Crass Observation

Weds 12 May 2021

Today is the annual mass observation day in UK, where ordinary citizen-units are invited to keep a record of their daily activities.

The country has been in lockdown now for over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the past few months there have been intermittent easings of the lockdown rules; last August the Chancellor announced a scheme called ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, where restaurants could offer subsidised meals to diners.

This was immensely popular and encouraged people to start socialising again. At the time, the death rate from Covid was very low in the UK; however, within a few months it had reached new heights, and the total is now about 127 thousand.

My life is very similar to the situation a year ago; the position of my desk in the office has changed to be nearer to the window, but other than that, everything is unchanged. I still perform the same job, discussing income tax with members of the public. I still work the same hours, using the same equipment. We have had a significant pay rise (engineered by the Union, by persuading staff members to surrender some of their terms and conditions) which has provoked anger among the public, who want increased funding to be directed to healthcare workers.

For breakfast I had porridge with cashew nuts, pecans, raisins and dried cranberries.

I was planning to have an ornamental meal, with olives, onions and tinned oysters representing different types of quark. These would be arranged on round cracker biscuits (to represent protons and neutrons) and a group of these laid out on a plate to signify the nucleus of a boron atom.

I stare at the changing world outside my window: the council workers came round this morning with ride-on lawnmowers to cut the grass; it reminded me of Druids Heath, where the council grass-cutters would fling small stones through the wired-glass windows of our maisonette.

From the window I see the neighbour’s cat, elegant in a light brown collar. Sometimes there are birds; magpies, pigeons, blue tits, robins and occasionally a pheasant. Last night I went shopping at Tesco, and purchased various groceries, most of which would be considered non-essential: biscuits, ginger herbal tea bags, wine. This time last year we were being instructed to stay home at all times, except for once-weekly trips to buy essential supplies such as pasta, rice and toilet roll.

The supermarket PA system broadcasts gentle music to distract shoppers; last night they played ‘Sweet Harmony’, which took me right back to 1993 when I lived in Birmingham. I was fed up with the living conditions in my shared flat, so I rang Switchboard to ask if they had any rented rooms available.

They told me there was one on their books, so I arranged to view it one evening after work. On the way there I called into HMV and purchased a couple of cassette singles: ‘Sweet Harmony’, and ‘Little Bird’. Then I made my way to Balsall Heath to look at the room and meet my new landlord. It turned out to be the best move I ever made, and heralded the start of a very enjoyable episode in my life. After moving into this house, I became firm friends with my landlord and his gang of eccentric cronies; we would spend Saturday afternoons in Birmingham, shopping in the arcades for designer shirts and buying gorgeous little nibbles from Marks and Spencer. I recall one afternoon at work it rained hard for two hours, turning the factory yard into a lake. My bus home was delayed by two hours, and when I eventually got home I had to wade through knee-deep water on Stoney Lane.

Sunday 16 May:

The Horror Channel is showing a perfectly dreadful movie called ‘Lord of the Elves’, which features scantily-clad men, giant spiders and flying reptiles, and two lead actors who bear a worrying resemblance to Sonny and Cher. Shot entirely on location in the People’s Republic of Bakelite.

This morning’s commercials are for furniture stores, food-delivery services, erectile dysfunction treatment and intimate feminine antiseptic cream. And a service that enables you to switch between energy providers; there are so many of these nowadays that soon we will see adverts for services that allow you to switch between services that allow you to change your energy supplier.

Some of the major outsourcing personnel providers to the NHS Covid track-and-trace have decided to adopt a similar approach; it appears that an individual worker can find that their contract of employment has been switched to another employer without warning, so that they end up being put on an emergency tax code. The multiple employers in question are usually mini-umbrella companies based in the Philippines; this arrangement allows the parent company to avoid paying National Insurance, since the government has issued an exemption to encourage firms to recruit new members of staff.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 33.69 million cases, 599.8 thousand deaths
UK: 4.45 million cases, 127.6 thousand deaths

Another block fire

Sat 8 May 2021: It’s exactly four years since I started work at the office; chatting to complete strangers and discussing elaborate financial issues with them.

On Thursday we had the local council elections and a by-election at Hartlepool. This constituency seat has been a Labour stronghold (apart from a single term) for the past fifty years, but it fell to the Tories, who are now boasting that they can seize all the traditional working-class regions in the North. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is seen as a bland corporate lawyer, rather than a champion of workers’ rights.

On the Horror Channel they are showing ‘Journey to the far side of the Sun’, a 1969 space drama filled with cutting-edge technology; winking square lights, spinning tape reel computers, oscilloscope dials and instrument modules made from eau-de-nil Tufnol panels.

