Green Hairstreaks and facing basement steps with Indian sandstone: An oracle of butterflies and a job with unforeseen consequences……

My story begins one gloriously fine day on the 23rd of April 2011. I had gone to Ilkley Moor in WestYorkshire to check to see if the Green Hairstreak butterfly had recovered from the very harsh winter cold snaps of the previous two years, which has particularly decimated their numbers on the lower slopes of the formerly highly industrialized valleys of West Yorkshire. Having ascended half way up the moors, I headed for the top of a former quarry just above White Wells, once noted for its palliative spa waters and where Darwin, recoiling before the dread glare of publicity and inevitable scandal, had sought a stay of execution bathing in the spa water and wrapping himself in inconsolable anonymity for a last few days, just prior to the publication of the world shaking The Origin of the Species. In 1861 the quarry was just one of many quarries, Ilkley Moor then a hive of activity, encompassing everything from the rearing of livestock in small holdings to lime kilns. This landscape was one of engagement, a raw material to be worked, the idea of landscape as an untouchable panorama which one viewed and passed through leaving everything as it was, still way in the future. But, beneath the surface, Nature as the ultimate exhibit was gaining ground.

Quarrying on this particular site ceased before the First World War and was then planted with mainly Sitka Spruce and, to a far lesser extent, Scots Pine. In fact Sitka Spruce had been introduced into Britain from Alaska in 1831 and would become the most widely planted of commercial conifers. Though now the Sitka Spruces give the appearance of being a green curtain to hide a once naked industrial scar, in fact the original intention had been to plant the entire moor with Sitka Spruce and which was only prevented by the good burgers of Ilkley, these canny brokers of the scenic and romantic only too well aware of the area’s potential for tourism ever since Queen Victoria’s visit.  An Ilkley boy through and through, the buffoon Alan Titchmarsh today belongs to this opportunist bloodline that puts nature through its paces as a particularly mutable form of exchange value.

Anyhow, approaching the line of Sitka Spruce atop the quarry edge, I was delighted to witness an aerial ballet of dozens upon dozens of Green Hairstreaks jinking around the conifers. I had been captivated before by this dance around the lone Sitka Spruce at the bottom end of ‘the big field’ on Otley Chevin. However this present display was breathtaking and I shall never forget it for as long as I live, the 23rd of April being one of those rare days that surpassed themselves and also had such a surpassing personal effect on me, like I also had taken wing and was in the process of being reborn. I wanted this soaring experience to stay with me forever but short of a general insurrection; there is no chance of that. I had previously questioned if this was only a display of male territoriality but now I am convinced females are present in considerable numbers, having watched on a number of occasion’s males furiously flapping their wings, seeking, as if imitating a hover fly, to remain stationary before a down-wind female nestling deeper within the pine needles. Clumsily suspended for 10 seconds at the most, as if the butterfly was not really cut out to execute such an action, I have yet to witness this behavior on bilberry covered terrain and which must be done in the expectation the release of pheromones will make the female receptive. It is possible the difference between the supple bilberry leaf and spiky conifer leaf is the cause of this specific behaviour, the former far more likely to tear a butterfly’s wing should the male risk diving in deeper for a closer inspection. If so, this ‘aberrant’ behavior may well have evolved in response to the introduced Sitka Spruce, for the butterfly showed scant interest in the native Scots Pine. Both sexes are strongly attracted to the conifer’s flower and will often favour the flower, even as a perch, above that of the needle-like leaves. I even snapped off a fruiting head of nature’s candy stick, finding the taste to my likening. Like butterfly, like man. And in that order now, if Homo sapiens is not to prematurely become the last of the hominid fossils!

Ilkley Moor...

Above: Green Hairstreak on Sitka Spruce Above: White Wells and Darwin's Escape

I was also amazed I was the first to witness this inspiring aerial ballet. How come the legions of Wharfedale naturalists had not noticed it before me? How come, how come? And then the thought occurred to me: ‘Darwin’s quarry’ is not accessible by car. I had my answer: no car, no nature, the car logic of well healed naturalists rendering the empirical existence of butterflies superfluous, if they can’t be viewed within a few short steps from a car park. Car centrist Berkleyism is a guiding precept of nature-reserves, Bishop Berkely maintaining material objects only exist through being perceived.

These observations to one side, I have over the years become progressively more interested in the history of West Yorks quarrying and regret the fact no comprehensive work has been done on the industry from its demise to ‘revival’, for impressed in quarried stone is a record of capitalist transformation. This process of creeping industrial fossilization, then geopolitical rebirth far overseas, has been ignored for too long, neither Marx, nor Engels having anything to say on the subject though John Ruskin, when he came to Bradford, could see nothing but stone whilst insensible to the textile workers whose exploitation had made Bradford the boom city of the 19th century. What knowledge I have has been put together from snippets gleaned from local history societies like the Halifax Antiquarian Society whose annals I consulted following the major fire on Ovenden Moor in April 2011. The fire had taken hold of the desiccated heather and peat but the former quarry sites, home to the majority of Green Hairstreaks, had been largely spared. The fire had been put out when eventually we climbed the moor, though here and there the moor would burst into flames and I was able to take footage of fugitive Green Hairstreaks against a scorched, smoking landscape, a portent of what’s in store for us and not only the Green Hairstreak.

Turning the pages of a Halifax Antiquarian Society volume from the 1920s, I was fascinated to learn that in 1870 almost the entire male population of the moor were employed in “the delves”, the 300 “delvers” (quarry men) reduced to 5 some 36 years later in 1906. The delvers and their families lived in tenanted houses in a remote moorland hamlet intriguingly called Fly on the Cold Edge Road, a vernacular name inscribed by the elements and poles apart from today’s numbing bureaucratic names reeking of the deathly conformity of council chambers and the board rooms of real estate companies.

I had intended to search out what remained of the foundations of this former quarrying community and its sole public building, The Delvers Arms (and just up from where the Angry Brigade tried out a machine gun) to see how quickly nature had done its job of reclamation and if it was more bio-diverse than the surrounding waste. Eager to find out more about quarrying and mining in the area, I was surprised to learn that a condition of lease in 1776 in the Halifax district required that coal workings be filled in when discontinued and “made safe for cattle”. However these early attempts at land restoration were trifling compared with the scale of today’s ruinous makeovers and we find that “on the heights of soil hills scores of depressions in the surface may be seen now forming little ponds”. Deemed to constitute a major health hazard, this would never be tolerated today. And if any of these ponds contained the Great Crested Newt, well, they would be translocated - most likely to die an artistic, hygienic death in the interests of “health and safety”.

Tramping around the urban and country areas of West Yorks I have for years increasingly marveled at the many kinds of differently shaped stones and their tooled markings and surfaces devised by masons that were not, I would like to believe, made to order but rather demonstrated a small, but meaningful, measure of choice and workers’ control over the trade. So I was pleased at last to learn the taxonomic stock in trade of masonry, like plain boosting (irregular chisel marks) and clean boosting, meaning the chisel marks are uniform. Iron stained stones were rejected and termed “red insiders” for they would go to make up interior walls which would be hidden by a coating of lime plaster. But come the 1950s and derelict quarries would start to be raked over for iron marked red stone. However this self conscious naturalism was then still a minority tendency, at odds with the worshipful science of new materials which, like the utopian cult of concrete, would deliver us into a post scarcity world of commodity abundance, just as Le Corbusier’s “beton bruit” combined with mass car ownership, promised to do.

I learnt too that a “pitch faced stone” was a slab whose edges had been cut straight and the face left rough  (i.e. “riven” - a term readily familiar to me) ) like the famous Elland flags that were quarried primarily for cutting and squaring into landings though particularly paving stones that have proved extraordinarily durable. And I too began to notice how, over the past few years, concrete paving began to be replaced with stone, flags heavily marked with iron solution, and given the name of leisegang rings, now at a premium. This was greenwash or rather stonewash, code for sustainability and the fact that capitalism now cared. I noticed too how easily they cracked and shortly I was to find out why through actually cutting the stone.

Delivered in crates containing metre square slabs and machine cut to only 22mm and grooved on the back like tiles, they come in 1000s of vast container ships all the way from immense quarries in Rajasthan in India to quench a thirst for authenticity in consumer capitalism that can not be slaked by being turned into stone. The Elland flags had been split by hand along the bedding plate with a cold chisel and to avoid cracking had to be double that. The question where is all this stone coming from lay half formed in my mind, for in the UK there are only 1,300 small working quarries with, for example, the quarrying of magnesium limestone banned, except for restoration purposes such as repairing the weathered façade of York Minister.

