Darkness Itself IV

One | Two | Three

Driving along the A63, as it merges wit the Clive Sully, the major artery of Kingston-upon-Hull, having passed under the Humber Bridge and continuing to hurtle towards the city centre, I see the Lord Line building, that rotting and abandoned monument, casting its shadow over the city and its estuary. 

Built to serve Hull’s deep sea trawlermen, the Lord Line and its surrounding out-buildings somehow repeatedly avoid demolition and redevelopment – much like the city itself (at least until recently).

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, reminders of a once-proud mining industry slip from view. In Sheffield I’ve heard they turn slag heaps into public parks, ski slopes, golf courses. Geological matter so deeply excavated cannot be put back but it is nonetheless buried, becoming one more layer of the city’s substrate, albeit uneven, the scar tissue of shifting industries.

In Hull, you can’t escape the water. It haunts and mocks. Worked or not, it laps the shore and the tide never changes.


Cod, like coal, was to be a pawn in wider political and economic issues, but in the early weeks of 1968 the enemy was atrocious weather. [via]

Many of the 20th century’s mining disasters are well known. Subterranean terrors calcify the public imagination. The darkness of Hull’s oceanic disasters are equally unfathomable and far less visible. The first two months of 1968 in particular are known for the Triple Trawler Tragedy, claiming 60 lives alone. Coastal industries have the unfortunate complication of being at the mercy of “fanged noumena”.

Is not transcendental philosophy a fear of the sea? Something like a dike or a sea-wall?

A longing for the open ocean knows at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels against the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away. Nihil ulterius. [1]

Some 6000 deaths have been recorded at sea since records began but Hull has prospered as a fishing town long before then. The true numbers are unimaginable.

In the 12th century,  the fishing monks of Meaux Abbey established what was then Wyke-upon-Hull as a site of national important for fishing and trade, leading to its eventual nomination as a King’s Town. The word “Wyke” comes from the Scandinavian vik — meaning ‘port’ — which suggests the region was important for a few hundred years before records began.

Wyke is a name that locals will recognise as belonging to a local Further Education college but perhaps without knowledge of its origins. The same goes for the city’s peculiar accent which still retains the soft vowel “ø.

Hull remains a Viking town, through and through, but it has a tendency to forget itself.

After hundreds of years of gradually increasing prosperity, Hull’s fishing industry succumbed to the Cod Wars of the 20th century — successive wars over fishing territories between the UK and Iceland, of which Iceland won each one successively. Boats and shipsremain a familiar fixture of the city’s edges and rivers but the smell of fish that once clouded the city in its prime is now, for better and for worse, long gone.

How much thought is given to the olfactory consequences of post-industrial decline?

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Darkness Itself III: Whitstable Flesh

One | Two

There is something keeping the south afloat — financially speaking; unnaturally speaking. I am sure of it.

Recent trips to the coastal settlements that dot the seaward edges of Kent and East Sussex have given me a glimpse into an alternate timeline where the all-too-familiar hardships of the north have been kept at bay.

Nowhere is the North more grim than at its edges and if the Justified Ancients sought to encapsulate all of it with their parochial roll call, the oceanic currents of their jagged trance nevertheless suggest a land that is coastal even at its centre.

Nothing disintegrates quite like the coast.

Nevertheless, here in the south, there are far fewer boats left to rot. Greasy spoons are replaced with novelty eateries. London expats bake pies and make the most of easy-access eels, charging double for authentic East London recipes that have been both displaced and returned to their source. Ramshackled fishing huts are yours for £150 a night on Air B&B.

Even the rain is somehow pleasant here. It doesn’t chill the soul in the same way.

Whereas fairgrounds take up beach-side car parks in the north, locked up as travellers and carnies alike wait for the end of the endless out-of-season season, here there are no rides to be seen anywhere. It is as if the heart of a coastal culture of the mildest hedonisms has been removed to stop the gangrenous spread of class strife.

Penny slots remain, of course – there is no accounting for that plague – but they seem to ensnare far fewer drunks and minors.

There are no tanning salons. Even though the south still shares the British weather, they seem to have lost the need to make up for the sun’s abandonment of these isles. Fortunes continue to proliferate here, bringing smiles and strength to the local economy.

The north, in short, is mournful. It struggles.

The south sells itself as the prosperous vision the north forgot.

As I continue to wander and explore, I grow suspicious. There is surely something else at play here – some deal with the devil.

In Whitstable, recently, I could have sworn I felt it.

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Darkness Itself II

That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or for after humankind. [1]

What luck to be lured underground by darkness itself in the London suburb of Chiselhurst. What luck to sink beneath the surface at that time so that I might fall out of time itself. There was an agency attached to that experience – I’m sure of it – and it is this agency that is responsible for what has occurred since. Alternatively, perhaps this agency comes from now, or some indeterminate future, making sure of its existence by impregnating the thoughts of today through the recently experienced. Somehow, this sounds more plausible… Either way, I am sure that desires do not naturally dovetail like this through coincidence alone.

My original post, exploring the (per)plexing ahistory of Chiselhurst Caves was surprisingly well received. There was certainly something there too, in the writing, but I felt that others were more aware of it than I was.

In the weeks since my trip underground, despite no longer being a student, I have been lurking in a postgraduate seminar once a week where the subterranean has become a central topic of consideration.

This was not something I had anticipated. I have felt like each thought had in class was struck in relief by my recent excursion, which has continued to unfold within and without myself.

I have recently found myself underground once more.

The first introductory session of the postgraduate seminar drew the attention of the class to Freud’s account of humanity’s three narcissistic wounds. Freud wrote in his own Introduction to Psychoanalysis:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realised that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavouring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.

What if, it was argued, it is not psychoanalysis but geology that forms our third narcissistic wound – geology, which has endeavoured to prove to the human ego that we are not the master of our own lands, which have existed long before us and will exist long after. Freudian psychoanalysis has always borrowed its terminology and analogies from geology. The unearthing and excavation of traumas from deep within the psyche – Deleuze & Guattari’s “destratification” most obviously – echoes the geological study of tectonic plates.

This analysis, when considering England’s subterranea at least, is further complicated by those spaces that our collective consciousness has long since forgotten that we created. Chiselhurst Caves are, as was previously pointed out, not caves at all but mines, and the forgotten purpose for which the mines were created has led to the indexical nomenclature slipping from the man-made into the God-given.

An even more mysterious subterranean structure can be found a mile inland from the Kentish coast in the heart of the seaside town of Margate. There, just two metres below street level, lies the Shell Grotto.

Here, there is no question that this underground world is man-made. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 1800s and the single-room museum that proceeds these mollusk catacombs is far more honest about its history than Chiselhurst Caves but it is all the more occulted for its honesty. Their mystery is far more genuine.

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Darkness Itself

I spent last Sunday afternoon exploring Chislehurst caves and it was far more goth than I expected.

I’ve been on a few spelunking adventures recently, inspired by the last few months spent lurking around #CaveTwitter. As such, this post is something of a #CaveTwitter tribute – probably the first of many. I have so many thoughts circling since this trip underground but there’s not enough space to get them all down here. Think of this as a prologue…

The Chislehurst Caves are located at the centre of an exceptionally wealthy London suburb. To find the place you must make your way through the kind of winding, bloated neighbourhoods that have you masochistically checking house prices on your phone every few hundred metres. There is an unimaginable amount of money here, making Chislehurst a surprising location for a hollowed-out subterranean city. Below the excess of the living, there is another world – a vast underground cave system inverting the grandeur above with its silence and darkness.

It also has a gift shop, but when it sells merchandise like this poster for £1.50, that is not something to gripe about.


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