The languid electronic soundtrack is just right for a hungover Saturday morning. And the plot descends into crash landings and some weird stuff about a doppelganger planet; one online reviewer described it as ‘Thunderbirds meets 2001’.

In the news: a fire broke out in a 19-storey tower block in East London, on the New Providence Wharf development. This building had flammable cladding – similar to the material used on Grenfell Tower – and 40 residents needed ambulance treatment following the blaze. All over the UK, thousands of flat owners are finding that their dwellings are not adequately fireproof, and so are required to pay for a routine watch service to raise the alarm if a fire breaks out. This makes their apartments impossible to sell, so they are effectively trapped.

The cost of repairs and remedial work would initially be borne by the owners of the entire block, but this could then be passed on to the individual residents in the form of increased service charges or leasehold fees. Various proposals were made by the House of Lords to stop this transfer of financial burden, but the Commons defeated the amendments.

When one leaseholder contacted the department for Housing and Communities, he received a polite e-mail message offering sympathy, and suggesting that he could contact the Samaritans if he was suffering mental health problems due to the impending bill of £20,000 to remove the cladding.

Latest Covid-19 Statistics:
US: 33.42 million cases, 594.91 thousand deaths
UK: 4.43 million cases, 127.59 thousand deaths

Sun 9 May 2021: This morning, the Horror Channel is showing ‘The Day The Earth Stopped’, an absurdly derivative film about alien robots and the proposed annihilation of life on earth. Unlike the previous two movies (Michael Rennie and Keanu Reeves) of this name, the envoy is female – a startling break with tradition. The soundtrack includes long stretches of gentle, meditative synth music, which blend with the choir singing on Radio 4 in the next room. I was hoping for some airborne sharks to appear as part of the aliens’ plot, but was denied even this morsel of pleasure.

Next Wednesday is May 12, the national Mass Observation day when everybody is invited to submit a one-day journal for the national archives. Unfortunately, for many of us the world has indeed stood still – I am living in the same place, eating the same food, doing the same job, and obeying the same rules on social distancing as this time last year.

During the past 12 months I have had my hair cut once (by my partner) and have put on a lot of weight. We made a single visit to a pub, to have lunch with an old friend. I bought a new cellular telephone, since my old one – 7 years old – was becoming unable to hold its battery charge.

Fireproof Haematite

Elektra tries to make her way
Through the Mobius Maze, avoiding the
Reflected face that occupies
The crumpled walls of crimson glass

And one year on, around the sun
Hearing the same food, eating the same clothes,
Wearing the same songs, it feels as though
By rolling days betrayed
We’ve just forgotten how to grow.

Of course, Elektra doesn’t know
She’s trying still to come to terms
With memories of haematite, the
Furtive man with eyes of bronze.

Watching from behind a nervous curtain
She watches all the boys run round
Squirting water from the heart of a pig
And yelling ‘Follow me! I’ll make you wet!’
She doesn’t move. Behind her in the dark
Some lonely animal begins to stir.

Dull Grey Drama

Sunday 2 May 2021

Many years ago I worked in a factory making the acrylic paint that was used on the plastic housing for old-fashioned cathode ray TV sets. There were several firms located in Wales (Sanyo, Toshiba, Hitachi etc) which manufactured these television bodies, and each of them had their own trademark colour. To the average consumer, all these would appear to be a uniform metallic anthracite finish; but the formulation of every one was unique, with different grades of aluminium flake and polyester beads to impart the required appearance.

Anthracite: from the Greek ‘anthrakites’, or coal-like. A very dense form of carbon mineral having low levels of impurity and moisture. From 2021, Aberpergwm Mine (near Neath, S Wales) is the only source of high-grade anthracite in Western Europe.

Anthracene: extracted from coal tar, anthracene is a fused system of benzene rings. Many years ago I remember we synthesised a derivative of this material, one of the few occasions when we had access to benzene. We mixed a green solution of tetracyanoethylene with a solution of anthracene to create 9,10-dihydro-11,11,12,12-tetracyano-9,10-ethanoanthracene, demonstrating the Diels-Alder reaction.

The senior chemistry professor was supervising the lab session, and he wandered over to my bench, lifted the watch glass from the beaker and took a deep sniff. ‘Reminds me of my own days as a student’ he said happily, before wandering off to the next group.

Anthrax: ‘coal’, named by the Greeks after the black skin lesions observed in livestock infected with the bacillus.

