Letter from London: Mine Games

A writer friend of mine living on an island near Seattle messaged me last week while flying over Iceland with his daughter. He said they had had a sudden urge to visit Scotland to spend some quality time together working out what the daughter wanted to do with her life after a few of those health wobbles in the road that we can all encounter. ‘Every time I think life is going to be one thing,’ my American friend texted, ‘it turns.’ He said it also feels like an exam paper which keeps producing another page just after you think you’ve answered the last question: ‘And the questions keep getting harder,’ he texted. After landing, they set off with their backpacks and sent a photograph reminiscent of that Robert Burns line, ‘Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide.’ The next message was something surreal about meeting six Scottish soldiers: ‘All amazing golfers with three handicaps.’ Over the next few days, however, my friend and his daughter appeared to find clarity among the sloping landscape and poetry of the place, though Scotland had just learned that their government couldn’t legislate for another referendum without approval from London. Young souls will and can rebel, I was thinking. As it happened, the artist down here was dealing tangentially with some young people, not our own but the daughter of an artist she mentors, for example. It must be so hard when you are young and constantly mauled by people who should know better. Not to mention saddled with debt for university degrees which due to the pandemic were seldom experienced in person. Not to mention a major war in Europe and a nosediving economy. All mashed up with a wretched form of patriotism. The last thing people should be targeting right now are our young. We should be looking deeper within ourselves instead.

Talking of depths, the international mining community came into town last week to attend a conference in the City of London. I don’t know what the collective noun for miners should be but given the fact that they are pretty much banished as a topic from certain quarters of polite society these days, an ‘underground’ of miners might work. Indeed, so toxic is mining’s image that the Red Cross won’t take its money anymore, and many of the academic institutes which used to train people in this field have had to shut down. Those remaining — for example, Camborne School of Mines and Royal School of Mines at Imperial College here in London — no longer offer mining or petroleum engineering degrees. Incredibly, London University has banned all mining and oil companies from campus recruitment events. But maybe what some people learn at these places is over-rated, anyway. One very good English friend of mine tells me of a successful miner he knows who never listens to his geologists and finds ore using a jade staff like a water diviner. This is the same friend who called it right by saying the establishment in this country would soon be exploring new ways back into Europe because the entire economy was going down the one-seater otherwise. We have all heard of data mining — as everyone knows, Brexit had data written all over it — so maybe we should be mining asteroids instead.

It is disheartening for some of us living here in London to witness the persistent disgruntlement. It hangs in the air like the prospect of an over-expensive Christmas. It is rather like watching a city which has had it so good for so long that it no longer knows what to do with itself. Traditionally, there was always stoicism to the English character. Now this feels more like belligerence or bloody-mindedness. This of course just as the investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament or not over partygate was delayed last week after what was described as a hold up with Downing Street evidence. Not only that, Johnson was on the attack against Germany, as if taking the crazy Churchill stuff one or two marching steps too far. (Memo to Johnson: you are no longer in power.) Tally that if you can with the fact one of Johnson’s former Conservative county councillors quit last week after photos emerged of the man in uniform at an openly fascist group. Just as one lot continue to grow extreme, however, another will find it harder in the face of what my friend predicted to defend Brexit at all, and I am not just thinking of the recent YouGov poll revealing that only 32% of Brits now believe it was right to leave Europe and 56% think it was wrong. Perhaps tellingly, fewer cars than normal here in London during a World Cup have been flying England flags. As for our immigration numbers on Brexit’s so-called watch, these show net figures of a record 504,000 in the year to June.

With all this mining business, I was thinking about the first miners I ever met. They were two oracular Welshmen from Port Talbot. I met them in Amsterdam when I was sixteen years old and hitching around Europe hungry for knowledge with a friend. (‘Bach,’ they used to call me, not as a surname but a Welsh term of endearment.) Except for a few weeks in Holland, the two said they spent most of their time working down a Welsh coal mine. They were terrific company. They were also the first people to tell me of Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States which included lectures for miners. Who needs school, I remember thinking, listening to their melodic Welsh accents and jam-packed facts? Come to think of it, many of the bright people I met over this period in my life were self-taught. We had just hitched via a pacy German autobahn from the Swiss mountains near a place called Basse-Nendaz. The Welshmen hung out at the former church Paradiso — a few years before the punk movement kicked in there — as well as at the nearby Melkweg. Both places were full of what anthropologists might sportively call late adherents to the hippie lifestyle or counterculture. Every now and then, the Welshmen would suddenly leap up, let their hair down, and dance to something like Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’. Certainly everyone had longer hair than mine and gathered in smoky circles reading Richard Brautigan novels or doodling in over-adorned notebooks. It was the amount of bangles worn which really threw me. I sometimes wonder what happened to the two Welsh miners from South Wales. Perhaps they were singing with other Welsh fans at the World Cup in Qatar before their disappointment against Iran. Until recently I visited North Wales regularly. Beneath a hillside in Great Orme is a 3,500-year-old mine deemed the largest prehistoric copper mine in the world. It seems we have been chipping away at the planet for some time now.

