to reboot the tin industry have failed, having come up against the leviathan that is now Cornwall’s main employer: tourism. In 1961 a Public Enquiry was held into the prospect of a new mine near Zennor. Objections had been raised that it would spoil the landscape, and affect the fine coastal views. The only witness to speak in it’s defence was the artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon was the only major “St. Ives artist” who was a native of the area, and he was deeply engaged with the history and geography of west Cornwall. He knew that the mine meant local employment. In defence of the proposal, he said:

“opponents talk of beauty and the magnificence of scenery as if nature were incapable of wrath that would touch them…what view do they think the Cornishman has, who desires above all to make his own riches, but is barred by some concept of beauty that denies him the honour of his labour?”

Lanyon was that rare thing: a landscape painter acutely aware of man’s impact on his environment. Prefiguring China Mieville’s concept of the pictureskew, his near-abstract paintings of Cornwall’s land, sea and sky do not efface the presence of employment and the exploitation of that employment. His monumental St. Just (1951) with its central crucifix, commemorates lives lost in the tin mines in general, but specifically the Levant disaster of 1919, an event only now receding from living memory. Lost Mine (1959) and Wheal Owles (1958) are other examples of his engagement with the industrial history of the region – a history he may, as a descendant of mine-owning family, have felt some unease toward.

Are the west Cornish tinscapes only impressive because of their stillness? Would we find them so romantic if they were not ruined, if they still made the rivers run red4 with their contamination? I doubt it. Daphne du Maurier writes, in her book Vanishing Cornwall:

“perhaps they seemed ugly once, bare as electric pylons do today, smoke from tall chimneys fouling the air, and instead of present silence the chug of machinery”

Is it the absence of people, the loneliness these places evoke (a relative concept in buildings that abut a dual carriageway or a modern industrial estate), their emptiness that elevates a scene to the realm of the sublime? Perhaps. The late Mark Fisher, in his wonderful The Weird and the Eerie, defines the “eerie” as something (i.e. a landscape) containing “absence where there should be presence”, and I’d suggest the ruined engine houses can evoke a sublime eeriness.

But we must be honest about what it is we enjoy in a landscape, and there is something unsettling in the enjoyment taken from a landscape which, from a human-economical point of view, has been hollowed out; there is something not entirely right about preferring a vista with only the remains of industry, to that of one with living industry providing living people with an income right now. But perhaps an acknowledgement of this dissonance is enough; not every circle can be squared.

Nonetheless, there is much that is unsettling in our enjoyment of a landscape. The granite hump of Carn Brea is topped (below) by a obelisk which commemorates Francis Basset, foremost of the mine- and land-owning Bassets of Tehidy. Although he is recorded as being concerned for miners’ welfare, and though 20,000 people took part in the procession of his funeral, this is still a man who, as Bernard Deacon writes in his Cornwall and the Cornish, as an M.P. hurried back to Cornwall to ensure hungry food rioters “were properly hanged and not, as was usual, let off with transportation”.


Is this the type of person we are comfortable memorialising? And if not, then this should lead us to the next question: “who decides who is commemorated?” And if the answer to that is “the authority in possession of the land”, then the logical follow-up question then becomes: “who owns the land?” And, ultimately: “why?”


The “Cornish Alps” are a much more modern manifestation than the engine houses. Clay mining began in Cornwall in 1746. The piles resemble the coal bings of elsewhere (Broxburn, West Lothian springs to mind), but dwarf them, and the white colour lends the panorama an element of weirdness.

Daphne du Maurier, who lived not far away, was smitten by them, writing of their

“strange, almost fantastic beauty…[with the same] grandeur as tin mining in decay but in a wilder and more magical sense…there is nothing ugly here.”

Clay mining and clay country was perhaps viewed by others as less romantic than its elder cousin. It was “relatively new and did not enjoy all the ancient historical associations of metal mining”. Many of the great white peaks, if the Ordnance Survey maps are authoritative, have no official name. Local names may exist, but DANGER signs and restricted access do not help lodge a place’s nuances in the public imagination. That said, authoritative or not, the OS Explorer map for the area in question is striking:


Doesn’t that just make you want to explore? Look at all the white! There are tracks that go nowhere! There are ancient barrows jutting right up against these huge tips! I love Ordnance Survey maps – never forgetting that they are an arm of government, with their own agenda5 – but the fact there’s stuff even they can’t fully map, here in the U.K., is awesome.

Whereas, conventionally, blue is used to denote bodies of water which in reality change colour with the light, the pools nestling in the crowns of the clay tips are actually done a disservice by the OS colouring. As anyone flying into Newquay airport can testify, they are a dazzling aquamarine, more blue than blue.

I haven’t walked among the clay tips as I have the tin country, so this piece is written from a certain distance. But I am happy to defer again to du Maurier:

“[one’s] sense of orientation goes awry, as it does on Bodmin Moor, and although roads intersect the vast expanses, and sign-posts give direction, some strange instinct compels the unwary motorist or walker to travel in a circle, the waste-heaps and pitted pools becoming all alike, and there seems no way out, no means of escaping from this fantastic world.”

She also addresses the question of this more modern industry’s place in the public (folk) imagination.

“An industry rapidly becoming mechanised…is, alas, unlikely to produce myth or legend. No knackers beckon from the pyramids, no water-sprite lurks in the deep pools. Or, if they do, the layman has not yet heard tell of them. Isolation, the breeding ground of fear and mythology, is no more”. (my italics).