Nowadays, nobody uses CRT boxes: flat-screen technology has enabled the production of large, intensely vivid screens for domestic cinema.

I wonder if Boris Johnson has a flat-screen telly in his flat above number 11? We have recently discovered that Bojo and Carrie have spent a vast amount of money on refurbishing their apartment, but he has refused to confirm or deny that the initial funding of this project came from a Tory party donor (which, if not declared, would be a breach of Parliamentary rules). Some newspapers are also claiming that Boris has tried to get party donors to provide financial support for his childcare costs.

In the news this week: Noel Clarke, highly regarded actor and director (who recently received the Outstanding Contribution Award from BAFTA) has been accused of sexual harassment by numerous female co-stars. In response to this ITV decided to cancel screening the final episode of his crime drama ‘Viewpoint’, and the BAFTA has suspended his membership and withdrawn the award.

The Lag B’Omer religious celebration at Mount Meron in Northern Israel attracted about 100 thousand ultra-orthodox visitors – ten times the expected crowds. The festival turned to tragedy when a group of people slipped on a metal stairway and caused a stampede, leading to over 44 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 33.1 million cases, 590.7 thousand deaths
UK: 4.42 million cases, 127.5 thousand deaths

The daily death toll from Covid in the UK has now dropped to single figures, thanks to social distancing and the vaccine rollout – but in India, the disease is out of control, with over 350,000 new cases being announced each day and widespread shortages of oxygen and medicine.

Anthracite, by Bartolo Cattafi (trans: Brian Cole)

Factories and trains lose their splendour,
they fade with time, they grow old,
they trespass on the grey of the fog.
Anthracite lasts, down there, black,
brittle, hard, reflections of metal,
earth closed and remote
with lights extinguished.

I understand the signs, the calcined stones of the boundary,
the fossil wing fastened to its side
the shrunken hands of wrecked shipmates
dead in the oceanless gulf.

It may be that tomorrow another funeral pyre will rise
not the open joyous combustion
that stains the air with smoke and amaranth,
the suffocating loss of the soul
ourselves embedded in the darkness.

I think of the rain, of the ashes, of the silence
which the hurricane leaves behind, mixed
in the virgin slab of mud
where troops of men and beasts
will again come to engrave
their passage through the world,
unaware at dawn on the black
heart of the world.
(2000 ARC Publications: ISBN-13 : 978-1900072427)

Post Offensive

Sat 24 April 2021:

This morning’s offering from the Horror Channel is ‘Mind Blown’, a sort of Dreamscape-meets-Avatar military sci-fi project, starring Luke Goss (!) and written by someone called Thunder Levin. I remember when Bros made an appearance at the HMV store in Oxford Street, bringing central London to a standstill. Chunks of the movie look like a Janet Jackson pop video, giving it a vaguely 1980s feel.

In the news: some text messages have been leaked to the press, revealing that Boris Johnson offered to adjust the tax regulations for the benefit of James Dyson (who had offered to develop and produce hospital ventilators for use in Covid-19 wards).

The press were then tipped off that these leaks originated from Dominic Cummings, the bitter, twisted former adviser to Number Ten. DC firmly denied this, and retaliated by publishing a blog post in which he accused Bojo of being reckless with public money and failing to uphold standards.

A long-running scandal has nearly been resolved at the High Court in London. Back in 1999, the UK Post Office installed a mega-computer system called ‘Horizon’, supplied by Fujitsu, in all their local branches. This system – like many IT networks – carried some programming bugs, which led to financial discrepancies in the branch accounts. The Post Office firmly announced that the computer system was completely reliable, and the accounting shortfalls were the result of pilfering by the sub-postmasters at the branches. It then proceeded to launch prosecutions for fraud against hundreds of staff, many of whom were convicted and sent to prison; having been convicted, they were then unable to obtain employment, left bankrupt and forced to live on benefits.

Post Office Limited refused to accept that their system was at fault and embarked on a huge campaign to challenge the claims, organising the wholesale destruction of evidence relating to the appeals.

39 sub-postmasters have now had their convictions overturned, but the Post Office maintains that this was simply because they were not able to get a fair trial; it refuses to acknowledge that Horizon caused any problems, or that the staff members did not steal any money.

The UK is seeing a decline in the number of cases of Covid-19, but India has started reporting record numbers of infections and deaths, and the UK has placed India on the ‘Red List’ of destinations. This means that travel to the UK is permitted only for UK nationals, who must spend ten days in isolation on arrival.

