Leviathan’s larval subjects – thoughts on conveyor belts, metal worms and tunnelling

This is a short companion piece to yesterday’s blog-post, ‘Behemoth’. It’s inspired by Matt Barnes’ (@Liminalcity) suggestion that the tunnel boring plant currently eating an underground path for London’s Crossrail project might comprise the larval stage of the mobile plant monsters that yesterday’s post was concerned with. Matt’s comment got me thinking about tunnel boring machines, mines and snaggle toothed worms. Here’s the result.

Larval cousins

I’m tempted not to write any words to accompany this juxtaposition of images. The pairing probably makes its point powerfully without need for explanation. What hits me though is how close this uncanny resemblance is.

Larval excretions

As the tunnel bore and the worm each push their way through the ground they disturb and ingest the soil and rock in their path. There is no spare space between them and the ground in which they are encased. The only ways that matter can be displaced is squeezing it onto/into the surrounding ground, or by taking it inside, and passing it along their linear bodies. And in each case eventually it spews out at surface level, leaving telltale mounds: spoil heap, worm cast or mole hill. These mounds then stand as lasting physical proxy for the chew and squeeze undulations invisibly played out by these subterranean creatures as they pulse themselves onward through the silent darkness.

In the case of Crossrail’s excretions there’s a fascinating account of the journey and fate of 4.5 million tonnes of that project’s 6.5 million tonnes of spoil by Bull (2012). He charts the lorry-railway-conveyor-jetty-estuary journey that carries this stuff eastward, to Northfleet and the swelling mudflats of Wallasea.

Larval journey

I went down Wales’ last working deep coal mine in the 1990s. For a few hours I had a taste of that worm-world. Everything underground was tubular, the immortalised pathway of some previous steel tunnel worm. The thing that struck me most was the emptiness of this then still-active place. Hundreds of striplights illuminating almost nothing. Imagine the London Underground stripped of posters, people, tiles, trains or free newspapers. These were wide tunnels of nothingness, pathways along which the conveyor belts ran. To get to the coal face we had to ride these conveyors, lying prone, face down as the belt hurtled along these deserted tunnels. As we each lay in our position on the belts we seemed very isolated, very distant from our companions. We were left to our thoughts, and we got a fleeting chance to sample what it must be like to be commodity riding these purposive, automated, rubber highways.

Eventually we were decanted, and completed our journey to the coal face on foot. Here the roof became lower, and I remember the walls as darker, of evident rock (the earlier tunnels in my mind’s eye were smooth, and white lined – although this is probably a mistake, a conflation with subsequent journeys on the Tube). Thereafter we faced a final hunched stagger into a metal machine forest of hydraulic jacks, each standing in line holding up thousands of tonnes of the world above our frail bones. These jacks could walk, shunting forwards as the cutting face advanced. This was a hollow worm.

And then the cutter came buy, a massive rotary head slicing the coal seam from side to side, throwing up clouds of dust into the headtorch beams and sending fractured coal-rock onto the conveyor to begin its long surface-bound journey. The effect was like sitting inside an unusually dusty and noisy printer assembly, watching the print head purposively and powerfully march to and fro along its guide rail, and with an overwhelming feeling that ‘I really shouldn’t be here, this isn’t a human place’. Then a small stray piece of coal flew towards me, it was something at a scale that I could make sense of – like the fuel chunks the coal man used to bring to our home – I pocketed it, feeling suddenly grounded, and began the slow journey back to the surface.

At the surface we were directed to the shower block where we climbed out of our orange overalls and scrubbed at the underground dust that we now carried in every skin-fold. Emerging back into daylight, back dressed in our lawyers-on-a-day-out-to-indulge-a-client garb, we walked towards a line of laughing miners. The laughter only increased as we stepped closer. Then pointing, and a mirror. We’d proved the bet right. We were incapable of washing as proficiently as a miner. The mirror showed think black kohl-like residue around our eyelashes and other deeply engrained coal dust tattoos.  We were neophytes, new to this game. We had a lot to learn. We were the larvae.

The urge to dig

The ‘larval subjects’ part of the title of this piece comes (via Deleuze) from Levi Bryant’s blog-site of the same name. As Bryant puts it: “Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming” he then likens that to the putative aims of his writing on his blog. Perhaps something similar can be said about burrowing. What strikes me looking back over the tunnelling machines, office workers venturing tentatively into a coal mine and meditations on a worm’s rhythmic motion is how each entity drives forward because it is in its nature to do so. Implicit is a journey towards something, but that target is vague and probably unattainable in any final sense for the entity itself. This is a driven drivenness, a propulsion that the entity may have no account for. Give me a spade on a beach and I start to dig. Ask me why and all I can say is, “it’s for the pleasure of the digging” (or if I’m feeling arsely: I’d say “Because you’ve just given me a spade”). That’s as deep as it gets.

Let’s leave the last word here to the Hackney Mole Man, William Lyttle who spent 40 years burrowing beneath and beyond his East London home, excavating 100 cubic metres of earth before finally being stopped by a Council enforcement notice. In his defence Lyttle ‘explained’:

“I first tried to dig a wine cellar, and then the cellar doubled, and so on…tunnelling is something that should be talked about without panicking…I don’t mind the title of inventor. Inventing things that don’t work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn’t one.” (in Lewis 2006)


Bull, J. (2012) ‘The end of the earth: Crossrail to Wallasea’ London Connections blogsite: www.londonreconnections.com/2012/the-end-of-the-earth-crossrail-at-wallasea

Lewis, P. (2006) ‘After 40 years’ burrowing, Mole Man of Hackney is ordered to stop’ The Guardian, 8 August

About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to Leviathan’s larval subjects – thoughts on conveyor belts, metal worms and tunnelling

  1. liminal city says:

    Marvellous stuff, that mechanical subterranean realm is a truly weird Lovecraftian space. Would the Hackney man have eventually became another species on his Orphic adventure had it continued unchecked?

  2. Love that Mole Man Quote.

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