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Liz Berry, ‘Wolves Library’ (2018)

This year’s Being Human Festival saw the University of Wolverhampton organise their Snidge Scrumpin’ project at the Black Country Living Museum and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. These creative experiments drew on the so-called “Proust Phenomenon” in order to map smells and memory in the Black Country. During the event, locals were asked to respond to a variety of smells, and think about their memories in relation to the Black Country.

Writer and Wolverhampton PhD Candidate, Rob Francis said ‘We’ve collected some amazing data that will help build a sensory memory map of this overlooked area’. Snidge Scrumpin’ also solicited creative responses from Black Country writers, sharing them on the project blog. Responses came from novelist Anthony Cartwright and poets including, Natalie Burdett, Dave Reeves, Simon Fletcher and Emma Purshouse.

The organisers wanted to share this very special response with you all through the basecamp of Being Human. In this poem we’re taken back to a beautiful childhood memory of time spent in youthful discovery amongst books. As our olfactory memories are under threat from the increasingly sanitised world we inhabit, so too are our libraries as arenas of cultural memory. Being Human and Snidge Scrumpin’ are delighted to present the Forward Prize winning poet, Liz Berry’s ‘Wolverhampton Central Library, Children's Library, 1980s’.

Wolverhampton Central Library, Children's Library, 1980's

The smell of it, even now, is like being stroked behind the knees, it makes me buckle.

A wood in September: the warm singe of heat on bark, sweat, leafsmoke, the air all of a sudden freckled with dust, and me kneeling between the stacks, face hidden in the leaves of a book.

I'm in that formless time before school, waiting for her to finish work. My mom, the librarian. In that humming forest of books, she moves gently as a root. Her scent is everywhere amongst the stacks: the tea on her tongue, the vinegar tang of her feet as she slips off her pinching shoes behind the counter, her perfume, anais anais, white lilies over leather and wood. She is a pale bloom in the dim hush between the shelves and swaying ladders, the soft sh shhh of the date stamp.

Her quiet world has the yellow smell that yearning has, the dreaming yellow of thousands of thumbed pages and cracked spines. The smell of being saved. There's something feral there too, something alive, in the beanbags and flattened moss green carpet - a zing of ammonia: sucked pear drops, the little animal reek of piss, small unwashed bodies uncurling into the light.

The Black Country she was born into is already lost, shelved mournfully and thankfully on tissue thin pages in the Local History section. Industry and Genius: A Fable. Now it's the work of words and books, a different kind of mining from the dark.

And here is her child is waiting for her, swinging her legs on a wooden chair, but still - for a moment longer than is needed - she kneels amongst the hardbacks and buries her face in the yellow winged moth of a book, breathing its smell of paper and binding; the new story already begun.

Liz Berry reads 'Wolverhampton Central Library, Children's Library 1980s'