Until a British friend in Afghanistan this year was seized by the Taliban before being released six or so months later, I knew little about mining. Rare earth metals or lithium or whatever were over my head. Mining was a riddle to me. It was through this friend’s brave attempts to help the Afghans help themselves that I had to speak to players in this industry. In London last week, for less difficult reasons, I wanted to meet such types in the flesh, see the whites of their eyes, hear what they had to say about certain mining properties. Mining really does have a deep problem with its optics. Local communities remain more than suspicious of miners and reserve the right to greater attention and openness, even if the really smart green campaigners know that certain minerals are absolutely critical to today’s necessary energy transition. In fact, this felt like it could be the most important point. By coincidence, another well-informed friend freshly back from the Green Zone at COP27 told me he had found the power of the oil and gas lobby there seriously frustrating. As Robert Hunziker wrote in CounterPunch last week: ‘climate disinformation campaigns around the world are experiencing a strong revival after a short spell of relative pause.’ This was one of the reasons I scanned the document handed to me at a busy reception desk so intensely. Would the same be happening here? That said, the language was incredibly rich. Higher silver grades. Drill core assays. Silver veins. Closed-loop zero discharge. It read to me like poetry. Some of the charts looked like works of art. Talk about optics.

After being handed my lanyard from a separate desk, I proceeded to the automated coffee machines where everything had been working perfectly before I pressed the latte button, and two jets of hot milk missed my cup. ‘The weakness with any machine will always be human,’ said the slightly over-knowing supervisor to my right. I stepped back and scanned the entire scene. At first, it was more banker than miner, I was thinking, with suits the order of the day. Mostly men, too, though I spoke to one Iranian woman in shipping. The white partitions were like giant duvets that absorbed everybody’s confidential conversations. Accents I could still hear were South African, Australian, Canadian. (I noticed ‘Government of Canada’ had looked me up on LinkedIn afterwards.) The average age was probably between 50 and 60. Dig deeper of course and everything becomes far more human than someone’s age can reveal. A lot of the Canadians for example were like elaborate recompositions of Wild West speculators with tin bowls of sediment and rare nuggets of gold in their hands. It was impossible not to enjoy their craic. Others had come straight from the jungle, or from salmon creeks in Alaska. One man with an already suitably fulsome white beard and nearly 40 years of experience was playing Santa Claus in South America before Christmas. He had personally bought Wellington boots for children in the area after two died of snakebites. One project involved a property mined by the Spanish over four hundred years ago and points in the river where in 1588 two soldiers had drowned crossing to fight an uprising. Shamefully I couldn’t remember if the government of this country was left-wing or right but it was interesting to note that history was being mined too.

When it came time finally to leave the ‘underground’ of miners, I knew I needed to visit some mines on the ground if I wanted a better picture. The new appetite on the exploration side for concentrating efforts more on ecology and communities than before seems clear, even if there remain countless examples of bad mining practice out there. Some illegal mining is so horrific they use mercury for example without batting an eyelid and there is a lot of extreme gun violence. As I hit the street, I was greeted by an overriding smell of sewage. It was as though things in the City of London were worse than I thought. Broken economies are dangerous for a variety of reasons, not just a lowering of standards in business ethics. This was when I began reading on my phone a completely different story nonetheless also set below ground, this one relating to the Ukrainian conflict where millions remain without power and really should be underground. Basically, Ukraine was saying that they had just arrested a group of suspected Russians in a raid on a 1,000-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery in Kyiv because of what they described as subversive activities by Russian special services in a network of catacombs. (Moles, anyone?) The next morning, word also began filtering through of another underground story, this one of an undeclared number of miners missing at a site in Western Australia where earthquake tremors had caused a complete power outage, though it was later announced the team were safe, uninjured and accounted for. We are just skimming the surface of things most of the time in our lives.

Mining placed to one side, I walked to the River Thames with the artist wondering how my American friend and his daughter were getting on. I didn’t want them to have fallen down an old mine shaft, as happened to one friend many years ago, a professor now in Glasgow, who reported nothing but darkness down there, by the way. When I heard back from my American friend, they had just boarded a plane back to the States in good repair. I hope the same can be said of the miners.

Peter Bach lives in London.