The ubiquity of metal


Autumn comes fast and strange this year; curiously hot evenings and mornings full of mist, with that change in the air that muffles sound but amplifies sensation on the skin. After a summer of honeymooning with new boat Stoic, I’m picking up my workload and travelling by train and car for the autumn round of festivals and meetings. Which brought me to London, and the ubiquity of metal.

In 2003 Jim Crace published a novel The Gift of Stones which tells of a Stone Age village encountering bronze for the first time. Metal must have been astonishing; its beauty, its power, its ability to hold an edge or simply endure. The people who knew how to make it must have been magicians, power brokers. Bronze was a lightning rod for change, both technological and social. Above all, it was rare.

Metal costs something to produce, in human terms as well as financial. It has to be physically won from the rock. I’ve surveyed hilltop bloomeries where lead was smelted in the middle ages, and remote reverberatory furnaces where the ore came in by packhorse, was crushed and smelted and taken out again as metal ingots. I’ve visited lead mines where the seam of ore was followed through the most unforgiving stone as waters rose around the miners, and copper mines where the copper for those bronze axe heads was dug out. I come from a city which only exists because of the world’s appetite for steel.

Metal is everywhere. Your car or bike is made of it. My boat is made of it. Our postboxes, our door handles, the cheapest trinkets, the kitchen rubbish bin. The disposable barbecue. We wrap food in tinfoil and throw it away. Look at your own body: your trousers are fastened with metal buttons, your bra underwired and clasped with it, your earrings made of silver or gold, your watch and your phone full of tiny metal components. Your teeth are filled with metal. Your very bones may be pinned with it.

It’s a part of our material culture so embedded that we barely notice it. It is still costly. It is still valuable, this versatile thing won from the earth. So: notice it.



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