It’s raining in Sheffield

In 2008 the former car park on Manchester’s Princess Street was hemmed in by huge glossy hoardings, promising the arrival of a modern leisure/retail/residential complex to be called ‘Origin’. A couple of cranes and cabins took their place on the site, ready to begin work. And then the UK economy tanked as a result of the sub-prime mortgage frenzy and reckless lending.

In 2015 I looked again at this forlorn site; it remained a bleak concrete apron from which odd sections of rebar protruded like weeds.

But by 2018, construction was well underway, with yellow steel supports helping to assemble this city in the sky. I wondered if the yellow paint contained lead chromate or (radioactive) bismuth vanadate? Would it matter? Does anybody care?

In the Spring of 1983 I went with John to visit our friend Steve, who was studying Chemistry and Computing at Sheffield Polytechnic. We arrived by train and went for a drink in town, bumping into some of his (many!) friends, walking up very steep hills, and eating pizza outdoors in a freezing gale.

I was intrigued by his fellow students, who all seemed assured and articulate, with long hair and huge record collections which included Joan Baez, Brahms, Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk. We travelled round town by bus; public transport was absurdly cheap, thanks to council subsidies. I remember having to drop five or six pence into a machine, which would then print out a photocopy of your money; this served as the ticket for the journey.

The following night we went to see the Halle Orchestra performing Weber, Mozart and Strauss. Ein Heldenleben is hard work if you have never heard it before; at the time it was just a long, impressive wash of beautiful noise, but now I would recognise the narrative and the catalogue of quotations from his earlier works.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Sheffield, when I had a look round the Site Gallery. This institute holds a small, frequently changed exhibition of works. Some art galleries are very consciously arty, and aim to enhance your viewing experience by painting the walls with ‘Neutral Beige Cadenza No. 648’ specially formulated by Clovisse and Broome.

The Site Gallery is quite different; the room is broken into sections using temporary walls made from huge panels of high-grade MDF all bolted together using yellow steel brackets. The brackets (universal design) appear to be the same colour as the construction metalwork that was used to build the tower block on Princess and Origin in Manchester…

And the various display items at Site are not numbered, or labelled, but are instead mounted on the bare MDF. Visitors are provided with a chart showing the layout of the gallery and the names of the objects at each location; you can decide whether to wander at random, enjoying the exhibits with no idea what they are or who the artist might be. Then, after a drink in the café, you can revisit the display using the printed guide to add knowledge and context to your initial impressions of the works on show.

Of course, some of the artworks need no caption – for instance ‘Rare Earth Elements’, a huge mural by Suzanne Treister which looks like a blueprint for the cover of a Captain Beefheart album, or a cosmic chart devised by Roger Bacon.

Seeking shelter from this blizzard of information, we move round the corner to a different exhibit (the corner itself, and all the MDF panels and steel brackets and sheets of corrugated Perspex are part of the exhibition and have been designed to enhance the theme of crystallinity) which comprises a video sequence and an unobtrusive lump of rock which, according to the catalogue, is uranium ore.

In a few steps we have moved from the lanthanides to the actinides, and I am reminded of a TV drama called ‘Threads’, broadcast in 1985, which showed the effect of a nuclear strike on Sheffield. An unconvincing narrative, it gave us a picture of society in ruins, when the real thing might have caused anarchy, mayhem and chaos throughout the British Isles.

To get to the Graves Gallery we make our way up to the main city library and then up four flights of stairs; the square stairwell surrounds another random artwork, a tall cloud of suspended fabric shapes which resemble a cross between books and birds; ideas in flight?

I reach the top floor where a caption painted on the wall tells me about the floating books: Blue Bird, 2007 by Seiko Kinoshita.

Unwittingly, I go in through the out door (out door, out door) and proceed through the various parts of the gallery, starting at the large display of works by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. There are semi-abstract paintings and collage works showing geological formations, glaciers, seascapes and great sheets of lava.

A comfortable sofa invites me to sit and make notes (since photography is not allowed in here) and I browse through a glossy book of her paintings. The colour register of the illustrations is not quite faithful to the actual paintings. Does this matter?