Above: New London paving from the Rajasthan Stone Syndicate. Above: Old cobblestones, Bradford. Above: Unofficial nature (birds foot trefoil) and stone setts, Bradford

By far the biggest trend in geology in this country and how best it sells itself to the public is geo-conservation with about one third of sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) geo-science based, with an estimated 3,500 local geological sites. The quarrying industry hides behind this surface layer. The trade association for quarrying never gives pride of place to the scale of its member’s extractive activity. Rather it will headline webs with facts like one third of SSSI sites are old quarries for invertebrate diversity. There is even now an attempt, in response to DEFRA’s (Dept for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs) recent endeavor to put a price on nature, to do the same for geo-conservation by subtly modifying what we mean by the value of a raw material so that what really counts is its aesthetic value, not its vulgar monetary value as bawled out on the floor of a commodities exchange. There is something eerily Wordsworthian about the claim of the emerging UK Geo-diversity Action Plan that “nature is not just about living things - its mountains and minerals too”, and that “we value our metal alloys, our gold, silver, platinum and our gemstones.” The overriding emphasis here is on sheen, even mineral science and metallurgy, but not exchange value, as if to say only through the aesthetic, and knowledge for its own sake, is capitalism made palatable. Now contrast this with the raw commercialism of the Rajasthan Stone Syndicate, which was set up in 1992. As the major player in the India Stonemart  “the largest exposition of the stone industry” in the world, and whose principal sponsor is the Rajasthan State Industrial Development Investment Corporation, the syndicate shamelessly proclaims that is has “acquired the benchmark of exporting 1000s of containers worldwide.” No reveling either in that guilty word “sustainability” which, as regards quarrying and mining, usually means the safe disposal of hazardous waste and ensuring that heavy metals do not leach into local water supplies. There was a more sensitive issue to air, the better to hide from view: immediately beneath the trumpeted business success of the Rajasthan Stone Syndicate we read that it is an ethical business (what else!) and “does not indulge in child labour”. In a country with between 60 and 112 million child labourers this has to be a sick joke.

By the time these facts came to light, we were already half way through facing a flight of steps leading down to a basement flat in Notting Hill, London. The original steps appeared to have been constructed from limestone and which must have looked outstanding when completed around 130 years ago but would soon erode because of acid rain and damp generally. We suggested replacing the steps with a steel staircase but since the street was in a conservation area, this was out of the question. Repeated attempts to repair the steps having failed, we thought the only solution was to face the treads and risers with York stone. This was bound to be expensive but not as expensive as demolishing the existing steps and redoing them in concrete and which would have the added disadvantage of making access to the basement flat all but impossible for as long as it took to shutter the steps and for the concrete to cure. And so we made the rounds of local building merchants eventually ending up at Keylines, by far the biggest supplier of heavy-duty building materials in the country. And it was in Keylines yard that we first set our eyes on Indian stone. But it was sometime later, and only after flicking through a Marshall’s product brochure, that I began to get an inkling of the size of this stone transshipping operation which easily eclipses that of the pharaohs. And this immediately answered my question why, of late, the pedestrian precincts of prestigious buildings, town halls and salubrious neighborhoods were increasingly paved with the new gold -‘York’ stone?

We exchanged knowing looks when we found out that meter sq blocks of riven stone 22mm thick were retailing at a snip of the cost of “locally sourced” York stone. Cheap Indian labour was our immediate verdict. Even so I had only a hazy notion that the horrific labour conditions in the mines of the 1830s I had been reading about in the annals of the Halifax Antiquarian Society were being reproduced on a far bigger scale in today’s India. It fact it was the range of hard landscaping products on offer that initially attracted my attention for I have long been outraged at the growing area of hard surface in the urban environment, London losing the equivalent of two and a half Hyde Parks of lamentable ‘greenery’ every year from its domestic gardens. Low maintenance, car friendly gardens in particular are the money spinning specialty of garden centres because they are relatively instantaneous, so to speak, and are assembled, a bit like the contents of a flat pack, rather than grown over a lengthy period of time, though it cannot be stressed enough that the lowest of low maintenance garden is the wildlife garden, itself a mediocre anticipation of the jungling of the city.

Above: Marshalls type of faux nature conservation

The Marshall’s brochure had perfected the art of double speak. In the top right hand corner of the brochure’s cover is the firm’s logo, a diagrammatic representation of a crustacean shell, below which is written, in bold type, “Marshall’s: transforming British landscape since 1885”. In fact we should reverse the order of “the garden and driveways collection” and put the car first for the brochure targets suburbia first and foremost, cars appearing approximately 56 times in the 171 page, lavishly illustrated, catalogue. However cars are discreetly tucked away to one side, full frontals of cars conspicuous by their absence, even though in the last analysis it is the car that rules in these glossy pages. The front cover, for example, shows two young girls playing on the driveway of a large double fronted house, as if intimating a reinvention of space. To one side the flip-flop wearing, attentive mother. Little more than the bonnet of a BMW is visible, the driveway having been laid with drivesett argent, “a manufactured product which is permeable”. An advocate of porous cities, the firm’s unspoken aim is to increase car ownership and thus the amount of paved over, hard landscaping even though it pretends otherwise by exhorting us to reduce our carbon footprint. On the third page of the brochure we are reminded that “over forty% of CO2 emissions in the UK come from actions by individuals, so it’s essential we all do our bit.” But getting rid of the car altogether is the last thing Marshall’s has in mind. So it is an apostolic exhortation in dread of a meaningful outcome, amounting to thus far but no further - or else!

Marshall’s main aim is to reassure its key market, the aspirational suburban middle class, that it can have its cake and eat it and that to go ‘green’ does not mean a cut in living standards. Out to profit from the first glimmerings of a bad conscience in middle class consumers, it likes to think of itself as a consciousness raising firm that goes one better, tutoring the guilty consumer to take a look at its array of alternative products, each of which has a “carbon label” devised by the Carbon Trust and DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs). The firm is proud to announce that it “has been pioneering” with this scheme and “ahead of all other companies”, being the first company in hard landscaping to launch a “carbon calculator” to let “you see how many trees are required to offset the carbon produced in the creation of a driveway or patio.” And here we have it: carbon offset as the contemporary equivalent of the sale of indulgences that sparked the protestant revolution (“religion’s self criticism in motion”) against the church. Trees, of course, do lock up CO2 but in a burning world they also massively release it. Carbon offset is the dirty alternative to changing a carbon intensive life through an anti capitalist revolution; a revolution that is about the ‘art’ of living differently, anti aesthetic and anti commercial, against Value (in the Marxian sense of the term) and up with the unknown potentialities of human wealth once money is abolished.

To buy from Marshall’s is to buy into salvation. The firm’s many mission statements are a living proof of that; ‘progressive’ in one domain, so it must appear in all the rest. Women appear approximately 107 times in the brochure’s photos, men just forty seven times (discounting the operatives seen at work assembling these unspeakable jigsaw gardens). Women are rarely shown actually gardening but men are pictured carrying trees. More often women appear as if in a still life, a soft focus wheelbarrow in the foreground, elsewhere an artfully arranged trowel or spool of gardening twine put there for effect rather than use. And when women do seem to be gardening, they are snipping flowers or carrying baskets of blooms, like straight out of a mortifying pastiche of a Renoir painting that has discreetly covered up cleavage, buttocks and all erotic appeal, for these are domesticated housewives more Stepford than dressed for power and to kill in a City of London boardroom. Otherwise women are to be seen lying around on expensive, designer garden furniture, entertaining, playing mother hen to zombie children or acting as if highly appreciative of their newly hard-landscaped surrounds. The food on display is an advertisement for healthy eating and epicurean moderation: salads, bread baskets of whole meal loaves, coffee percolators (nothing spontaneously ‘instant’ here), tumblers of fruit juice, the temperate intake of wine from half full, not half empty, glasses. The one folded newspaper, whose title we can read, just happens to be the Daily Telegraph.

Above: Marshalls aestheticism plus playing up to consumer addiction

This increased feminine exposure, though here indicative, at best, of a progressive conservatism, nonetheless shows the degree to which women overall are spotlighted by the market, men, in this instance, increasingly occupying a subordinate role. This gender inequity, though loading women with the most insupportable confusions and contradictions that can only lead to breakdown, means that if sale strategies are to succeed, then getting the consent of women is paramount. Who would have thought, forty years ago, that, in the ‘macho’ world of building, the approval of women would ever play such a directing role? This apparent ‘feminization’ of the market is matched by a similar, merely apparent, increase in choice.