The government helpfully gave four days’ notice about the ‘red list’ elevation, leading to a mad scramble for plane tickets at exorbitant prices.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 32.7 million cases, 585 thousand deaths
UK: 4.4 million cases, 127.4 thousand deaths

According to the ‘Review of Standards 1980 – 2000 in English Literature’ (QCA, 2004), “In 1980, the study of a Shakespeare play was compulsory, but otherwise candidates were free to choose texts from any period.”

My own recollection of this was that we did not have any exposure to The Bard (happy belated birthday, sire!) at school; instead, we studied Churchill’s My Early Life, short stories by DH Lawrence, poems by Shelley, Lord of the Flies, A Man for All Seasons and Cider With Rosie. The Churchill text was long, opaque and impenetrably dull, and I was unable to engage with the book at all.

Perhaps it might have been better to give us three chunks of biography by different political figures and invite us to compare the styles of writing. Now that I have a little experience of real life it might be worth trying to re-read these books to see if they make any sense.

O-Level English

Dragging their satchels, nudging with scorn
They spray the air with luminous obscenities
Just another normal gang of schoolboy thugs
Articulate and arrogant, they’ve all been groomed
By years of imperceptible conviction to know
Where they belong – but more than that, to know
That they belong. Within this tribe

Each facet cultivates a different dream; one
Imagines a vacant life spent watching birds, just
Tiny specks against a fading sky. Another
Wants a banquet of extravagance, fast cars, big house,
A deafening parade of opportunities.

Our teachers guide us through the maze of narrative;
They didn’t bother telling us (‘cos after all,
We didn’t need to know) this is no ordinary
Bunch of lads on holiday. Securely trapped inside a world
Of merchant bankers, pinstriped suits, they glide along
On polished rails towards a plump, complacent destiny.

Meanwhile we struggle by on part-time jobs, to
Scrape a living with the help of other friends
Who may or may not still be here a month from now.
And none of us has ever lived
The country life, with horses, cows and sheep at every turn
We thought this way of life was set in stone, but
Five years from now these treasures will be gone.

Maximum Density, four dead degrees

Sunday 18 April 2021: Relieved citizen-units around the UK have been gathering in pub beer gardens, laughing and drinking with their friends. Yesterday saw the funeral of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Normally this would have been a state occasion, with huge crowds lining the route of the procession to pay their respects; but due to the ongoing Covid restrictions, the mourners were limited to 30 at St George’s Chapel and the event was on a modest scale.

Women in the UK tend to live longer than men, and Her Majesty was five years younger than the Duke; even so, nothing can prepare somebody for the loss of a spouse after 73 years of marriage. The TV reporters struggled to find suitably dignified comments to fill the airtime without lapsing into cliché. The Daily Mail took an unseemly interest in what the mourners were wearing, and how much their outfits had cost. Thirty years ago, the death of Prince Philip would have simply closed down all the TV channels (and pubs, cinemas and restaurants) leaving us to reflect on the life of a man who reached three-score years and ten in the service of the Royal Household.

In other news: corruption in the Tory party as it turns out Matt Hancock is a shareholder in a firm owned by his sister. The firm won a contract to supply document shredding services to the NHS. Hancock oversees the award of NHS contracts, which can run to millions of pounds. He managed to completely forget that it was his responsibility to report this family link in the Register of Interests.

According to a DHSC spokesman, “Ministers have no involvement in the awarding of these contracts, and no conflict of interest arises.” And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything…

Latest Covid figures:
US: 32.3 million cases, 580.7 thousand deaths
UK: 4.39 million cases, 127.2 thousand deaths

Tuesday 20 April 2021: It is a bright cold day in April and the clocks are striking
(5n-squared +3)/(3n-cubed +7)
where n is the number of covid cases per thousand head of population.

Yesterday’s figures for the UK included just four people dying ‘within 28 days of a positive Covid diagnosis’ which is the lowest number for several months.

In the news: the big six footie teams have started discussions to join a breakaway European Super-League, sparking dismay among fans and politicians. These clubs tend to have foreign-born players and managers, and their assets are owned by institutions based outside of the UK. Back in the old days, proud fathers would name their children after players – or sometimes the entire team – of their favourite club.

Welcome to Britain! Roll up, roll up; great closing down sale, everything must go!

Dreams of Cheese

Saturday 10 April 2021: Last night for tea we had some leftover chili and rice, together with grilled camembert on garlic bread; it was very tasty. I ended up having some unusually vivid dreams, in which I was living in a sort of student apartment block where a string quartet rehearsed on the balcony opposite. I was also busy trying to sort out some important documents, folding them up into a small envelope and sending them to myself by post. The walls were decorated with lavish spray-painted murals in a range of electric blues and greens, featuring trompe l’oeil Roman numerals which jutted from the wall, casting bold painted shadows.