Moving on to another room I find a collection of black-and-white photographs by Linda Benedict-Jones, stylised landscape images from Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Then we move through other rooms filled with industrial landscapes and war paintings and abstract pictures (Kenneth Martin, Keith Vaughan) and an immense tapestry by Grayson Perry, called Comfort Blanket – a visual compendium of everything that makes Great Britain Great Britain.


And then, at the end of my journey, I find myself at the start of the story: David Jagger’s painting of Doctor Graves. He is presented as a photograph in a plain black suit, with nothing except his cufflinks to denote any personal or financial status. This picture is set alongside Jagger’s Portrait of a Lady, perched elegantly before a luminous maze of abstract swirls. Completely different in every way, these two pictures are like scenes from a documentary about a forgotten world.




Six Twisted Loops


One: Smethwick

Past the Temple and the library,
Across the railway bridge and up towards
A future that seemed always foundry-shaped.
Hemmed in by cold grey streets,
It feels as if I’ve never quite escaped.

If you can’t discern a pattern
Then just impose a framework; it’s
Always seemed to do the trick for me.
Consider the impossible. You can’t
Stick plastic things together using
Glue – it’s obvious, it’s what we’ve always known.

 Two: Leicester

Locating the boundaries…

The standard work was carried out with
A three-percent-solution (Holmes might have
Something to say about that)
So we made up a range of primers, diluted
And diluted again and again – I rather like
The idea that an imaginary property exists
to the zero-concentration

 Three: Oxford

This place is dense with bold ideas
Like frost they cling to every open door
Eager to disturb and be discerned
But sometimes you can find a splendid one
Protruding like an icicle
Inviting the unwary to come along
And find themselves impaled.

Is this the day on which the year begins?
Young silver voices greet the rising sun, as
We shiver in the soft grey light of dawn.

 Four: Derby

Sunday morning, eight o’clock; I wake up
In a stranger’s bed, confused
By the curtains and the ceiling lamp. But
Since I do this forty times a year
It’s just become a comforting routine.

Above the broken factory
A plastic bag is flapping in the crumpled wind

 Five: Salford

Disturbing the activity…

And now let us contaminate
The primer blend with different types of powdered
Chalk, barytes, granite, slate or
Even pigs’ teeth milled in cyclohexanone.
We add these things and watch the drift
Of properties and promises from total
Joy to disappointment grim.

 Six: Leeds

Solid and dumb, these brutal concrete slabs
Erect a car park in a part of town
Where no-one can afford to drive. Grey
Shadows hold prosperity at bay
And though I try, the Chinese Playground
Carries on unfolding in my head.

The Town Hall’s frenzied stonework seemed
To tell me how
a one-man band performs
On ecstasy. We’ve got a rainbow bridge
Valhalla groans, the steam train wanders past
And silent golden owls
Believe once more that man can be redeemed.

Four Flagpoles

Four Flagpoles Outside Saint George’s Hall

Got the train to Liverpool; it rained
I made sure that I was suitably
With a camera. I managed to shoot
Queen Victoria – her concrete canopy
Gave shelter from the rain but not from me.

I shot The Beatles and some passers-by
Who happened to be
The wrong place at
The wrong time. But at least

It was musical rain, each note-shaped drop
Embroidered with a twang. Here
In the pub it’s warm and dry
I’m waiting for my dinner to arrive
And watching vintage football on TV

(It’s raining on the screen as well)
A match they played in nineteen-ninety-five.
Old-fashioned hoardings round the pitch
Remind us how much better life would be
With Agfa Film, or Foster’s Beer, or Weetabix.

Four Flagpoles Outside the Velvet Hotel

“Can’t get no time off work” I said, “We’ll
Have to put this interview on hold.” An elegant
Pointed silence filled the air
Until he said “There’s got to be another way;

Perhaps tomorrow night you could pop along
To my hotel. I’m staying at the Velvet – I like
It there, above the door it boasts four flags, not three.
And you know how much that sort of thing
Means to an old sarcophagus like me.”

I arrived after dark
We sat in the bar, and chatted about phase diagrams,
Grain boundaries
And gamma-function overloads. At last

We decided to go up to his room for one last drink
To explore the limits of our orbital compatibility
Quantum emissions allowed us to observe
A gasp of pleasure as they started to converge.