And so it is with Marshall’s where, if we are to believe the sales patter, we will be the designers of our hard garden of choice, not Marshall’s who will forever remain the humble facilitators. Though we are only selecting from a product range, this range aspires to be as unfixed, and ever changing, as the clouds in the sky. But it is we; the consumers that make this happen and so make the company ‘happen’, like at an artistic ‘event’, we being the interactive audience. Each purchase from Marshall’s is sold as a unique creative act. The brochure asks us to reflect on “what is your garden style?” Having come up with an individual preference, we are then compellingly told “anything is possible with Marshall’s” and that, as a result, “everyone will create their garden  to suit their particular tastes.” This ‘will’ is a given, not a ‘can’ that is hedged with a degree of doubt.  It is rather a certainty, a business guaranty we can achieve creative liberation through the market in stone. Seeming to privilege the sovereignty of our desires and owing much to anarchism, this language of empowerment actually belongs to the commodity, not us. In reality what it does underline is the increasing impoverishment of our own lives and that it is becoming ever harder to distinguish between true and false creativity, as the latter becomes overwhelmingly central to the continued functioning of the market place, indeed comes to constitute its lifeblood, what it lives and moves by. This leaves the field ever more wide open to virtual substitutes and, by flattering every customer they are really an artist, ever easier to pull the wool.

And so with Marshall’s. In fact it was the names that commanded attention not the stock, suggesting an ideal inventory conjured into existence by the act of naming. It was more like dealing with a novel branch of natural science than a builder’s merchant. The transforming power of taxonomic minutiae appeared to transubstantiate an unexceptional, almost indistinguishable, “riven” or manufactured series into a freshly minted geology. Though designed to give the impression of outstripping the formative human capacity for invention, this obvious fraud will only go down well in suburbia where imagination is so lacking and insight so rare, it is easy for Marshall’s to sell  its conservative, conservation conscious, brand of  nonconformity.

A random word list of some of the things on offer says all that need be said:

“golden sand sandstone, autumn tinge sandstone, silver finestone sandstone, antique sandstone, distressed look sandstone, dark  jade slate, midnight  blue slate, eclipse granite, coach house paving, polesden lacey flagstones, chancery flagstones, heritage paving, weathered York stone, Calder brown,  old Yorkshire, heritage octant, regent paving,  rustic walling, utility paving, antique rope edge, country edging, spar aggregate, Atlantic pebbles, Atlantic  cobbles , Celtic cobbles,  part worn boulders, candystone rockery, mixed polished pebbles, black polished pebbles, Cotswold chippings, Staffordshire chippings, plum slate chippings, blue slate  chippings, green slate chippings, Spanish white chippings, multi flit spar” etc etc.

But ever more make-believe neologisms shall never be an adequate substitute for everything that’s lacking in an urban landscape - which is everything, and then some.


Though Keylines that formerly had specialized in heavy-duty road building materials was never our building merchant of choice, we had on occasion dealt with the firm before. Keylines logo now appears on the front cover of Marshall’s brochure and is the latter’s principal retailing outlet. This suggests that ‘hard’ product is increasingly invading domestic space, the road, not the ecologically friendlier railway, now running through the middle of the house, in a manner of speaking.

We felt ignored at Keylines and that hacked us off. We weren’t purchasing in bulk nor were we buying one of Marshall’s set stone pieces to ‘creatively’ muck about with. Our order was worth piss, for all we wanted were nine metres square slabs of riven Indian sandstone. On the appointed delivery day, Keylines failed to show up, our stone given to another, more ‘worthy’ client. Looking back, it was not just the value of our order that had tipped the scales, but the fact that we would be measuring and cutting the stone, and therefore doing something Marshall’s ready-made, “limitlessly creative” order, would regard as a threat. Their “amazing” 3D software was not programmed to deal with what we were doing. We could not ‘plan’ what we doing down to the last detail, for it involved much trial and error. We did not have a screen image before us that showed us how the steps would look in the end. And so we were taken almost by surprise by the finished result. Two ‘throwbacks’ without hard hats and hi-viz jackets, we had been ‘de-professionalized’ as builders.

And that is why we began to get feedback from the street. Blasts from the past, we were approachable in a way that other building outfits, penned in by ready fencing and safety rules, were not. Bottom feeding locals found it natural to stop and chat. Within hours the ‘old’ Notting Hill had returned. Where had all these people been all our lives? Had they just moved into the area?  In fact they had been living around the corner for decades, only they had become hidden from view, every one of us who had ‘kept the faith’, going around like the invisible man / woman. We were still invisible but now only to the newcomers, who had taken full possession of the area in the noughties and whose presiding role models are Sam ‘n’ Sham (Samantha and David Cameron), though what had attracted them in the first place was the area’s former freewheeling past they would vampire until there was nothing left to suck dry.

The Indian stone was delivered on a wooden pallet, which we left propped up against the railings. However this did not present a disposal problem because, within minutes, an elderly black guy asked if he could take it: he was tinkering with a car engine and the pallet was an ideal bed on which to rest it. This request transported us back to the days when Notting Hill was a hive of informal back street workshops, and which showcased, in particular, the now forgotten about engineering skills of the resident black population. Once a ubiquitous feature in many UK cities, these skills have gone with the winds of de-industrialization and, with it, a hands on frame of mind that is no longer there, and that once was a lead up to the conviction the world could be changed. Cutting into the stone with a diamond disk threw up clouds of dust: drawn by the racket and ochre billows, another black guy complimented me on my masonry skills. I soaked up his compliments. At no point did one new comer take time out to even give us a second glance. As unseen as the air, we were not even taken for granted: we were simply not there.

Above: Old York stone steps Bradford. Above: Our ‘modern’ steps - via Rajasthan - Notting Hill, 2011.

Above. Interior stone steps Bradford. Late 19th century mill workers' terraced house.


We were pleasantly accosted by other ghosts from the past, each visitation equally revealing. Now that the job is finished, the streets are empty once more of real people. Was this a haunting, or what? Or are real people simply lacking a focus, something they feel is theirs and able to get to grips with? We were certainly agreeably surprised by the number of potential malcontents, all awaiting an opportunity to make their presence really felt.


These reinstated steps were for a member of a local housing coop. Housing coops often grew out of squatting, tenants granted legal, not just squatters, rights. Very much a feature of the 1970s, we had kept our distance from them, dismissing housing coop ideology as control of your own alienation. To be a member of a housing coop is to lose all privacy, this informal, liberal totalitarianism proving extremely effective in marginalizing the negative. It still angers me to recall how I was put in my place, at a maintenance meeting, because I was not an architect and therefore not entitled to pass an opinion. I was tempted to start raving about the death of architecture via the Situationists and the interlude of Constant. But I would have been met with complete incomprehension. So I bided my time and when revenge came it was sweet.

These steps had been repeatedly repaired, none of the repairs working including the recent attempt to tile them. These tiles had lifted and, in desperation, an architectural and engineer consultant had been brought in to give their professional opinion, which did not come cheap. Inspecting the steps ourselves for no money at all, we noticed wooden formers had been left in the worn down treads. Problem solved: the tiles would be bound to lift once the wood became damp and started to expand.

However the architect and engineer continued to maintain there was no wood in the step. And the management committee went along with them: they had to be right, they wouldn’t be consultants otherwise.  We were ordered to stop work instantly, which we took not one blind bit of notice of. This reconstitution of the division of labour from the bottom up, and deference to the status quo is central to housing coop ideology.  But for us, the proper place is at the bottom of the shit heap.

When we ironically told the committee not to fret, the Indian stone was ethically sourced, almost as one they replied “that’s good. We fully support ethical trading initiatives.” Not a shadow of a doubt had crossed their minds that these claims might prove bogus if conscientiously investigated and that they suited Marshall’s “trading initiative”. Imagine the outcry if Marshall’s had said in their brochure child labour keeps our prices down, which is good for you and good for Indian children because it puts bread in their mouths. It would amount to nothing less than commercial suicide. ‘Ethical’ investors would immediately withdraw their cash, not because they feared the sting of remorse, but they would the financial sting that would inevitably follow the chorus of disapproval. This is utilitarian ethics, which commands us to hearken to the penitential conscience of money (“conscience money”) that will assuredly turn bad money into good money eventually. This is not the critique of political economy but its moralization. It is symptomatic of a troubled bourgeoisie returning to its core values, one, that under the guise of morality, not only seeks to preserve wage labour but actually extend it, getting hot under the collar at the vast amount of bonded labour (i.e. slave labour) in India alone, where it is customary for debt burdens to fall on children if a parent dies.