Should that prevent new myths? post-industrial folklore? Walks need to be taken, journeys made, from which a common language may spring. These mounds exist; they are not going away6; infertile as they are, it takes growth such a long time to take a foothold that they are not changing their appearance any time soon; and their fascination is plain. How do we act upon them and integrate what they tell us? How do we reconcile them with the ancient features they exist among? Are these not cousins to other post-industrial regions where ruin, toxicity and the expense needed to overcome these obstacles prevent “development”? How do we speak of such landscapes?


1Perhaps coalmining lacks the “romance” of tin mining. Perhaps not enough time has passed; perhaps “romance” only develops when the scars have healed and the struggles have passed from living memory, if we define “romance” in this context as an idealisation of the past.

But are pitheads any less worthy of preservation than the statues of long-forgotten men that litter our cities? To argue otherwise betrays a (typically British) reactionary attitude toward modernist, functional architecture. Cockenzie power station was demolished in 2015; an eyesore to some, but if an eyesore is needed to remind the people of Edinburgh where their electricity has come from for the last fifty years, then so be it. And it was less of an eyesore than the ruin caused by floods or storms that hit (far away, poor) countries as a result of the global warming caused by our burning of fossil fuels.

2wheal: Cornish for “place of work”

3There is no lack of tin under the ground but also, crucially, the minerals that mobile phone batteries need to operate. Surely it’s in our interests to source these minerals without the exploitation that goes on elsewhere in the world in their pursuit?

4The Red River flows into the sea near Godrevy, passing through Tuckingmill. The colour even today is still an opaque brick red. The River Vinnick, passing through clay country, was known historically as the White River for the same reasons: pollution by mining waste.

5The decision to render the clay tips as (mostly) blank white space, although aesthetically pleasing, is questionable. They are not featureless, nor without subtle gradient. Do we lack the mapping language to adequately represent post-industrial landscapes? Are these mounds, because removed from the public arena and therefore unavailable for “utility”,  not worth the detail expended elsewhere?

6Few landscapes in Britain are unspoiled. The Highlands only appear bare and sheep-spotted because the human inhabitants were burned out of their homes and sent overseas to make room for more profitable sheep.


Ordnance Survey Explorer 106: Newquay and Padstow (2014)

du Maurier, Daphne: Vanishing Cornwall (Penguin, 1972)

Deacon, Bernard: Cornwall and the Cornish (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Chapman, Sarah & Chapman, David: Iconic Cornwall (Alison Hodge, 2010)

Stephens, Chris: Peter Lanyon – At the Edge of Landscape (21 Publishing, 2000)

map image copyright Ordnance Survey

21st century pseudonyms, or “furthermore known as the JAMMs”

On 23rd August, Faber will publish “2023: A Trilogy” by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. Written by (I am assuming) Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, whose best-known guise is The KLF, the publication date will mark exactly 23 years to the day since the pair set fire to a million pounds in a disused boathouse on Jura. Shortly afterward, they wrote a contract promising not to speak about the event for a period of 23 years, put the contract in a car and pushed it off Cape Wrath, Britain’s most northerly point.

Drummond and Cauty always had a keen sense of ritual, and so the book, we must presume, is the last revelation, the final act of that particular part of their long (for want of a better) “career”, which has been superbly written about in “The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds” by John Higgs.

Do I expect the book (“a utopian costume drama, set in the near future, written in the recent past”) to reveal their secrets and reasons? No, of course not.

Do I expect it to reveal the meaning of life? No. And in any case, it’s “23”.

Will it be rubbish? Quite possibly. But I hope not.

Will I buy it anyway? Of course.

But that’s not the point of this post.

What I find interesting is the name they’re using. The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were Drummond and Cauty’s original late 80s sample-heavy outfit, charting with the thundering 1990 hit “It’s Grim Up North“. But again, that’s not the point. “”2023: A Trilogy” by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty” would have been one thing, but to have the author’s name be that of a band is, for me, the masterstroke.

I suppose this entire post could just be a single question: “why don’t writers use band-type names as pseudonyms”? Because that is my point.

Off the top of my head – although I’m sure there must be some others – I can only think of one book that has been similarly attributed*, and that’s The Manual: How to Have a Number One The Easy Way by The Timelords, the band behind the genius/godawful novelty smash hit “Doctorin’ the Tardis”. The Timelords were – but of course – Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty.

Let’s ignore for now the fact that all band names are, to an extent, absurd. What is it that’s so different between the music-buying public and the book-buying public that one finds abstract pseudonyms not only normal but desirable, while the other expects it’s authors to have real – or at least realistic – names? It isn’t as if these two publics are different people, after all.

I’m not asking why don’t bands write books, but rather why don’t more authors publish under an abstract or collective name?

It’s convention, isn’t it? Authors have always used pseudonyms, but collective names for artistic purposes (again, please correct me if I’m wrong) I am guessing began early last century with various modernist movements such as the Dadaists, Futurists and Surrealists, who self-consciously used such descriptors. Should we take it as a sign of one of Modernism’s failings that this didn’t cross into literature (other than for the purpose of those groups’ manifestos)?

“The death of the author” was announced by Roland Barthes 50 years ago, we accept such innovations as e-books, the Romantics’ idea of art as self-expression has been called into question for a long time, yet still we cleave to the idea of authenticity that a “real” name above a title evidently confers. No matter what experimentation or deconstruction of the form goes on within the text, still the book-as-object appears earnestly signed off by an identifiable figure. I’d love to see someone else follow Drummond and Cauty’s lead.


*Q by Luther Blissett doesn’t quite fit the bill here, being written by a collective yet appearing as “by” a single figure, though is interesting nonetheless; Luther Blissett in this case being not the former Watford and England footballer, but an Italian group for whom he was a cult hero.