Four Flagpoles Outside the Midland Hotel

 The phase diagram enters the field because
Cultural density has been betrayed
She picks a card at random; but in this world
You know that nothing can be truly left to chance.
Here we have the four of wands – again.

Along the outside walls we see
Celebrated writers, painters, architects;
But now the world has moved along
Four flagpoles point towards tomorrow:
“The future, my boy; don’t worry,
That’s where we now belong!”

A book last read in 1825 is taken down and
Gently pulled apart by expert hands. The antique dust
Is scattered gracefully on agar plates
Where graphene brings the sleeping germs to life.

Dormant ambassadors from a distant past
Start to explore this brave new world, rejoicing
In the miracle that they now occupy
A land of plenty, neither hot nor cold, as if
Designed to help them multiply.

Four flagpoles show us that the hours of the day
Are oddly-spaced and curiously shaped. The shadows drift
Across the microscopic realm where
Dreams decay until there’s nothing left.


Cluster – Manchester Science Festival

On Saturday night I decided to visit the farewell exhibition of works assembled for the Manchester Science Fair 2018 by a group called Cluster. On my way across Salford I saw that the lights had turned red and the traffic had stopped, so I started to cross the road.

A food-delivery boy on a pushbike shot past the line of waiting cars, missing me by inches. Two seconds earlier and we would probably have collided, with his precious cargo of tikka-masala-beansprout soufflé strewn in a long red trail of sticky sauce across Chapel Street while I lay there groaning in agony.

This brush with death left me feeling oddly invigorated, and I headed off to find the AO Studio in King Street where I calmed my nerves with a glass of red wine before inspecting the pictures and objects on display.

In her book Liminal, Frances Roddick gathers images of glass blocks and the resulting abstract patterns they generate from photographs of fashion retail outlets and other standard pictures.

Hand-crafted blocks of clear glass are used to transform and distort the images, creating a new, ambiguous reality where arrangements of blank and coloured spaces create a set of shapes defined by an intellectual algorithm. The refractive index of glass takes on a new significance; the pictures create an illusion of depth and strange liquid movement, enhanced by the absence of scale; this picture could represent the electrical field around a distant star, or it could be an image of the shrivelled-up dimensions that lurk, unseen within the fabric of time.

In contrast to this, two pictures by Simon Davies depict factual scenes; the elements of the pictures are synthetic, but they appear to be perfectly real. In ‘The Trial of Man’ we see a bleak, wood-panelled courtroom where a jury of eight men watch a nude man pleading with the judge. The other picture, ‘Ornithophobia’ shows a white-robed angelic figure trapped in a dungeon with various common birds.

Davies makes us of photographic images to treat psychological conditions such as anxiety and phobias. The pictures have a sharp, nightmare quality and echo the dramatic lighting effects used by Rembrandt. After a few minutes, I was convinced that these were photographs of real paintings; the opening pages of Panufnik Nine could almost be heard in the distance.

In her work ‘Forget Me Not’, Michele Friswell has amended the text of a research paper on dementia by removing the letters A, G, C and T – the base units which, together with the deoxyribose sugar molecule, make up DNA.

The text is broken into small square chapters, each of which is mounted in a blue plastic sleeve on which a DNA dark-band patterns has been printed. Friswell produced the work following discussions with researchers in the field of genetics and degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

The letters dropped from the text are collected like dust on a shelf placed beneath the array of pale blue diamonds. This work explores the idea that dementia selectively deletes communication skills in a process not perfectly understood, and for which no treatments yet exist.

Other items on display in this exhibition included a set of pictures showing Yoga positions and the effect on human breathing (‘Yoga and Breath’ by Ting Hsuan, Chang) and Roselyn Edwards’ installation using a flask of drug capsules – a potent visual shorthand for the world of pharmacology and the idea that a safe and effective medical solution exists for every ailment.

Instead of providing a standard exhibition catalogue, visitors were invited to assemble their own booklet using display sheets – using traditional bookbinding techniques – and then to customise the front cover using a personal collage. I added a pair of human legs to a butterfly before giving it a lit candle to hover over; something to puzzle mein years to come…


Rust in Salford

 I walk to work, my C90 tape
Inflates my head with Doves and Liszt. I worry
That if I wait too long
My life will vanish in a cloud of rust…

A young man sits behind the wheel;
He’s heading North, we don’t know why
Behind him you can just make out
The Ship Canal, the Cargill plant; four
Mammoth concrete silos holding up the sky.