Back in 2013, when I never made my trip to Chicago, I didn’t manage to see the Museum of Science and Industry, the Jewelers’ Building, or the Wrigley Building, or the London Guarantee Building with its fantastic Beaux Arts architecture.

I never walked down West Lake Street at 6.45 a.m. staring at the bookshops and the cafes and the dynamic young student putting in a 90-minute shift as a cleaner before heading off to study medicine with engineering. Just a glance at her clothes and hair alerted me to the fact I was no longer in England. Or, rather, since I didn’t actually go there, ‘…the fact that I wasn’t no longer in England.’

If I had actually gone there, I might have noticed that the roads all seemed incredibly wide, as though a normal high street had been prised apart and a section of the M62 laid down the middle. But I hadn’t, so they weren’t.
I didn’t manage to photograph any of the flagpoles that announced each building as it came into view. But of course, the flags are all at half-mast today…

This morning, the Horror Channel is showing ‘Alien Fury; Countdown to Invasion’, a routine sci-fi drama with action sequences but a miniscule budget and nothing in the way of special effects.
All the other main channels have cleared their schedules and are showing wall-to-wall tributes to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh whose death was announced yesterday lunchtime. Endless hours have been given over to repeating stories about his distinguished military career, technical prowess, and commitment to helping youngsters via the Awards Scheme. Apparently, HRH was not a keen fan of lavish ceremonial tributes, and might not have felt comfortable with all this attention, when his role in life had always been to provide discreet, unfailing support to HM the Q.

One of the first broadcast tributes came from Prime Minister Boris, who referred to the Duke as being her Majesty’s ‘strength and stay’ for over 70 years. Viewers probably had some raised eyebrows at this, coming from a serial philanderer. He also included a gag about ‘expert carriage driver’ – Prince Philip had a road crash a couple of years back but didn’t face any criminal charges.

In other news:
A volcano has erupted on the island of St Vincent, forcing 20 thousand people to be evacuated from their homes.

More accusations of Tory Conyism, with revelations that Rishi Sunak – multimillionaire UK Chancellor – had offered to lobby various senior figures at the Bank of England to try and secure support for Greensill Capital. This firm employed some bloke called David Cameron as an advisor, and the demise of Greensilll left DC holding millions of worthless shares. Poor DC!

The Brexit trade agreement has disrupted customs arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – as predicted by people who opposed the leave campaign. And this has now provoked violent unrest in Belfast, with crowds of teenagers hurling petrol bombs at the police and setting fire to vehicles.

Latest Covid figures:
US: 31.87 million cases, 575.6 thousand deaths
UK: 4.37 million cases, 127 thousand deaths

Sunday 11 April 2021: a few weeks back, our great leader set out the roadmap to recovery, during which various retail and leisure sectors would be able to open their doors to the public. Tomorrow we have the pubs reopening, in a strictly limited fashion – drinkers will be able to sit outdoors only and receive table service.

This morning, the ground carried patches of frost; so it is likely that the weather next week will make al fresco drinking a bitterly unpleasant experience.
And then everybody will gather en masse in burger joints and kebab shops after they have had a few pints, and we will see the number of Covid infections gradually start to rise…again.

I Didn’t Go

Journal Entry, 2 April 2021: It’s Good Friday, so perhaps I shouldn’t be watching the Horror Channel this morning. When I turned the box on, it launched into a natural history prog from years ago, where David Attenborough was showing us the mating rituals of giant centipedes. Not the best thing to watch while eating breakfast.

In the news: the government released a report into racial inequality which found that the UK was an exemplar of good race relations and there was no institutional racism in the country. We can’t help thinking that this conclusion was sent out two years ago by Munira Mirza, who then instructed the commission members to find evidence which supported it.

The report also includes a chilling reference to slavery, saying that this needs to be presented in a balanced way as part of the Caribbean Experience, and how grateful we are to immigrants for enriching the English language.

In another piece of revisionist reporting, MP Vicky Ford dismissed Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign: ‘We very much welcome his support for the initiative, but this project of mine was already underway.’ Which is presumably why she voted against extending free school meals, and why Boris had two phone conversations with Rashford.

The Covid epidemic in the UK is beginning to subside, with over 30 million people having received at least one vaccine dose. Latest figures:
US: 31.2 million cases, 566.6 thousand deaths
UK: 4.35 million cases, 126.7 thousand deaths

I never got to spend my birthday in Chicago; for a few years I had entertained vague ideas about travelling to this city when I reached fifty. I would eat seafood in glamorous rooftop restaurants, witness drive-by shootings, visit art galleries and hear lectures, and attend a public rehearsal by the symphony orchestra.

