I’ll never look at a certain shape of pot again without thinking of urine.
Made of plain clay, it’s taller than you’d imagine a ‘piss-pot’ would be – and narrower round the neck than at its widest point. It stood outside what was probably a hovel. Because the pot was used to store urine until it was sold. Urine from people who were ‘piss poor’.
Before the advent of chemicals, urine was used in the production of woollen cloth to strip lanolin from the wool. Men trod the urine into the wool with their bare feet and as a result they smelt. I would say you can imagine, but I can’t – and I don’t want to.
As our guide at Helmshore Mills in Lancashire was recounting these plain facts, I thought, ‘what’s to stop them topping up the urine with water?’
The man who collected it would taste it, that’s what.
Red-heads and Methodists were paid more. Methodists didn’t drink alcohol, so I can see that – but red hair?
By the time I’d reached this point in the story of the two mills, cotton and woollen – unusually, side-by-side – I was cold and needed a cup of tea. But only because the last bit, by the old water wheel, was unheated.
Upstairs, the cotton mill was hot and humid, ideal conditions for working cotton – but we weren’t having to run around, risking our lives, as machinery clattered to and fro and dust filled the air and our lungs.
Everyone I spoke to at the museum was knowledgeable, enthusiastic – and worried. Because, in a few weeks’ time, the museum may shut. For good.
Lancashire County Council’s museums budget for 2015-2016 was £1.23 million. Five museums are scheduled for closure, two of them mills. The other, Queen Street Mill in Burnley is the world’s only surviving, operational, steam-driven weaving shed.
Lancashire was the King of Cotton. The industrial revolution brought its merchants vast wealth, its masses drudgery and danger – but still, it was employment.
To save a few hundred thousand pounds Lancashire is losing what is arguably one of the most important reminders of its past.
To put those hundreds of thousands of pounds in context, let’s travel south …
In London, a new footbridge across the Thames is being planned. London already has many bridges, including a fairly recent footbridge. But this one will be a garden.
For the joy of having a footbridge we don’t need in our capital, taxpayers everywhere are paying £60 million. Plus annual maintenance costs – possibly £3.5 million.
The project is the brainchild of an actress and it’s backed by London’s fluffy-haired mayor. I don’t need to say any more, do I?
But I do want to say more about what lies behind this sorry state of affairs. Because I’m angry. Very angry.
I’ve always been pretty upset at what happened to our built heritage during the ‘Reformation’ of Henry VIII and later under Oliver Cromwell.
All around the kingdom, abbeys, monasteries and cathedrals were looted, stained glass destroyed, statues smashed, graves desecrated and robbed. Buildings used as off-the-shelf quarries.
Visiting functioning old cathedrals, seeing empty niches once filled with the handiwork of medieval masons, I feel sad for the loss of the heritage and the stonemasons’ work and art.
There’s something uncomfortable, though, about finding such destruction distressing.
If I’d been alive during the destruction, would it have bothered me more than the dismantling of faith’s less tangible assets?
I’ll never know.
But I do know how I reacted to the destruction of two giant Buddhas in the Bamiyan valley by the Taliban. And how I reacted to the destruction at Palmyra and the execution of its guardian by so-called Islamic State.
I was shocked. Outraged.
The media reverberated with that same outrage and shock.
Did we feel more as a result of this wanton destruction of things than we did for the destruction of lives and cultures that was going on before, during and afterwards?
No, I don’t think so. But it felt uncomfortably like it.
ISIS bosses were clever, targeting human heritage.
They reject what’s gone before: our world. Theirs isn’t just a new world but the new world. And behind the cloak of righteous fervour they smuggle out valuables, raising money for their ‘crusade’ from infidel westerners. Because we value history, emotionally and financially.
I’m not in any way condoning it, but I do understand how religion can drive people to do such things.
What I don’t understand, though, is how, in the 21st century, in the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, one man is being allowed to destroy the fabric of our society.
George Osborne. His family wallpaper business has soaped his route, almost to the top of the political hierarchy, with millions of pounds (and clever tax planning).
For six years he’s been cutting local government budgets.
He’s cut Lancashire’s budget so hard the county can’t afford luxuries. Soon it will have to raid its reserves to fulfil even essential statutory duties.
Helmshore Mills aren’t just stone, timber and machinery. They’re the women who were scalped, their hair caught up in machinery. The men who paddled in urine. The orphan children bought as human fuel to stoke these engines of capitalism.
Today people are killing themselves because their benefits have been stopped. Disabled people’s incomes are being reduced by £30 a week. Families face eviction because they have one spare bedroom.
I think it almost justifies me lumping George Osborne in with ISIS and the Taliban. Because he has a fundamentalist’s zeal for a religion: unfettered capitalism.
I’m sure some old-fashioned Conservatives know things have gone too far – but why aren’t they doing anything about it? The Government has a majority of twelve. Seven decent folk could halt the worst excesses of this crusade against the vulnerable, just by voting.
Well, “By their fruits shall ye know them” as the Gospel says.