What is for sure, the rising demand for authentic stone increases the incidence of child labour, there being an estimated one million children doing extremely dangerous work in India’s stone quarries. Marshall’s claims that it works with, and funds, Hadoti Hast Sansthan, an Indian NGO that seeks to improve the lot of quarry workers and their families. NGOs define the agenda of the people they are ‘helping’ and never spontaneously arise from the struggle of the people. They are a symptom of the failure of genuine struggle organized from the bottom up, not top down. The Marshall’s brochure displays a photo of children at an HHSS (Heritage, Horticulture, Skills Scheme) sponsored school  beneath which  there is one of Indian children lining up in front of a flag  bearing the Marshall’s name and trade mark insignia. In another, classrooms of ‘branded’ children are all wearing Marshall’s T shirts. Revealingly, Marshall’s is never named directly by organizations opposed to bonded and child labour, and which means they must fear court action. But we can be in no doubt it is Marshall’s they have in mind when they mock the companies claim no kids have been anywhere near the stone they retail at bargain basement prices. The crux of their objections,  (and it’s a compelling one), is that Marshall’s, and firms like them, cannot hope to monitor and control the supply chain, given the well organized, very powerful, near impenetrable nexus of quarry owners, politicians, child traffickers etc.

Above: Hypocritical aspects of Marshalls hyped brochure

The expanded reproduction of false assurances are a necessary part of capital and what goes for child labour also goes for the firm’s biodiversity credentials. The brochure states that “Marshall’s aims “to have a biodiversity action plans at every site by 2012”, an aim which has been “inspired by the UK’s first biodiversity benchmark accredited to a working site at Marshall’s Maltby site [South Yorkshire] in 2007 and our Stoke Hall Quarry in 2009”.  (In the meantime Maltby has become a noxious open cast coal mine). It is beyond the wit of anti slavery organizations, and the like, to even question, never mind critique, these claims in the same breath it does bonded labour, though it is obvious the same contradictory criteria apply. Under the protection  of a series of environmental awards environment groups are doubly  keen to bestow on commerce and  “which Marshall’s are justifiably proud” of,  what the company’s is really aiming for  is a planet of stone, made up of grandiose driveways, hard landscaping, paving and freeways.

Above: Marshalls further hypocritical pro-moing of conservation areas

Solely concentrating on the conditions of labour in Indian quarries, the merely reproving organizations that spring from the bad conscience of the bourgeoisie never go on to ask further questions: like, for instance, the impact of India’s vast stone quarries upon the international division of labour in relation to quarrying and masonry. Researching natural stone on the internet, I came across a firm in Bingley near Bradford that was equipped  with computer controlled cutting machines linked to a computer aided design department (CAD) that, in turn, had to hand  “experienced stone masons working alongside state of the art technology”. In comparison to the mass produced stone setts available from Marshall’s, this was the real value added article. Though it couldn’t hope to compete with Marshall’s on price, it could  ‘create something unique’, my piece of stone abomination, if not better than my neighbours, then at least different from theirs - and which I have paid through the nose for, in order to be a cut above them. Custom-made masonry like this involves working closely with the firm, something that is not possible if the firm happens to be in Rajasthan and even is equipped with video conferencing facilities. In contrast Marshall’s has a “register of installers”, though it has an overburden of staff whose job it is to advise and promote the firm. As part of its PR campaign, it has trained 50 of its staff in “Community Street auditing to provide feedback to create better street design”. In the brochure there is also a photo of Marshall’s employees gazing out over the Maltby nature reserve on an old pit spoil heap in South Yorkshire as if to say part of their employment contract requires they become naturalists and not just mere wage slaves.

“Leading by example” and “balancing  the economic, community and environmental”, Marshall’s has introduced the practice of` “payroll giving” that recalls that of the closed shop, trade union “check-off” and that frequently would be overseen by the company and acted as a further guarantor of shop floor stability. “Pay roll giving” is a substitute for that abandoned practice and helps protect the company from outside criticism and industrial conflict. A firm that presents itself as without blemish, its hands spotlessly clean, suggests it has something very dark to hide. Beyond denying they use child labour, the stone firms of Rajasthan don’t pretend to be anything like as public spirited and which at least has the merit of being more truthful.

Of course quarrying firms are mechanized in India, but their main outlay is on machines  that cut “sawn stone”, either on one side  (“riven finish”) or  both, the “squaring off`” still mostly manual and that gives a stone flag its tapered  look we used to good effect on the steps. There is not much call for CAD (Computer Aided Design) in stone product at this stage of India’s development.  However I doubt if quarrying in India that is overwhelmingly geared to bulk production today bears much resemblance to quarrying in Britain in the 19th century. Then there was a hierarchy of trades going from labourers who, using picks wedges and crowbars, were under the direction of delvers who were skilled in removing stone from the various beds, to bench masons who shaped the stone, to dressers who dressed the stone to produce sills, headers and lintels. Then there were the sawyers operating sawing frames and planers who finished the stone to produce ashlar blocks. Flags for paving were cut from bedding closer than 5cms, which means that with the aid of cutting machinery available in Rajasthan; at least 5 flags could be wrested from a 5cm block, a feat that a 19th century West Yorkshire delver would have said was impossible. This really is ‘value for money’ and time spent getting the stone out. As basic as it gets, there is nothing fancy about Indian stone production. It is simplicity itself. What is delved from sandstone bedding blocks and comes out banded with oxidized iron that paints and dapples the surface, is all that is needed to satisfy a growing western market for a ‘natural aesthetic.’ Sidestepping the hassle of changing anything, least of all the capitalist mode of production, this distressed aesthetic signifies living in harmony with nature. Though particularly appealing to catastrophically discontented suburbanites still clutching death-like at neo liberal straws, this seemingly inexhaustible product of the primary circuit of industrial exploitation is increasingly the hard standing of choice for  local councils throughout the UK. In fact its no-expense-spared look is a cheap form of pump priming, flagging up flagging property values with stone flags.

We have more or less come full circle and I am once more sitting in the Halifax public library, mindful this was where a pre situationist Ralph Rumney read De Sade in the presence of a clergyman. Only this time I was searching out information on how the moors of West Yorkshire had once been worked on an industrial scale, though nothing like the rocky landscapes of Rajasthan. There is nothing pristine about these ‘wild’ moorlands and I knew for a fact the delves and mounds of detritus left by former industrial workings had aided the incoming Green Hairstreak butterfly and that without them the colonization of the moors by them would not have happened to the extent it has done. These industrial tumuli, for the most part, did not appear on maps, and so what we were engaged on was a task of discovery, each day that we set out for these moorlands an adventure. We came to know these moors in a deep sense. A process that goes to the depths, it intimated at a new way of living. Not least, it meant treating nature not as a discrete object but something we are involved with, and change in the process. Only from this standpoint, can we begin to retrieve what’s relevant from the overall gobbledygook of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature that aspires to replace god with dialectics, or rather makes god into dialectics and thus the driving force behind all there is. Our wanderings also bore a clear link to the now threadbare practice of the derive, only this time it was man and nature, not a sundering of the two as formerly was largely the case. However this perception crept upon us unawares. When we initially ventured out, we deliberately chose to do so in the customary manner of 17th/18th/19th century naturalists. We were going to walk.

Researching the index of the Halifax Antiquarian Society led me on from quarrying to mining. And that’s how I serendipitously came across entries specifically dealing with the appalling conditions in the mines around Halifax in the 1830s and which led to the setting up of a Children’s Employment Commission in 1842 , specifically charged with dealing with mines. The government inspectors employed on these commissions, like Inspector Scriven who came to Halifax, uncommonly could not be silenced or bought off and won the admiration of Marx. My attention was caught by the indiscriminate mixing of boys and girls “all naked except their shifts and shirts” and in the dark “impossible to distinguish their sexes, girls from 5 to 18 performing all the works of boys”. Inspector Scriven concluded, “It is impossible to distinguish an atom of difference between one sex and another”.  A journey of inquiry that had started out from the Green Hairstreak had ended on the industrially androgynous. I wanted to throw these eye-opening revelations in the face of the librarian who clearly hated me simply because I was male, and who would not want to know how the history of capitalism is also that of the incomplete disordering of gender. (I dread to think what she would have thought of me if I had asked for a volume of De Sade!)