The shopping mall would be the size of a small town and carry quirky shoes and jackets with painfully high price tags. There would be street entertainers; mime artists, buskers, living statues and religious maniacs unleashing a torrent of conspiracy-fuelled nonsense.

And then, a few years later, I would be able to pass my evenings at home by pulling out a box-file filled with city maps, receipts, concert programmes, and train tickets. There would be a series of postcards which I sent to myself: ‘The hotel receptionist loved my English accent and recommended a hipster bar – waiters on roller-skates, seventies vinyl funk – and I had a Polaroid taken with the signed Kirk Douglas movie poster’ etc.

It would all feel like a dream, or a half-remembered radio play on Sunday evening…
But then, when I was forty-nine, I changed jobs and found myself with a reduced income and no holiday allowance, so my planned trip was postponed. One of the postcards I never sent would carry a short poem:

‘Do atoms really look like grains of sand?
Or are they all just dainty knots
Tied in a line of whispered prayer?

I was thinking about this when I watched Graham Norton last night, whose guests included Frank Skinner. FS is resuming his UK tour – cut short a year ago – and has also published a book of prayers. This was mentioned in passing, but then the conversation turned back to the other guests.

This was a shame; we have just spent a distressing year with millions of people around the world falling ill or losing their jobs due to Covid.
Prayer may be an appropriate response when we encounter this kind of epic problem; it will not cure the ailment, but it will encourage us to formulate the exact nature of the problem and the steps needed to bring about (some kind of) a solution.

When I didn’t go to Chicago in 2013, I didn’t visit the Holy Name Cathedral or the Holy Trinity Polish Cathedral or the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral to admire the architecture, or the paintings and sculptures, or to inhale the atmosphere of peace and reverence that fills the echoing space around.

I didn’t spend half-an-hour on Thursday night scanning the various restaurant menus, drooling with pleasure at the thought of sole with chorizo or chili-flecked oysters. Eventually a handsome young waiter didn’t come out of the restaurant and invite me in to sit at the bar, where I could enjoy a cocktail and a series of tiny taster shots, to decide what I felt comfortable eating. When I didn’t tell him that I was visiting from the UK, he never showed me the satisfied customer reviews from Nottingham, Oxford and Durham that they hadn’t received in the past three weeks.

I didn’t make my way to the Chicago Cultural Center, whose impossible grandeur didn’t leave me speechless, nor did I visit the Art Institute of Chicago, with its legendary collection of 19- and 20-century paintings. I wasn’t there, so I didn’t end up going to a small viewing of a student art show in  a basement cinema where a dozen talented youngsters never talked about their work in a relaxed, European atmosphere.

Crack that Folding Smile

Journal Entry, Sat 12 April 1997: Wrote to PT, sent back the car logbook, tax disc, insurance policy and applied to Easy Rider bike training school.
Last night went to Freddie’s, saw Martin and Melvin, then went to the Old Silk Mill. The manager pointed me out to one of the other customers, making a hand gesture clearly implying that I was a nancy-boy. Young Alan is no longer working there.

Came back home in a bad mood.

This morning went with Kim, Darsh and Abigail to Kirby-in-Ashfield for a T’ai Chi seminar. We did the ‘brush knee step’ thing in detail, also Frankenstein walking but with someone pushing us – learn to transmit applied force into the ground – then did Fragrant Buddha Chi Kung, accompanied by Chinese Temple music.
Lots of wafting hands around – ‘moving the universe’ and ‘playing stringed instrument’.

Went down to the bus station and saw old Dave from Karate class.  I mentioned that I was going for a pint at the Silk Mill and he suddenly said ‘You’ll never guess…there’s a gay bar just down from Friargate. I had no idea ‘til this guy started chatting to me!’

I noted his startled expression, and casually said ‘Oh yeah, I drink there all the time.’

Sat 19 April 1997: Last night rang Riaz, told him I’d sold the car and might be going to Brean by train. Bought some Wranglers (!) and a tape of 70s rubbish (Jimmy James and the Vagabonds). New library books: Enoeda – Shotokan syllabus. In Shoto, shutouke is obviously preparation for a grab. Extravagant gedan barai. Blocking hand lower – protect lower ribs. They call it pinan shodan, we call it pinan nidan. Sandan – beginning blocks extend further from body. Kicks are aimed really high – sokuto not mae geri.

