‘The Flooded Clay Pit’
These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;
The whole clay-belly sags.
What scenes far
Beneath those waters: chimney pots
That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.
Those iron rails
Emerge like claws cut short on the dump
Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:
Now only toads and snails
Creep round their loosed nails.
Those thin tips
Of massive pit-bed pillars – how
They strain to scab the pool’s face now,
Pressing like famished lips
Which dread the cold eclipse.
The Clay is a world unto itself and Jack Clemo is its laureate, its advocate; its voice and ears.
I would hazard that our county is not particularly noted for its native literary output. In literary terms, we have produced no real giants other than those we weave into our folklore.
Compare Kernow with the other lands sharing the ‘Celtic Fringe’, there is no one hailing from this little fist that shares the same international or historical prestige as Yeats, Joyce, Thomas or Burns. The most famous of those who pulled their words from the Cornish air are visitors, established already in the English heartlands before they settled or worked here.
It seems to me poetry does not feature prominently in Cornish veins. Pragmatism and industry maybe, a lean towards rough straightforwardness over grace and subtlety – tell it how it is rather than how it could be.
It is perhaps then of little surprise that the man I would consider to be our greatest poet owes a large part of his zeal and inspiration to what was once, for a period, one of Cornwall’s most lucrative and marked industries.
Clemo was born unto the Clay. St. Stephens is a granite hewn little town, the historical heart of the Clay Country; itself a patch of upland outside of St. Austell that consists one of the granite knuckles of Cornwall – the Cornubian Batholith.
You would not know it today but the Clay Country was once an area of moorland of the same ilk as Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and West Penwith. The Tors are now long-buried within the white waste of the Clay Mining process. White Pyramids and tiered, mossy Ziggurats now dominate the land. Remnants of the old moor can be found though, if you look hard: St Mewan Beacon would be one such example.
The force of industry, to transform a moor to giant heaps of waste, of the great iron pressure hoses – used to blast clay from granite – and the power of dogmatic non-conformism was harnessed by Clemo and poured into his words an impetus that is hard to ignore or forget.
Clemo’s poetry inevitably echoes his landscape and heritage; it is not beautiful, graceful or erudite, rather it is blunt, bleak, heavy and confrontational. Parallels can be drawn here to the affirmedly Welsh poet R.S Thomas in their shared, tenacious pugnacity.
Jack was deaf from an early age and he lost his sight as he grew – possibly through congenital syphillis (his Father, a clay kiln worker, sowed his oats as he worked in the Americas as a Miner). His Mother was, by all accounts, a powerful and intense woman, absolutely resolute in her Methodist, non-conformist beliefs which she pressed on to her vulnerable and physically weak son.
Through an allegorical will and effort he pulled and ripped words from memory and his voracious reading and forced them together on his pages.
Clemo saw, in his youth, a moorland powered and forced into something else, something that is on first (second and third) glance crude and ugly. His work furthered this process. He contrived his landscape into poetry and thus forced the clay into the aesthetic or poetic using the literary equivalent of a blast hose. Mining his memory and blending the product with his considerable intellect, emotion and religious feeling. Transmogrifying industrial waste into poetic product.
The Clay Industry is largely dead today, outsourced and outcompeted. Most China Clay production now occurs in Brazil where labour, machinery and land are far cheaper. Imerys, the French mining firm who took over the ECC in 1999 oversaw this move in the rapidly and rabidly globalised economy. They seem to keep the faded Fal Valley pits open and working out of pity rather than any real profit.
The majority of the pits are now left to grow over. The churned up, heavily alkaline land does not allow much to grow. From a distance the stunted gorse and scrubland flora looks like moss covering a building.
They are maturing though, these desolate and dusty hill are turning greener over time and slowly becoming characterful and oddly beautiful. Much as Clemo’s poetry has settled and ripened since his death, becoming more and more robust and esteemed.
The odd, monolithic geometry of the Clay Country looms over my hometown – reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness. Dead centred in the county, from either coast you can watch the rain and mist brew over its tiered and conical peaks, dividing the weather between south coast and north. It is the artificial buffer of the prevailing winds and often when the mizzle forms and settles over St. Austell you will find sun and warmth on the north coast beaches.
My primary school was less than three miles from the Clay. Blackpool Pit and Trewoon Dryers loomed over it.
I have a vivid memory of the whole school crowded on one side of the junior playground on a grey, humid September lunchtime. Tiny hands latched on the tall diamond holed fence as we watched a pitch-black cloud rear up over the hill (above). Spilling rolls of thunder down to us and jabbing the earth with lightning, our rapture slowly turned to ripples of panic as it dawned that this elemental squall was creeping incrementally nearer. Urgently ushered indoors as the same realisation came over those on duty.
Hence I identify with Clemo’s inspiration, I admire his poetry because these brutalist burial mounds of industry impose on a childhood imagination. They were volcanoes, mountains and something else far beyond my grasp. That something is still beyond my grasp it seems, but not Clemo’s.
Clemo made the Clay his and played an instrumental part in the slow transformation of their appeal, to me at least.
Now the Clay with its death knell is trying to appeal to the now dominant tourist industry. Although it is perhaps slowly succeeding in this it is still a nexus of poor, isolated and barren communities (albeit with excellent names – Meledor, Treviscoe and Trezaise) that form their own lunar and insular peculiarity.
Despite this it has what many impoverished areas do not. Its own lyrics. Which in turn allows it something empowering, something transcendent. Much as Clemo’s work was to his own life.