I was days away from the notes I took becoming immediately relevant. Indian stone did that. It came as a shock to realize that the conditions described in the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842 where being reproduced on a bigger scale than ever before. I was staggered to learn how, in the 1830s, 3 year old daughters of colliers would be employed to hold candles whilst their father hewed the coal. And here I was reading about how young girls, not yet in their teens, are today employed by their parents to  break hard stone into pebbles the size of walnuts, and which seem destined for India’s enormous road building program, India’s largely pre-concrete road system still dependent upon compression under the wheels of the many non-motorized vehicles for consolidation. We are disinterestedly told the labour of children in India’s quarries “supplement the earnings of their parents”. The unbearable reality is that, in the 1830s, colliers often lived off the earnings of pauper apprentices who would inevitably runaway and doss in old industrial workings, eating chucked candles for food. And given the amount of child trafficking in India, it is more than probable the same applies in India today. However, the size of India’s quarrying sector suggests an altogether greater control by capital than would be the case in 1830s’ West Yorkshire. And with this greater control comes power over the money in circulation, there being less opportunity than previously for the aspiring worker entrepreneur to get his greedy mitts on some of the blood money.

I am spending more and more time in Bradford, Richard Oastler’s (1789-1861) adopted city. He was the first to legislate into being childhood for the industrial poor beginning with the 1847 Factory Act that restricted children to a 10 hour day in the cotton mills. Now that left a lot of playtime, but Oastler, to his everlasting credit, had gone to jail, the price he was to pay for urging workers to strike and sabotage machinery. There is a statute to him and a shopping mall named after him in Bradford. This city in which East meets West and is no stranger to uprisings, is supremely well placed to bring to peoples’ notice the geopolitical division of the world into industrial and finance capital and how we walk all over the consequences of that division every time we set foot in the City Centre. So why not use Oastler’s statute as a starting point? It is important that we don’t get sidetracked by the emotive issue of child labour and get bogged down in a highly moral, partial protest like UK Uncut does, and that is the darling of the dissenting English middle classes but which unfailingly turns its back on a thoroughgoing critique of political economy.

Above left: Richard Oastler saving a pigeon. Above right: child labour and industrial androgyny in early 19th century Bradford.

In fact we had just returned from Bradford, where we had been engaged in a mammoth conservation project of our own choosing. Though another story, it is linked with our experiences around facing the steps in one vital respect - the amount of attention we attracted, some far from welcome where it involved the police and security. Turning over and seeding industrially derelict sites along a four km stretch along the valley floor from Shipley right into the heart of Bradford, we were approached, on numerous occasions, by curious people. Every chance encounter sparked, excepting that of security and the police, though even here the run-in (certainly not encounter, which implies dialogue) tended to blow up in their maggot eaten faces. The most memorable encounter came one Sunday morning. A real bruiser, dressed in army fatigues, came up to us, like he was spoiling for a fight. When we explained to him what we were doing, he raised his fist and said “up with the revolution”. He had got it in one. He had just been released from prison that morning. Not one bantering exchange, whilst working on the steps, cut through to the essential like this one did. Crystallizing everyone’s hopes, not just ours, it had to spring from the nature of what we were doing.

We do not for one moment doubt that what we are engaged in Bradford is of far greater consequence than the building work we do, even though the tools we were using are much the same, in particular saws and shovels. Perhaps it was the age old, unchanging nature of the tools that was a factor in loosening people’s tongues and helped put them at ease. Constrained by capitalism on every side, building awaits its realization. But what we do for nature now is wholly positive and cannot wait: and I do mean we, the people, and not official conservation bodies, whose job it is to bury nature under the ruse of resurrecting it. Lacking even a soft critique of capitalism that can be the only possible outcome.

These reflections close on a dialectical twist. What we are doing for butterflies (and others including human kind) in Bradford easily has more to with the built environment than any building we are currently occupied on. Not least, we are mounting a challenge to land banks, daring them to arrest us so we can censure the practice of sterilizing derelict land for years on end, in the expectation of making a killing that grows ever more remote. The first failed city of note in Britain, Bradford stands at a cross roads, its reinvention as a post industrial leisure city driven by retailing and property values having been swallowed whole by the enormous pit at the city’s heart. Already feeble attempts are being made to green it. The point is to wild this “best among ruins”, to coax into being what’s already struggling to take wing, our immediate aim is to bring the Common Blue into the city centre, a project just starting to get airborne. But this history belongs elsewhere………..


Further Notes. 2012

Above: An amazing Budd Wall in Shibden Dale, West Yorks

Below, Stone Cryptogram on St Georges Hall, Bradford built during the Chartist agitation in the city

The mute stones of West Yorkshire have an extraordinary tale to tell. But it is an overlooked history, barely meriting a footnote when compared to the woollen industry which it accompanies at every step. The years 1780 to 1840 see a vast increase in the quarrying and use of stone going from the numbers of individual weavers cottages constructed, to communal loom chambers with weavers cottages in rows and squares as master clothiers took control of the trade. Finally there comes the rapid growth of factories and towns in the valley bottoms with workers’ houses squeezed in amongst the factories. Meantime there is a great advance in the amount of land enclosed and, with it, the construction of dry stone walls, boundary posts, gate posts etc. each stage marks an increase in the division of labour as the activities of quarrying, fettling, preparation and stone masonry are increasingly ‘rationalized’ and separated out and as capital becomes ever more concentrated in fewer hands. This unprecedented extraction of stone tests the limits of the material itself and the ingenuity of stone masons, Calderdale in particular being especially innovative due to the steep sided valleys and the need to build on the precipitous slopes. Calderdale stones have a signature - one is tempted to say a mystery - all of their own. It is essentially unhoused stone, as if it was straining against the uses to which it has been put and alone privy to the real meaning of Jacob’s stone pillar and ladder.

Quarrying and stone masonry in West Yorkshire has never been systematically investigated and all there is to go on are occasional articles in the annals of local history societies and snippets from pamphlets put out by tourist boards like the Heritage Pennine Network- and then largely focussed on the earlier stages of the woollen industry located, as it was, in the sylvan valleys of West Yorkshire - mainly in the shape of farm houses (laithehouses) multi storied weavers cottages built from local stone, these stop-off points form part of dedicated tourist trails, a controlled perambulation with the sole intention of boosting revenues from the tourist trade. History for the sake of history, the last thing tourist historicism wants is a creative re-engagement with the past with a view to seizing the present.

I largely became aware of the stones of West Yorkshire as if in a fog. Disused quarries and heaps of spoil over time had become wild life havens and formed a constant background to our researches on butterflies in West Yorkshire. Might not the towns and cities eventually partake of these riches? And so the notion of the wilding of cities was born. Creeping upon us gradually the intractable crash of 2007-8, combined with the onset of major climate change, gave it the urgency it had previously lacked. As shop after shop closed, the town centres of West Yorkshire seemed to shudder as if the flood waters of apocalypse were upon them. As the death sentence of consumerism was pronounced, the buildings that composed them became increasingly emptied of meaning and the stones began to speak in a new way as if inviting reuse and reinvention. This disordering of the senses, this splitting of ordinary vision verging on madness and disrupting the continuities of past, present and future are signposts to a very different reality as yet to be constructed. This disorientation / reorientation is increasingly commonplace as the old tried and tested responses to capitalist social and economic crises fail as never before. Townscapes especially become scenes of deranged visual commotion and individual stones would stand out like they alone possessed unshakable meaning. And it was in this frame of ‘mind’, of unnerving double-vision with a foot in two worlds, that I first noticed a decorative stone just above pavement level on the Leeds Road front of St Georges Hall in Bradford (see above photo). I had passed it countless times before but only now did I see it was a cryptogram in gritstone encoding some type of message. This hall had been built at the height of the Chartist agitation and Bradford was in a state of real, not merely visual, flux with dual power reigning in much of the nascent city, the iron foundry of Low Moor, for example, turned over (‘redirected’) to the making of arms for the revolution. Perhaps the encryption is innocent. But perhaps not and what appears to be a cathedral and numbers evolving out of hieratic foliage, a critique in stone that might have appealed to Ruskin had he seen it on the two occasions he visited Bradford, for it signifies a degree of individual, on the job, autonomy denied to the industrial working class but an everyday reality to a stone mason.


Above left: The One Eyed Cat. Above right: Leaf Mask stone. High Sunderland Hall, Halifax.

