History, In A Grain Of Salt
by Lyndon Hood
The chain of events that ended with me dragging a duffel bag full of live pigeons into Salt’s Mill will make sense to any student of Marxist theory. I was, 150 years late or not, an agent of social forces. And I don’t just mean that pigeon-smuggling seems to be a thing now (I got home and it was – like a global-warming-induced torrential downpour – in the air). I was trying to make a statement.
I didn’t choose for my European holiday to be a tour of UNESCO-certified 19th century textile mills with attached planned communities. I was just looking for something to do in the North of England. Sure, pick a random place in the North of England and I guess you’re pretty likely to hit a 19th century textile mill with an attached planned community. But at the time it felt like fate.
Salt’s Mill is in Bradford, but that’s not the worst part. The official website – if you stumble on it while comparing local attractions – has an ambient soundtrack that covers the whole ‘this place is probably haunted’ spectrum. Isolated footsteps, distorted human conversation, a child saying something you can’t quite hear, old-fashion piano music – all there. In this way they sell their retail development.
Or you might look up Saltaire, the village James Salt built to house his factory workers, and find a list of rules from the original community. They display a degree of paternalism well ahead of its time. (“Throughout the village, cleanliness, cheerfulness and order must reign supreme.” “No animals to be kept in the village including chickens, rabbits or pigeons.” “No washing to be hung out to dry in front of or behind any of the properties, or in the vicinity of the village.”) The kind of commitment to social hygiene kids today might think was invented by the modern apartment body corporate.
Now: those particular rules might actually be made up. But I’m not about facts here – I’m about truth. It had a familiar stench to it. It reminded me of recent innovations in social welfare – the re-discovery that ‘rights come with obligations’ (the intervening era would have considered this self-contradictory) and the power these totemic words give you to make the needy dance like tin dolls until, like tin dolls, they break. It was normal at the time. It was charitable. In the treatment of our most vulnerable, we have now matched the possibly-fictional excesses of Victorian robber barons.
You understand I had no choice but to go and see.
Salt’s mill is crowned – just in case there was any doubt about the
‘mercantile oligarchy’ thing – with a chimney stack copied from
a tower in Venice.
Don’t get me wrong, Titus Salt was an okay guy. They say he had the chandeliers in the church lowered so he couldn’t use the special balcony they wanted him to sit in for services. He got elected to Parliament, but had the good sense to leave before he accomplished anything, which may be the reason for his knighthood.
He provided his workers and their families with healthcare and education. His factory had windows and the spinning deadly bits of the machinery were placed a bit further away from the workers than usual. It was a light and airy satanic mill.
But look at what’s happened here: a captain of industry somehow manages – without even being forced at gunpoint – to act in his enlightened long-term self-interests and also kill fewer people than was fashionable at the time. For this, he is remembered like a hero. Well done, Titus, give yourself a Bakewell tart.
For perspective: It’s like comparing the New Zealand government to the rest of the World Anglophone Conservative Horrorshow. Canada, the UK, Australia. You give our guys credit for not running a full-blown austerity programme and destroying the economy. Like how you give a toddler credit for not wetting their pants.
Or maybe it’s just that this was so rare. A capitalist displays some kind of consideration for his workers and we gather in awestruck masses: not to admire a hero but to marvel at a freak.
At the time I thought it was the hero thing, and I didn’t like it one bit. It sticks in my craw. Maybe I could have just tweeted about it, but the cost of roaming data is goddamn extortionate.
The outdoor-supplies outlet shop on the third floor of Salt’s Mill – retail and commercial offices have replaced manufacturing, all very late-capitalist – that place sold some pretty big bags. Elsewhere in Bradford there was no shortage of abandoned buildings so pigeons wouldn’t be hard to find.
This statue of Eusebi Güell in the square of
Colonia Güell has a communal water taps
coming out its back side.