One hundred months ago I made my way
Along this path in search of work; the agency
Had promised me the job was mine.
Only temporary, they told me;
And the money’s not that great. ‘That’s fine’
I said, ‘We’ll see what opportunities emerge
When I arrive. My glowing future doesn’t yet exist,
But stop me from drowning and I’ll do the rest.’

 The four big silos are vanished now; I watched
Them being taken down, day by day
Like a film of speeded-up decay. The world
We couldn’t see spreads out before us now
n yet more steel and concrete, a rigid vista of the past.

 The young man carries on his quest; it’s cold
Up on the moors, it feels as though
We’re waiting for some drama to unfold. And then
At last, he finds himself with nowhere left to go.
The steel-grey sky and wheeling gulls
Witness the cloud of his parents’ final fond embrace.

Salt-Spray Blues


I am sitting in a café on Oxford Road; over the past ten years I have spent hours in here, killing time, watching the foreign students drift past with arms full of eager books. Across the road there stood for many years the BBC studios and workshops.
Then the BBC departed, and the building itself was demolished to leave shattered brickwork.

Hours, sipping coffee, waiting to go down the road to The Cornerhouse cinema to watch various unorthodox creations: Dogtooth, Singin’ In The Rain, Holy Motors, Lemmy, Weekend, The Artist, Potiche…for a while, it seemed that nudity, bloodshed and subtitles were my touchstones for a quality viewing experience.
The cinema has closed; the BBC studio site has been cleared – it served briefly as a car-park and is now a forest of cranes engaged on the construction of an epic tower block.

31 May: Derby couple arrested on suspicion of murder after their house burned down and six of their 17 kids died. All with names starting with the letter ‘J’.
Andy Coulson (spin-doctor by Royal Appt to D Cameron, MP) charged with perjury during Sheridan trial. Culture sec Jeremy Hunt accused of misleading Parliament.

3 Jun: Gawd Bless Yer, Ma’am! Yesterday was 60th anniversary of HM the Q. Of course it rained all night here, probably as divine punishment for the Bingham Cup  gay rugby tournament being held down the road.

20 Jun: Last night posted a message on the OCCA Linkedin page about Alan Turing centenary; the Bombe machines at Bletchley Park were made using huge plates of Tufnol.
In the Times, a huge story about tax avoidance by wealthy people including comedian Jimmy Carr, whose routine once included a gag about Barclays Bank and their elaborate tax management schemes.

Journal Entry, 22 May 13: Another thrilling, throbbing day of decadent madness at the mystic realm of Exova. Dave sent an e-mail to Danny saying (literally)
‘The shit is about to hit the fan’
because we are short-staffed and there are loads of long-term test panels to be withdrawn and inspected and lots of panels to be booked into the system then put on test and they’re all late.

Meanwhile, I sent Danny an e-mail about our company Terms and Conditions, which he now wants permanently embedded in reports.
Do we (I said):
a)     Include the Ts and Cs so that the page count goes up by five, or
b)     Include the Ts and Cs separately so they don’t actually get given page numbers and could easily be lost if the customer so wishes, or
c)      Produce two separate versions of each report, one for physical despatch, the other for e-mail?

And his response was to say ‘Add the Ts and Cs in a one-page Word format at the end of the report’, which cannot actually be achieved.

26 May 13: On Friday Carl at Sherwin-Williams sent an e-mail to D- to ask ‘Where are my reports?’ so D- sent this on to me, saying ‘Have these been sent out yet?’ and I forwarded this on to all the Gods on Olympus (John C, Matt M, Danny, Dean and Robbie) pointing out that we hadn’t yet agreed on a format for the embedded Terms and Conditions.
John C said that we would not have started the work unless our Ts and Cs had already been accepted, so just ‘leave them out’.