Hollinghurst, ‘The Folding Star’. I looked inside the front cover and it said ‘Edward Manners – 33, disaffected, in search of a new life’, and immediately thought: ‘That’s me me me!’

[Notes: I skimmed through The Folding Star and enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t realise how dense and elaborate the cultural background is to this work – see “Concealed Solemnities: Miltonic Inversions in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star” by Raymond-Jean Frontain, a detailed analysis published by University of Nebraska Press]

Sun 28 March 2021: Yesterday the Horror Channel showed ‘Planet of the Sharks’, another global disaster comedy thriller in which the polar caps have melted, most of the world is now underwater, and huge killer sharks are threatening all the other life on earth.

Meanwhile, in the real world: a teacher is in hiding after showing his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoons about Mohammed. A crowd of angry parents congregated outside the school to protest about this blasphemy, and have been insisting that they should be given places on an advisory panel to discuss religious studies.

In Scotland, former leader Alex Salmond has launched a new political party called ‘Alba’ having no policy other than to push for another independence referendum.

The government has proposed a new ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ which will outlaw non-violent protests if they are noisy or disruptive. In response to this, large protest marches were organised in Manchester and Bristol, where the main police station was attacked with stones, bottles and fireworks.

Latest Covid-19 figures:
US: 30.92 million cases, 562 thousand deaths
UK: 4.33 million cases, 126 thousand deaths

Last week we decided to look at a couple of  houses for sale – the auction website was charmingly vague about just how much work was needed to render them suitable for habitation, and failed to mention the sprawling damp or hefty cracks in the ceiling…

Food equals Geometry

Food equals chemistry; the gradual unravelling of carbohydrates to set free the energy needed for respiration, and the hydrolysis of proteins and saturated fats.

Food equals geometry; an elegant configuration of taste and texture, a flag to herald the landscape of desire.

This morning the Horror Channel is showing home fitness commercials for various bits of equipment to help you build muscle tone, including exercise bikes and resistance harness units to cushion the back.

The spread of Covid in the UK is beginning to slow; the daily rate of infection has fallen to about 5,000 with ninety new deaths being reported. On Tuesday, the nation fell silent for a minute in reflection to remember those who had died from the disease, and their grieving families. Of course, Boris decided to lighten the mood later that day, making a crass comment about greed and capitalism being responsible for the success of the vaccine.

We need to find a new way of looking at the process of polymer science. Here’s a small chunk of Keats’ Hyperion: a sheet of plastic is a vast catalogue of events, from the catalyst to the spherulite structures to the thermal stresses and the unwanted degradation caused by sunlight. Do we try to connect the injection moulding machines with the Titans’ thunderous voice? Is the spirit-leaved book a gathering of infra-red profiles, sharp spikes that promise to betray the pendant groups through which adhesion can occur?

Last week I went for a walk – the only permitted leisure activity, provided we maintain a socially distanced two-metre exclusion zone – and found myself wandering along a rather nice street filled with smart semi-detached houses, each with a nice garden and nice double glazed windows and having a fairly new upmarket motor parked outside. The entire scene conveyed suburban happiness and material achievement.

I carried on, enjoying the sunshine and listening to Sigur Ros on my Hitachi MP3 player; from a forgotten keyboard somewhere in Iceland, a series of nylon polyester twinkles filled my ears, gradually swept aside by a grainy cloud of human lips.

But when I looked round, I noticed that the road surface was in poor condition, with severe potholes in the tarmac. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for the UK economy; we have lots of new cars and booming property prices, but the underlying structure is unsound and corrupt.

Hyperion, book 2 (extr), Distorted from John Keats

Of density, viscosity, and surface tension bold,
Ionic permittivity, but most of all the muon flux.
Against these quantum fields he strove in vain; for

Entropy had poured a proton mask upon his head,
An inelastic poison: so that Planck,
Affrighted, kept his still, and let him pass
First onwards in, among the circuit boards.

As with us mortal men, the robot frame
Is persecuted more, and fever’d more,
When it is nighing to the mournful house
Where other hearts are sick of the same bruise;
So Newton, as he walk’d into the midst,
Felt faint, and would have sunk among the rest,
But that he met Dirac’s harsh eye,
Whose mightiness, and awe of him, at once
Came like an inspiration; and he shouted,

“Hadrons, behold your quarks!” at which some groan’d;
Some started on their feet; some also shouted;
Some wept, some wail’d, all bow’d with reverence;
And Isis, uplifting her black plastic veil,
Show’d her pale cheeks, and all her forehead wan,
Her eye-brows thin and jet, and hollow eyes.
There is a function in the metastable pines
When Tesla lifts his voice; there is a noise
Among immortals when a God gives sign,
With hushing finger, how he means to load
His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought,
With thunder, music, and vibronic pomp:

Such noise is like the roar of bleak-grown pines;
Which, when it ceases in this synthetic world,
No other sound succeeds; but ceasing here,
Among these fallen, Newton’s voice therefrom
Grew up like organ, that begins to Moog
Its strain, when other harmonies, stopt short,
Leave the dinn’d air vibrating silverly.