I have no idea where this cat’s head came from in West Yorkshire but its angular shape suggests it was once was the keystone of an arch. However, presiding over the entrance to what? A barn, a house or a laithehouse which combined both living space and barn under one roof? and it is not the work of a skilled stone mason rather the product of a quarryman turning his hand to stone carving and who would not regard it as art, or even craft for that matter, but as living, something in the stone itself which he revealed by peeling away the layers. Such an approach is Romano-British in origin and goes back to the Roman Conquest when local tribes began to imitate the Roman practice of carving representational heads in stone instead of using the skulls of dead animals. However the aim was very different and meant to evoke a presence, the very idea of taking a step back to admire the sculpted form, an aesthetic recoil utterly alien to the Ancient Brits. It would take centuries to inculcate the practice to the point where it became habitual and therefore a fact of ‘nature’.

There is a small head on a 17th century farmhouse in Calderdale that is so unobtrusive people pass by without noticing it. Of course these heads that look out and shy away from being looked at, invariably underwrite a strong ancestral link to the land, the farmstead passing from one generation of a family to another. The heads are not about show any more than the farmsteads are and rather emphasize endurance, unchangingness and the persistence of custom. Now contrast this with the Ozymandian, look-at-me arrogance of the carvings that command the entrance to a 19th century mill in Bradford where myth and allegory wreathe the mug of the now long forgotten owner and dereliction stretches way into the distance. Only a shell of stone now remains - and decomposing signs advertising the building is for sale or ripe for conversion into luxury flats or industrial and commercial units. The offers will never be taken up  but the longer they stand empty the more it feeds the appetite to occupy and transform - if only in a narrowly utilitarian fashion to relieve a housing shortage but with a promise of free form building to come.

Though the 19th century was the heyday of the West Yorkshire stone mason in terms of numbers employed in the trade, skill in execution and emptiness of content, it was already being fatally undermined by a range of industrial techniques from jacquard type templates to mechanically operated stone saws. When John Ruskin visited Bradford around 1871, it was against the background of a masons’ strike and the dilution of formerly skilled work brought on by the introduction of stone cutting machinery. As a result there was no longer a workforce with the necessary manual skills able to even marginally imbue with renewed life “the nature of gothic” in his Stones of Venice, Bradford, of all industrial cities, the most promising modern surrogate in Ruskin’s eyes because it was hewn out of stone and therefore bound to possess something like the necessary skills base, and there was also a canal more fetid than anything in Venice which mesmerized Ruskin, for it was the living embodiment of hell, the contents of this devil’s ink horn periodically bursting into flames.


Below: Gravestones


Above: Tombstone roof tile Heptonstall in Calderdale. Above: Tombstone railway embankment near Leeds City Station. Above: Tombstone paving. 

Gravestones are everywhere in West Yorkshire, a constant reminder of the availability of Yorkshire stone. It rained stone - and it also meant the less well off could afford a head stone, unlike in other districts where stone was at a premium and where a carved headstone was a synonym of wealth. Their ubiquity casts pallor of death over West Yorks, especially as overtime they have become blackened with soot, the dun of hell stained in parts with a green slime as if the decomposing contents of the grave beneath had percolated upwards. Such is their number they have, in many instances, lost their sanctity and are irreverently displaced and made to serve other purposes - for example as a tile on a porch roof of a church in Heptonstall in Calderdale  and which amounts to saying  the church also now believes god is dead! They can also function as ballast, a displaced graveyard on a railway embankment in Leeds city centre also an additional reinforcement against land slip.

Gravestones are also an indicator of literacy - and a protest in these parts against Royalist ostentation. As such they hark back to the ideals of the English Civil War of the 1640s. Following the restoration, the decoration of houses declines somewhat, elaborate carvings judged a form of monarchical apostasy. At the same time gravestones become more personalized, the common practice of putting the name of the deceased on a tombstone emerging only in the 17th century. They become, in addition, a substitute vehicle upon which masons can show off their skill, there being a big increase in trompe l’oeil effects and intricate floral and abstract scroll work. Tombstones were, if you like, sealed books in stone that could never be opened, for they hid a great, unmentionable secret that goes back to the civil war. Could this be the reason why a line in Meg Merrilies, written by John Keats in Scotland in 1818, had stuck in my mind? Meg lives for herself alone “upon the Moors”, having no house or occupation other than what she has chosen, simply giving away, not even bartering the mats she weaves. A life of ideal freedom, “her book [is] a churchyard tomb”. Walking to Kirkcudbright after having composed the ballad, Keats sees a promise of something else in poverty: the bare feet of the girls they passed display the “beauty of the human foot that had grown without unnatural restraint”.


Hugh Miller (1802-1859) Stone Mason, Scriptural geologist, Suicide

In an engraving, Miller is standing by a headstone, mallet in one hand, cold chisel in the other. It could well have been the last headstone he ever carved-that for his dead daughter. Hugh Miller, the quarry man and the insights that came from being a peripatetic stone mason have been largely ignored and what has come down to us is the safe stereotype of the scriptural geologist “holding a bible in one hand and a fossil fish in the other”, adroitly reconciling the antithetical claims of science and religion. His extraordinary suicide was interpreted as a warning not to get involved in the nascent, Manfred-like, discipline of geology, for that way unbearable guilt for doing unspeakably wrong lay (e.g. Byron`s poem Manfred is set in a mountain fastness at the very moment upheavals in the earth’s crust are just beginning to be understood).

And indeed there is something ‘romantic’ about Miller’s suicide, dream and reality becoming dangerously confused and eventually turning into a nightmare which there is no awakening from. Yet it is this blurring of dream and reality that make his descriptions of rocks fossils and landscapes so captivating, like he had entered another, crystalline, world, a god sphere. He spoke of himself, like the shepherd Endymion, of “dreaming abroad when awake” and visiting a quarry he finds “a richer scene of wonder than I could have fancied in my dreams”. Contrary to conventional opinion, reality here compensates for what is lacking in the dream and there is something almost ‘symbolist’ about his descriptions of what actually is. He describes how he climbed a cliff face passing “from ledge to ledge like the traveler of the tale through the city of statues”. This image could easily have found a place in one of Rimbaud`s Villes. Having failed as a poet, composing a book of verse whilst a quarryman, (Ploughman Burns was the obvious role model), Miller mines a richer vein, opting to describe things as they are and which implies a rejection of the poetic imagination as then conceived: “I found my imagination paralyzed by an assemblage of wonders that seemed to out rival the fantastic and the extravagant even its wildest conceptions”. Conscious of how words fail, he even undergoes a crises of expression that anticipates Mallarmé’s claiming he “couldn't put two thoughts together”.

No other geologist before or since has undergone the same gamut of emotions, crossed the frontiers of so many ‘trade’ demarcations only to finally founder as did Hugh Miller. For this reason, and leaving aside his failed efforts to reconcile science and religion, he remains the  most hip, the most contemporary of all geologists even in his reaction and,  most especially, because of his anticipatory surrealist madness.

Miller fascinates because his life encompasses so many different fields. It is of incomparably greater interest than his ‘professional’ contemporaries like Hutton, Lyell, Buckland and Agassiz. I have italicized professional because when Miller practiced his several trades that of geology was only just beginning to be recognized. He adopts a personal, even autobiographical style of writing that markedly contrasts with the cool detachment of his gentlemanly peers. He is passionately involved, completely lost, in his subject and vivid details of what it was like to be a journeyman stone mason spontaneously appears in his texts. Describing the squalid conditions of bothy accommodation, he relates how a laird deliberately left a hovel unrefurbished for “occasional droves of pigs or a squad of masons”. He should have been a radical worker, a more scientifically inclined Burns with the beginnings of a radical critique of poetry. Unbelievably he was not and remained unsympathetic to Chartism and trade unionism whilst denouncing the conditions that brought them about. His most famous book, The Old Red Sandstone of 1842, pitches into a denunciation of Chartism in the fourth sentence of the opening page, counseling young workers not to attend Chartist meetings and not to upset the class structure which will only result  “in a second Cromwell or Napoleon at their head”!

A final note on the madness of Hugh Miller: Like other geologists who began as believers, he was convinced the record of the rocks would provide proof of god’s existence. However he  ended up doubting the earth was created in 7 days and  instead proposed that in biblical terms a day could last millions of years, having its origin in the first half of the 19th century, today’s creationists regularly incant the same piece of sophistry. Miller viewed “strata as making up the geologist’s book, the layers pages we may turn over, these wonderful leaves one after the other like the leaves of a herbarium - though the leaves of this interesting volume are of deep black”. So, once more, we are back with the image of the book which the tombstone was a homolog of to the stonemasons of Calderdale - only this time it held in its pages an unpalatable truth and that if we are to experience heaven it is up to us to construct it, for it exists nowhere else. The stonemasons of Calderdale subcutaneously picked up on this vibe coming from the civil war of the 1640s whereas Miller did not, the betrayal of his hopes helping send him mad. And so his eye grew dim, the contours of self that had formerly wrapped itself around the “assemblage of wonders” become constricted by primeval demons as the fossil record told another story wholly incompatible with that of the Creation. He left an extraordinary suicide note that began, “My brain burns. I must have walked; and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought”.
If the ignored stones of Bradford are to live again as part of the wilding of the city we must reconnect with the history of stone and re-imagine its psychological importance if we are to rebuild from the bottom up for the first time ever. The above potted histories, particularly that of the tombstone and Hugh Miller, are a beginning.........