It is the world’s only successful example of
The other mill town fate placed on my itinerary was Colonia Güell. A slightly-longer-than-it-should-have-been-on-our-ticket train ride from Barcelona, it was built by Eusebi Güell at the end of the 19th century.
Forbes has said Güell’s fortune was among the 25 largest in the world at the time – this in the era when the original Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and J.P. Morgans walked the earth. About 70 billion Euros in today’s money. We are talking Euros but that has to be enough for a house in Parnell – Glendowie at least. Alternatively, enough to heat a rental property or purchase the nation of Greece.
Güell’s daddy and his and dad-in-law both ‘made their fortune in Cuba’. Nobody was saying exactly what these ‘Cuban adventurers’ dealt in but I’m guessing ‘anything that wasn’t nailed down’. Baby Eusebi went into textiles and eventually built an entire town to do it in. By this point in my trip, I was really understanding what the bourgeoisie owning the means of production really meant.
This time the mills is coal-powered and the community came with triumphs of modernista architecture and added Catholic social control. There’s a chapel there designed by Antoni Gaudí. It is lovely. It was supposed to be a whole church but Gaudí stopped work on it for ‘unknown reasons’ in 1914. Maybe he was pausing to let the world sort its shit out. The chapel remains unfinished.
Güell was a major patron for Gaudí. Gaudí’s first major project had been for a workers’ cooperative; I guess if he wanted to reform the language of architecture into forms based on nature and mess around with parabolic hyperboloid geometry, that takes real money.
Barcelona was expanding and the well-off were engaged in the competitive building of over-sumptuous residences. Partly to show off how rich they were. Partly to have somewhere nice to hang out, given that looking incredibly wealthy on the streets of ‘The Burning Rose’ Barcelona wasn’t a recipe for happy fun times. Gaudí did the remodelling for Güell’s apartment. It is now run by the local authorities, presumably because, even on the ceilings alone, it is too much concentrated decadence for a private individual to own without risk of insanity.
Güell’s mill was successfully run by a workers’ collective during the Spanish civil war; Franco had the ringleaders shot.
And so I entered Salt’s Mill with a great deal of baggage and the premeditated intention to set the some pigeons among the fat cats. I had to go straight past the reception desk. I did not look very innocent. The lady who handed out the maps and brochures was standing up and coming for me. “I’m sorry, can I help you?”
She was probably trying to look helpful and approachable. She really looked like someone hoping this guy’s gigantic cooing haversack wouldn’t interfere with her afternoon tea break.
I’d been trying for the elevator. I wanted to get to the top floor, to the place that sells genuine licensed knockoff designer objects to rich British idiots who need a dinner-party conversation starter for when they’ve finished complaining about what the country is coming to. To free my birds there and see what havoc they made there, in the penthouse of Titus Salt’s mill among the luxury shoppers and the Alessi salt-and-pepper shakers. That would have been poetry. This? This was mere justice.
I unzipped the bag and out my pretties flew, spreading feathers and guano among the design books and art supplies, over the David Hockney works that lined the walls and the exhibition of large-scale ceramics from Burmantoft’s Pottery (I know the name because it was written on a laminated sheet marked ‘Please Do Not Remove’ – I have it here with me now).
All the people standing around looking like they don’t know what’s happening and being shat on: there’s your capitalist utopia.
My work done, I quietly made for the back door, past a discreetly-placed marble bust of old Salt himself. A startled pigeon flew off as I went by.
Never mind, Titus. It’s lucky.
The spiked iron fence on the roof of Palau Güell was hand-crafted by skilled artisans under the direction of architectural genius Anton Gaudí.
The Gaudí chapel at Colonia Güell
Gaudí included bird imagery in the sculptures on his nativity façade of La Sagrada Famiglia because he liked religious symbolism. Because Gaudí’s universal genius perfectly and innovatively combined form, decoration and function while taking inspiration by nature, he knew the pigeons would move in on their own. You can hear about Gaudí’s universal genius in every audio guide in the city. There’s probably a law about it.