Monday, March 19, 2007

The Smell Of Social History



My wife is on holiday this week and therefore I am first on-call for any shopping trips when a more serious shopper is not available to accompany her. Today we went to Redbrick Mill in Batley. Redbrick Mill is "a lifestyle shopping location" which means it's a converted mill full of posh furniture and French antiques. With their vast open floors, old textile mills are ideal for conversion into such emporiums and Batley has become something of a national centre : Redbrick Mill is just one of several recently converted outlets located on something called "Mill Mile" which boasts, and I quote, "an inspirational shopping experience". Now I am going to try very hard not to be diverted down the path which examines the strange concept of the words "inspirational" and "shopping" sharing the same sentence. That would be tantamount to moaning, and I am attempting to restrict my "moaning posts" to just three a week.

So, there we were exploring the four floors which are home to "some of the biggest names and cutting-edge brands in interior design" (in case it means anything to anyone, there is - amongst others - Habitat, Heal's, Tansu, Fiori Bacchanalia, New Heights, and Feather and Black). After two floors of distressed leather footstools and gourmet kitchen pasta-coolers my eyes were beginning to glaze over and I found myself entering that near-trance like state that is equally known by Tibetan monks and husbands forced to go shopping. And then we got to the third floor.

We both immediately caught the smell which seemed to permeate the whole floor, but it was Isobel who identified it first. It was the smell of wool : the lanolin aroma that had been soaked up over the decades by the wooden floors and beams and was now being returned to the inspired pilgrims to this lifestyle shopping location. The looms were long silent, the bales of wool just a memory captured on sepia photographs. The clanking belts that drove the thrusting, shafting frames were long gone. But the smell of the wool remained, fixed in the very fabric of the building. It was enough to spark a torrent of memories. Isobel was face to face with her father again, transported back to the mill where he used to work. I was back in the West Riding of my youth when the wool mills were still the driving industrial force of the region. Once again it reminded me that, of all the senses, smell has perhaps the greatest capacity for stirring memories back to life.

The day out at Redbrick Mill was an enjoyable one. It was a day which left an impression. We discovered a destination we can take visitors to which illustrates how Yorkshire has now come to terms with its post-industrial status. We can show them Bo Concept, Bollingbrook and Cole's, Le Boudoir and Ice Interiors. But I am going to take my son there. I am going to take him up to the third floor. I am going to say "take a deep breath and smell". I am going to say "that is the smell of your past".

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