Above: Fossil in a stone wall Above: Disordered graves

Comments on the Rocks and Stones of Huddersfield by the Huddersfield Geology Group 1998.

The above photo on the left is taken from a pamphlet put out by the Huddersfield Geology Group in 1998. The 20 excellent colour photos are all descriptive and for that reason would never end up as picture post cards (even though they have had their day, excepting the few dull examples that still can be found in tourist information offices). The booklet casts an inquiring gaze over a local landscape and is exemplary on that account alone. This, despite its limitations, is citizen science at its best. At the same time it avoids the question of a re-engagement with the landscape, a question that has become burningly relevant in the 14 years that have passed since its publication. The fact that it fails to happen has more to do with the situation of generalized lock down we now find ourselves in, than with mind control.

The fact that it has been put together by ‘amateurs’ (to use that most condescending of terms) is evident from the way it deals with matters that  professional geologists have no time for, as their discipline becomes ever more specialized - and ‘irrelevant’ we might also add. In the mid 19th century, geology was gripping stuff in more ways than one, responsible for putting religion on the rack, acute psychological breakdown, mesmerizing fascination as fossilized life forms, surpassing the Homeric imagination, came to light - and  finally raising  searching questions on the why of class division, especially when a  mere stonemason like Miller was able to hold his own with “the gentleman of fortune”  and still  bring something to the subject they could not: actual muscle. “The working man”, he wrote, “enjoys better opportunities for arriving at just decisions”. That the working person gets the better part of the bargain has a Marxist even Hegelian ring to it. A couple of decades earlier, an industrial surveyor and self taught geologist, Strata Smith, (and how much he learnt on the job from canal navies, miners etc is anyone’s guess) had regretted that the  “theory of geology was in possession of one class of men, the practice in another.”

The Rocks and Stones of Huddersfield is, in part, a riposte to this growing division of labour, devoting several paragraphs to explaining who was responsible for quarrying the rock in the first place, (delvers and the less skilled labourers they directed), and the graded hierarchy of masons who worked the stone -pitchers, fettlers, finishers, planers, sawyers, up to highly skilled dressers. But this is a far as it goes, there being no mention of strikes, internecine trade demarcation disputes etc. Given the numbers employed in the industry, Chartism must have exercised a huge influence. Yet we know next to nothing on that score. The authors, in short, stop the stones from really speaking and dancing to the Orpheus of revolution. Had they done so, the offer of financial help from Kirklees Environmental Initiative, the Curry Fund of the Geologists Association etc would have been instantly withdrawn.

And so we see as through a glass darkly. The same can be said of the two photos reproduced above. They are ‘aware’ photos. The stone out of which the gate post at Hichcliffe Mill is fashioned has scarce been touched by pitchers, as if they had broken off in the middle of what they were doing, leaving the job half finished. The tooled surface has a similar desultory look to it, like the dresser couldn’t be arsed either. And yet it is beautiful, ‘chosen’ by us because of the legacy of avant-garde art. And it matters greatly it is not in a museum and still in use, to judge from the wrought iron gate still hanging from it. Though originally produced as commodities, the in situ gate post and wrought iron gate owe their delight to not yet having ascended to the top of the commodity hierarchy and becoming artistic commodities.

A knowing eye looking at the photo of old bricks taken in strong sunlight would immediately be reminded of Carl Andre’s 1970s brick installation, which can be said to have founded the archly reactionary, post modern craze, for installation. We rather think the photographer was playing on this association but would never be candid enough to admit it-at least not in this booklet, for it would have thrown wide open it its restricted purview just as any mention of capitalism and class struggle was likely to do. Carl Andre’s piece caused me to shut my eyes, this photo to open them. Whenever I see old bricks poking out of piles of rubble in West Yorkshire, I am now tempted to take a look, a habit which is pretty much down to this one photo - and the accompanying text to do with the local ganister and fire clays. I marvel at the varieties of bricks, their colouring, texture, lettering and reflect how dull and homogeneous the standardized bricks of today are in comparison.



Above: Two different Mayan like gates in Shipley West Yorks

Above: Old and newish Gate posts in Eccleshill Above: Stone conscious art heritage with -out of sight - 4 wheel drive, Queensbury, West Yorks


Above: Stone Crop and Herb Robert growing on York stone roof tiles Above: Riven stone slab garden wall, Gt Horton, Bradford



West Yorkshire, including Bradford, was rich in prime building stone -paving, walling, roofing, the latter stone tiles called thacks from which comes the expression “working like a thacker” and whose original meaning is lost on those who tend to use it the most. It is most commonly encountered in former coal mining areas, which says something and suggests mining, quarrying and building were once closely allied. Having only ever replaced slate tiles, I cannot begin to understand, from my own experience, why thacking was such an arduous occupation. Heavy, yes, difficult yes, especially the fixing of the stone tile to the rafters. But the most unremitting job of all? On the very rare occasions I see an old roof being tiled in stone, I am always tempted to shout up to the roofers and ask “How’s it going”? Invariably covered in soot, they are never the picture of happiness and I would, in all likelihood, be thought a pratt for daring to ask.

Formerly, pure stone was the most valued and the oxidized stone cast to one side as inferior,  to be used as  ‘red insiders’ on inside walls in the houses of the well to do, prestigious factory headquarters, civic buildings etc where they would be covered with lime based plaster. But in old farm buildings, rural dwellings, the gable ends of terraced houses (like in the photos reproduced here) stone was stone and mattered little how it looked and whether the colour remained uniform throughout. By a species of inversion typical of commodity society, this motley effect is now the most prized and commands a higher real estate value than does the mass manufactured look of the builders plan. However the opposite was once the case not that long ago, this process essentially beginning with the discontinuance of large scale quarrying and the post war looting of piles of unwanted disjecta strewing quarry floors for garden walls, crazy paving etc. This re-evaluation begins with an aggressively suburban, and necessarily peripheral, do it-yourself approach to building that ignores the larger, more urgent, question of architecture and urbanism in toto that became uppermost from the mid 1950s.

Fact: the 1854 ordinance survey maps show hundreds of sandstone and flag quarries around Huddersfield alone, their number possibly amounting to thousands when West Yorkshire is viewed as a whole. Fact: 1,300 quarries in the UK produce £3bn of products every year. Fact: one third of SSSI sites are old quarries for invertebrate biodiversity. Fact: One third of 7000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest are geoscience based.

Above left: "Red Insiders" in Bradford. Above far right: Red Insiders on which is superimposed a chimney in Eccleshill, Bradford


The conservation of sites of geological significance is a late comer to the conservation scene. There is now a UK geo-conservation commission, the UK having over 3,500 local geological sites and an emerging national UK geo diversity action plan. The commission argues correctly “nature is not just about living things - its mountains and minerals too.” and that without soil, hydrology, lithography, diversity of altitude, there would be no biodiversity. To raise public awareness and broaden its appeal, the chair, taking his cue from the shameful legacy of the monetization of biodiversity, (and that goes right back to its founder E.O. Wilson), immediately monetizes conservationist geoscience. “We value” the chair says “our metal, alloys, our gold, silver, platinum and our gemstones.”  This was in June 2011, four years into possibly the biggest, most intractable, economic crises capitalism has ever faced. There is no first person plural here, only a ‘they and we are heartily sick of accountancy terms like “natural capital” rather than nature, of “eco system services” rather than natural processes and studies called “the economics of eco systems and biodiversity” - TEEB -which was the acronym given in 2007 to a team of economists and bankers to do the same for nature what Lord Stern did for climate change title. (In the age of amnesia now become Alzheimer’s, who now remembers Lord Stern’s ‘notorious’ indictment of climate change as “the greatest, most wide ranging market failure ever”?) With everything still apparently hunky dory in the market place, Stern’s deification of market values is, at least, understandable even though moronic. Today it is the madness of all madness. One hears little of market solutions (or any official solution, come to that) to the burning question of climate change nowadays, even though the effects of climate change are daily more evident. But  not so the determination to draw up a ledger of natures economic values covering entire eco systems, which are still little understood in terms of the connectedness (and hence real ‘value’) of each part to the whole.  The whole of nature must now go under the auctioneer’s manic hammer, even though securing a quick sale of the last meaningful item on the planet ends up costing the earth.

