Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Valley of Phantoms


Through a nineteenth century town, Leek has made a great effort to be beautiful. The Leek mills are not just factories; they take all sorts of eccentric and pleasing shapes. One is capped by a Gothic turret; another possesses glittering bay windows and a massive Norman archway of grey stone. Yet another built no doubt when taste reverted from the Gothic to the classic, endeavours to be a close copy of the pantheon. Down at the bottom of the town, on the road to the north, lies another immense building, which now somewhat dingy with age, proudly rears a high Venetian campanile as water tower, Against the sunset sky this mill is oddly attractive.

I remained in this land of stone wall, high rocks, and drifting snow for three years. There is a type of Moorland face, which one sees occasionally among the softer types industrialism has brought to this little town, and recognise as the true Moorland- features that seem cut out of granite, implacable. It reminds one the Moorlands would not have been a pleasant place for a stranger to have lived in, say two hundred years ago- here in this land of winter, where the wind cuts more keener than elsewhere, and the very features of the people are stern and forbidding. But I was happy there and soon found friends.

This may have been Staffordshire on the map, but to my ears it was North Country, where the oak and the ash and the bonny ivy tree grow, in the words of the old song. As in the North, the children spoke authentic Biblical English " hast put candles out?" they would chant in their lilting dialect. "Dost know? It’s thine". They spoke with a curious kind of sing song accent, the sentences rising to the last syllable but one, and then the sinking away to a half tone. The effect was rather pretty; also it was indescribably pathetic and pastoral- the sort of accent little birds would use if they could speak. They have not the paleness of the children of the Birmingham slums, but they were also healthy looking that in some cases their cheeks seemed to have been painted with red ink
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With a band of them I climbed Morridge – the green ridge which bounds the valley like a wall upon the eastern side, over hanging the little town. We climbed it by a stony road, lifting always within the high walls of crumbling stone on either side. They are like the bastions of a fallen castle, these Morridge walls, built by masons long dead, crumbling and neglected. If the world were flat, now, I reflected built upon a different plan, one might think that this near the precipice which ends the world, the very Back of Beyond. Nothing grew here save long grass; there was nothing but silence and the melancholy calling of the curlews. A grey sky suited this desolate place- grey sky, grey limestone, and the green grass.

Leek lay hidden in the mist and woods in the middle distance, and one of the older boys tried to convince me that it was invisible from the air. Leek will never be bombed, said he, and quoted with assurance the prophecy that there would come a time when " there will be no safety in the land save ‘twixt Mow Cop and Morridge. that is to say , in Leek.

This was my first introduction to the superstitions of Leek, but I soon found more. This valley and the moors around it swarmed with ghosts and bogies and the people still believed them. There was the Headless Horseman who in the imagination of the townsfolk rode Morridge- " a man on a ‘oss without a yed on, an awful gory sight", as one of them described to me. There was the Black Dog, the Moorland Anibus, atrocious spectres who guard the graves of those who died by violence. And she who was the queen of the Leek Demons, as the Horseman was their king, the Mermaid of the Black Mere on Morridge, which, later, the coloured American soldiers were forbidden to visit. There was Ball haye Jack, who could be observed- an omen of bad luck- standing on the wall in front of one of the mills in the form of a little grey man. For this was Leek, where phantoms gibber in front of factories. Then there was the factory girls would touch the railings when they met me, a gesture they often made when encountering a clergyman, for touching iron is the age-old safeguard against the power of the sorcerer.

I was astonished by these superstitions. If the place were some village lost in the meadows of the West Country, I thought, but Leek was a modern industrial town. Leek, if not the hub of the modern world, was one of the indispensable cogs. It exported and imported to and from the corners of the earth, and the slumps never seemed to touch it.