29 May 13: This morning we were all summoned to a meeting at v short notice with Mike Pooley, European MD.
He gave us the usual ‘achieving synergies by transferring technology between different departments in order to gain improved efficiency’.
Mentioned ‘Oil and Gas’ about 15 times.Five redundant positions among management following the shake-up, consultation process underway.
Meanwhile, Dave has tracked down four technical reports which had been authored by Dean and approved by Danny but still not sent to clients so they’re 8 weeks overdue.
Littered with mistakes, lazy cut-and-paste, overlooked batch numbers etc.

3 Jun 13: Yesterday’s online edition of the Mail on Sunday carried a shock nudge-nudge-wink-wink report about an impending sex scandal at 10 Downing Street involving somebody very close to the PM.
Super-heavy downpours and flooding in Austria and Poland.

Mon 10 Jun 13: We have been sent some steel bars from Nimet for corrosion testing – very shiny chrome-plated, very difficult to photograph. When I was writing the contract review I had to use the phrase ‘chromium-plated’ which gave me a fit of the giggles as I recalled Cassandra in the Daily Mirror, who described Liberace as

 “The summit of sex, the pinnacle
 Of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything
 That he, she, and it can ever want
A deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling,
Chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous,
Quivering, g
iggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing,
Ice-covered heap of mother love”. 

Later on, I e-mailed Jon G to ask about the proper way to measure salt-solution density. Of course, D- barged in with a reply, simply quoting the ASTM text. But our hydrometer is only valid at 15 degrees C, while the ASTM chart doesn’t specify any density values below 20 deg C. So what are we to do?

23 Jun 13: At work we’ve had a new notice board put up in the corridor, made of a vivid blue felt material – very attractive, rather like the IKB panels at Tate Liverpool.
On the board is a huge black poster, designed to resemble woven carbon-fibre, with a list of Exova depots round the world and a series of square blocks in different colours, each carrying the name of a business unit manager together with their specialised field.

Next to John Carter’s name, we find the single word ‘Communicate!’ (JC issued a quotation for a job back in January- the test samples arrived three days ago)
Other coloured notes on this poster include Tim Cornes, Larry Candler, and Mark, all of whom are leaving us as part of the restructuring.

18 Jul 13: For the past few weeks we have been monitoring salt-spray fallout density against chloride ion titration values.
Jon G produced a scatter chart with dozens of data points, mainly 4.0 to 5.0 percent and an average linear trend. Danny promptly asked if these could be correlated to individual cabinets.
Then I pointed out that the range of our measurements (1.033 to 1.040) doesn’t match the ASTM B117 range (1.026 to 1.032) at 20 deg C. What will UKAS say?

22 Jul 13: Today we had our Marine meeting and John C was baffled when we explained to him about measuring the diameter of the funnels used to collect salt-spray, and having four dedicated light-sabres to stir the different salt solutions with. Blue for neutral, green for Prohesion, red for Acetic, and Yellow for artificial seawater.

Dance Electrique…
Wandering round town, admiring the architecture, I noticed the air-con units clustered like abstract fungi on the sides of hotels and fast-food joints. The standard test for these electrical units is BS EN IEC 60068-2-11 which involves exposing the individual components to five days of condensing humidity, followed by two days of warm neutral salt-spray fog. The resulting corrosion spots should not exceed 0.05 percent of the surface area on the test specimen; or about twelve full stops drawn on a blank A5 sheet.

If the test item in question consists of intimately aligned stainless steel, then crevice corrosion may be observed – caused by the failure of the protective chrome oxide film to regenerate. The items will thus display extensive rusting, but the individual components will not suffer any real damage at all.

These electrical units have been in service for many years on the outside of buildings in Manchester and will carry on cheerfully in the wind and the rain and the frost. However, if they were placed in a salt-spray cabinet, it is certain that they would show extensive corrosion and thus not be approved for use.

Perhaps we should try to obtain a few of these units for use as test samples: after all, many of them would have been used in the construction of large retail department stores. Over the past few years we have seen the collapse of BHS, House of Fraser, and Debenhams, so there may be plenty of empty buildings with redundant air-con fixtures.

It would be interesting to see if the units had sustained corrosion during their years of outdoor service, and if this extent of corrosion exceeded the Ri1 rating (0.05 percent), and if the onset of rusting had impaired their effective operation.