Thus grew it up—“Not in my own sad breast,
Which is its own great judge and searcher out,
Can I find reason why ye should be thus:
Not in the legends of the first of days,
Studied from that old spirit-leaved book
Which crisp Uranium with finger bright
Sav’d from the shores of darkness, when the waves
Low-ebb’d still hid inside a glowing room;—

And the which book ye know I ever kept
For my firm-based footstool:—Ah, infirm!
Not there, nor in sign, symbol, or portent
Of element, truth and beauty, charming air,
And stranger fire lost in war, at peace,

One against one, or two, or three, or all
Each overclock’d against the other three,
As fire with air loud warring when rain-floods
Drown both, and press them both against earth’s face,
Where, finding xenon’s bright and noble rot
Unhinges the poor world;—not in that strife,
Wherefrom I take strange lore, and read it deep,
Can I find reason why ye should be thus:

No, no-where can unriddle, though I search,
And pore on Nature’s universal scroll
Even to swooning, why ye, Divinities,
The first-born of all shaped antimatter Gods,
Should cower beneath what, in comparison,
Is untremendous might. Yet ye are here,
Downcast and spurned, and battered, ye are here!
O Hadrons, shall I say ’Vortex!’—Ye groan:
Shall I say ’Void!’—Ye groan. What can I then?
O pulsar wide! O unseen vortex dear!

More Vapid Reflexionz

Sunday 21 March 2021:
Today is census day, when the entire population of England and Wales is due to be counted. Scotland has postponed their head-count, on the basis that the Covid pandemic has caused an abnormal shift in population, with some people in hospital or living in temporary bubbles with relatives.

The census includes questions about education levels, employment, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I didn’t have time to put a full description of my working day; I sit at a small table wearing headphones and chatting to the public. To keep my voice lubricated, I sip at a glass of summer fruits cordial whose flamboyant pink colour reminds me of the lurid mouthwash favoured by my dentist in 1972. Every so often, the laptop will lose connection to the staff network, leaving me in limbo and waiting to reconnect.

While waiting, I browse through my collection of elderly paperbacks: Lions and Shadows, The Haunter of the Dark, Phaedrus. In Plato’s book I find a brief discussion about how the written word is inferior to the spoken; amusing, when I was trying to webchat to customers using a set of clumsy stock phrases. He also includes a couple of feverish passages describing physical attraction: “So now it is all in a state of ferment and throbbing…as the nourishing moisture falls upon it the stump of each feather swells and strives to grow…so that the soul is driven mad by the pain of the pricks in every part…” and so on, in a kind of Miller-esque erotic frenzy.

This morning the Horror Channel is showing ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’, an eco-disaster thriller about torrential flooding and the attempts by scientists to create a DNA archive of life on earth. Ridiculous, overblown nonsense.

In the news today: thousands of residents in New South Wales have been ordered to evacuate their homes as torrential rain causes widespread flooding. Last year, the same districts were affected by extreme drought and bushfires, leading to the deaths of a billion wild animals and 34 people.

In Iceland, a volcanic eruption occurred near Fagradalsfjall, a mountain on the Reykjanes Peninsula, around 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital Reykjavik. Seismic activity in this region has increased strongly over the past month.

And an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 has struck Japan, almost exactly 10 years after the massive tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima power plant.

In the news last week: A male police officer avoided a prison sentence after admitting to the drunken assault of a woman late at night. Instead of jail or community service, Oliver Banfield was served with a curfew notice and ordered to pay costs. This comes just a week after the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard.

In a separate incident, two days ago it was announced that a serving police officer had been charged with rape and sexual assault.
Police Sergeant Ben Lister, of West Yorkshire Police has been suspended from the force, and is set to appear at Bradford Magistrates’ Court on March 24.
This is a tiny number of cases but still creates the impression that victims of sexual assault can’t really trust the police.

Latest Covid statistics:
US: 30.48 million cases, 554 thousand deaths
UK: 4.29 million cases, 126 thousand deaths