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A New Stone

by Robert Macfarlane


I grew up in a coal-mining country. Collieries were the highest structures around: the headstocks with their spinning wheels, the non-stop chunters of the winding engines. Power station cooling towers made their own weather. Nodding donkeys pumped drifts dry. Slag heaps leaked black streams, tracked with tyre-marks. I had a strong sense as a child of knowing only one storey of the landscape, walking the surface above an invisible underworld of tunnels and shafts that ran for thousands of miles.

My father, a respiratory physician, treated miners with industrial diseases, and one of my childhood friends was a former miner called Peter Smith. Peter had worked below ground for thirty years and he was the happiest person I knew. He was a miraculous whistler: he could do two-tone whistling, bird-songs, hymns. He taught me how to play golf and how to gamble. When I asked him why he whistled so much, he said it was because now he got to spend his days above ground. He became a champion bowls player later in his life, walking lovingly alongside his gleaming wooden bowls as they curled towards the jack, urging them on or slowing them down with gentle murmurs until their last lean into stillness.

Peter had an extraordinary face; I can see it very clearly now in my mind’s eye –– above all the great wide mouth that seamed it sideways, smilingly, almost all of the time. And from that wide mouth came, sometimes, stories about the darkness in which he had worked for three decades; the men – and women – who’d been alongside him in the tunnels and lifts, the danger and the accidents, but also the sense of community and the pride he took in his work. Though Peter was ecstatic no longer to be mining, I never heard a single word of complaint or self-pity from him.

I remembered Peter instantly, across the space of a quarter-century or more, when Laurence Edwards arrived at my room in Cambridge one day early in 2019. ‘I’ve brought a bagful of heads with me’, he announced. Of course, you have, Laurence. Each head was wrapped in cloth. Laurence unwrapped and then passed them to me one by one. They were made of yellow wax, but I cradled them as if they were delicate china, for taking the head of a stranger in my hands felt like a great responsibility. As I handled them –– amazed once again at Laurence’s sheer, absurd talent as a sculptor –– he described to me their origins in a commission to commemorate and celebrate the miners and mining history of Doncaster.

For several months Laurence toured the pubs, clubs and community halls of the Doncaster region, speaking to miners and mining families in the city and its villages. Then he began a remarkable process, positioned somewhere between oral history and performance art. He would meet up to three mine-workers a day, and with each person would sit for two hours, modelling their heads in buttery yellow wax, while talking with them and drawing out their stories. Each of these conversations was recorded, and each ‘sitting’ resulted in the model of a head which went on to be cast in bronze by means of the lost wax method.

Initially, Laurence thought that sculpting while talking would be impossible, resulting in a disabling cognitive dissonance. But to his surprise, he found that – in his words – ‘as I listened, I realised that my hands continued to work, like fingers at a type-writer going about their business almost independently of me’.  Somehow, the stories he was being told about life and death underground – often harrowing, sometimes funny or surreal – became part of the means by which the heads of the speakers emerged and evolved in Laurence’s hands. One miner told him how they would race pit ponies underground in the darkness. A pit nurse spoke of how she had once had to leave a mine with her own hands bandaged tightly to the skull of an injured miner, to prevent potentially fatal bleeding.

Over the weeks of modelling work, the headcount mounted, and so did the tales and conversations. Sculpting and story-telling melted into one another. The intimacy of having the likeness of one’s head moulded by a stranger seems to have encouraged an openness in the miners. Laurence’s first genius is as a sculptor, but he is also an attentive talker and listener; one instinctively trusts him and feels willing to share. This listening and sharing happened again and again in Doncaster; by the end of his time there, Laurence had sculpted and spoken with around forty people.

The final phase of the project was to devise a means of framing and re-telling both the heads and their voices. Laurence decided to set the cast bronze heads in niches cut into vast blocks of stone, echoing the geological spaces in which the miners had laboured for so long. Placed in those niches, the heads look somehow both protected and constrained. They seem to be speaking for and of the Earth; deep-time voices, carrying stories from the underworld. There is something mythic, something saintly, and something also very respectfully ordinary about this final housing of the heads; these ‘faces in the rock’, as Laurence calls them.

Modern geologists refer to the stratigraphic archive of the Earth as ‘the rock record’; nineteenth-century geologists spoke of it as ‘The Great Stone-Book’. In this unique project, Laurence Edwards has created a new kind of stone book: an extraordinary double-archive – told in bronze and told in the story – of a generation and a community that is now close to disappearing.