The following entries are from my diary and give some indication of what I then called, in the late 1990s,   the ‘gemification’ of geology and fossils. Little did I know it, but they were an anticipation of things to come, though on a much bigger scale.


Extracts from a geology notebook

26th October 1998

Visited the gem and mineral fair. Though learning how to cut stone and recognize them attracts me, the craft side appalls me. There is something so trivial and petite bourgeois about it. I also hated the price tags on every item most carefully displayed in little boxes with little labels saying what kind of mineral it was and where it came from. There were also a couple of stands displaying fossils ,all neatly set off with labels saying where they came from what they were and  from what geological epoch .e.g. Trilobite, Powys, 470 million years ago, Devonian. I was loathe to purchase any of them, even though I could not resist being fascinated with their age. Since when has  fossil hunting become a trade to be included in a gem and mineralogical fair? Many stands displayed jewellery and precious stones and I picked up a catalogue advertising gemmological instruments.reet Sure enough the premises were in Greville St not far from the City of London. This was a hedge against inflation and commodities market territory. I noticed how expensively dressed some people were which struck me as unusual. I thought of Marx’s aesthetic rejection of capitalism in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts where “economic man” can only see the value of a stone not its beauty. I did ask the price of a piece of lapis lazuli which, when weighed, came to £28. Later on I bought a piece of rhodochrosite but because the woman on the stall boasted of her connections with Oxford University, I nicked a bit and gave it to B. Honour had been partially salvaged.

6th December 1998

Went to the amateur Geological Society’s annual fair at Golders Green, west London. The admission price was 50p so 50p cheaper than for the Mineralogical and Gem Fair. The stall holders were the same, the atmosphere was generally friendlier-in fact I even talked to a stall holder from Co Durham. I had overheard one visitor saying to her that he had begun by collecting rock samples on his travels and now he wished to identify them. The stall holder replied saying that was how they got into the business. Somehow I got talking to her, mentioning the fact my great grandfather was an ironstone miner from Egremont in Cumbria. It seemed to impress her as she mentioned it to her husband. She showed me a piece of igneous iron ore from Cumbria as well as various crystals from re-opened mines in Cumbria. Their price ranged from £18 to £80, some as much as £250 to £350. She also said she and her husband had reopened an old mine in Weardale in Co Durham and the only way it was possible to descend the shaft was by a bosun chair just like at Gaping Ghyll below Ingleborough. At the moment a mini waterfall was preventing access. Obviously it can be a highly profitable hobby and there is a tendency in ‘the trade’ (understood in the business sense of the term) to keep locations secret - so I was rather surprised by her honesty. I remember at the gem fair I had attended at Swiss Cottage in the autumn, I had picked up a small piece of lapis lazuli and asked the price. I felt I was being judged on appearance and when the little rock fragment was weighed it came in at £30. End of story!

Even so I did notice a tendency, even amongst the amateur geologists, to ‘gemmify’ everything by giving all rock samples, no matter what, a polish. Even pebbles from the beach were given a semi precious look. (It is possible to purchase a little machine with a rotating drum containing carborundum stones from around £40). The same went for the typical seaside fossils like ammonites, (fossils which went extinct the same time as did dinosaurs), receiving the characteristic glossy hue of precious stones and then tastefully mounted in Perspex boxes. Made into artefacts, something was lost in the process. Their ‘living’ quality had gone a further fossilerous process involving art and decoration added to the original fossil. There is even a shop specializing in Jurassic fossils in the steel town of Scunthorpe, their owners no doubt plundering the famously fossil rich cliffs of Ravenscar, Whitby, Runswick Bay, Staithes,etc.  I wonder how long the fossil trade will be permitted to continue. Museums i know, purchase specimens from these fairs, probably arguing but for the diligence of fossil hunters, much would be lost to posterity. But any fair exhibiting animal pelts, birdskins, butterflies and moths or pressed wild flowers would be quickly closed down even though there maybe no definite legal interdiction against it (excepting of course listed species). At the car boot sale I go to on a Sunday there was stall that regularly sold little glass cases of butterflies and moths-dead stock pinned down either singularly or in twos and threes. Last Christmas they were even advertised as novel Christmas presents! But that was the last time I saw the stall and maybe he was asked to shut up shop and go.

In fact the amateur geological society had something of the scrum of the car boot sale and something of a church bring and buy about it. Apart from glossy nature books for children, there was a stall selling rubber dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters as stocking fillers. There was also a stall of home made jams and a woman selling butterfly cakes and what not- and tea at only 20p.

I did manage to purchase a book (second hand) The Mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland by Gregg and Lettson. I think it must be one of the classic text books as it was first published in 1858, going through many subsequent editions and a comprehensive update. What is special about the book is that it does pinpoint where rocks and minerals are to be found. All recent books on mineralogy do not do this as if wanting to discourage the collecting minerals samples. I do wonder if mineralogy, in providing details of specific locations, was the first branch of natural history to actually do so, a practice that was to be followed by other natural history specialists like e.g. Edward Newman in his ground breaking book on British lepidoptera published in the 1850s. Of course the mapping of geological strata and mineral deposits was massively influenced by the development of industrial capitalism and the same cannot be said for butterflies and moths though it was influenced in less obvious ways (the non conformist scienticism of the 19th century seeking emancipation from scientific scholasticism) but also on a subjective level-the hunt for variations and the most striking possible variety-an anesthetization/sanitization  of the Victorian freak show and a desire to escape from increasing uniformity and deadness through the cult of natural marvels.


Above: Liesegang ring photos from Bradford city centre deploying the new Rajasthan stone having discarded Elland flags.

Random photos of leisegang rings in ‘york’ stone (i.e. Rajasthan stone) laid around a signature bus shelter erected in 2011 to much fanfare and wide open to the elements. This anti-shelter with a roof so tall it affords no protection whatsoever from the slanting rain marks the southern boundary of the precincts of Bradford City Hall. Laid for aesthetic effect, the rings that ripple across the paving stones are most visible after a shower of rain. The stone slabs are about as substantial as sliced bread and, in due course, the pedestrianized area will resemble crazy paving, for the thin slabs crack under the slightest pressure. Not included are outstanding examples of leisegang rings I noticed around the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, on returning home from a violent student demonstration in late 2010 ostensibly against a rise in tuition fees but really more against the destructive totality of the capitalist present. I missed the best shot of all when, examining the leisegang rings in Bradford, a well worn Eid shoe on the foot of an Asian girl appeared in the view finder of my camera. On the embroidered leather tongue, the word ‘rebel’ had been stencilled.

The varied and warm palette of the leisegang rings is a reminder of the origin of life on earth and the chemical exchange between the organic and inorganic. Leisegang rings, minus the CO2 are the truth of Gaia writ in stone. How very ironical to think the effects of this exchange, and once the mark of corrupted stone, are now at an aesthetic premium, and an adornment of power at the very moment life on earth is so threatened.  The showcasing of something beautiful is the harbinger of death here, just as it is in every other instance where display is paramount.
A definitive explanation of banded iron formations is still wanting but most agree it is the product of photosynthesizing bacteria in the oceans, the oxygen from which combines with weathered, ‘black’ iron washed from continental rocks at a time in earth’s history when there was little oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere to redden it. Ruskin was the first to fully appreciate the unadulterated purity, the pale gold, of Bradford stone. Yet he was  also fascinated by the several stages of rust, its ceaseless, transforming power the promise of a more varied, industrially ‘fantastic’ future in which the organic is given its due, a view that goes someway to explaining why sites of industrial dereliction are so liberating and inspiring-and not only in Bradford. An enzyme amongst metals, rusting iron was the coral of mineralogy, though the state of geological knowledge was not then sufficiently advanced for Ruskin to adequately link the high grade magnetite ore that dazzled him in the barges plying the Bradford Canal with the oxidized iron shales moving in solution between the joints and bedding plates of sediment laid down 900 million years ago. Fors Clavigera was partially the outcome of his uphill, almost non existent contact with the working people of Bradford and Bingley in which he called for an end to free market liberalism and its replacement by a high Tory Bolshevism. The book concludes “There is no wealth but life”. Perhaps he also should have added but for rust there would neither be wealth nor life.

Stuart Wise: August 2011 (Additional notes and photos, July 2012)