I realised, with surprise, that these Moors were the place where modern industrialism began. The first power loom was set up at Cromford, over in Derbyshire. Leek, and its sister towns were the mothers of the modern world. And I think that it is just because these people invented the modern mechanised world that it has no effect whatsoever on their souls. The machines have not exorcised the ghosts and demons of the Leek countryside, as they have done elsewhere. The Leek demons saw the birth of the machine, so to speak. After all what is a machine? An instrument to speed up production. And the machines, according to my theory, had their real psychological origin in the spells these people of the moors used to write on bits of paper and fasten to their scythes and ploughs to make them to do more work, to speed up production. "Bees" they used to call them. It seems obvious that in these "bees" lies the origin of the machine. A handloom with a spell fastened on it is the equivalent of a power driven machine. They have tried to put the destructive power of the poltergeist to work, too, these magicians and legends abound of "hobs" or nature spirits who work on Moorland farms. Later they discovered that the far more docile demons of steam could speed up production for them, and so they abandoned their "bees" and their "hobs".

Like all who come to leek, I fell under the spell of its mythology, and investigated the matter thoroughly- " rooting into t’spooks" as the townspeople called my hobby. Leek is not the kind of industrial town one finds in the south, whose industries have been transported from elsewhere, where factories have arisen in the fields as if by the waving of a magic wand. Its industrialism is the logical culmination of its history, and has not disturbed in the least the spirit of the place. The machines used by its people are merely the equivalent of their forefathers’ "bees". The Leek demons look down from the moors upon the smoking mill-chimneys of the little town in the valley with perfect equanimity. They know well that the substitution of the power looms for handlooms has not altered the attitude of the Leek people towards them one whit. The Horseman, the Mermaid and the various Black Dogs still thrive in the imagination of the people of the town. And the fairies have not departed, but simply changed their named. No doubt they have grown tired of the nonsense talked of them by poets, and have reappeared in their original crudity as poltergeists. And the witches of Leek have changed their methods. They now deal in crystal globes instead of incantations.

The result of this investigation on my part was a great modification of my anti industrial bias. I had discovered that industrialism was a natural development, the logical outcome of the history of a town like Leek. The whole point about mechanisation is that it burst upon the world totally unconnected with the cultural apparatus which had gone before, and seemed to create a new kind of barbarism wherever it spread. The reason was that it had long been incubating in these Pennine districts such as Leek and the very similar valleys of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which had lain outside the main current of history. In Leek one saw mechanisation in its proper cultural setting. Elsewhere the machine came as an invader, am enemy to the old cultural upon which it burst. But here one saw the machine in the land of its birth, and the point was that it belonged to the same world as the witches and the phantom dogs. That was its cultural background; that was the set of ideas out of which it arose. It belonged to the same complex, and in its origin too was a spell.
The cobbled street, the clatter of clogs, the whine of the machine, the harsh voices of the north, the Pennine witch in her stone cottage- they all belong to the same world. The machine came from underneath, the top strata of society did not invent it. It belonged to the people who believed in witches, not to the educated schoolmasters and gentleman of the Enlightenment.

But it was a natural development; it had only wrecked and ruined the countryside because we were unprepared for it. It was something that leek sprang on us. In another century or so the machine will be part of that tradition and absorbed. Even as it is now often a thing of beauty, so is its dwelling places will become beautiful. as the Leek Mills have tried to be. And we shall learn how to control it so that it will be our slave and not our master.

Hans Zehrer says that the guilt of the modern world, which is destroying mankind, consists in the completely rational attitude which man has towards nature as something non living to be conquered and bent to his will. I feel that, if we could get into focus, the naïve attitude which theses people who actually first used the machines still retain toward the world of Nature bears the seed of the attitude we should have towards the unseen forces from which man derives his technical power. We should not be so careless about dropping atomic bombs or even driving fast cars and adding to the slaughter on the roads if we had an inkling of what faces us on the other side of things seen, the world whence comes atomic power, electricity, the power of petrol and steam. They who first fastened "bees" to their handlooms knew what they were about, that they were tinkering with something of a terrifying power. We have lost that