Architecture, Manchester May 2017

It has been a grim week for Manchester. Music fans were the target of a suicide bomber who killed 22 and injured dozens more at the Arena concert hall. Meanwhile, large parts of the city’s architecture remind us of a far-off world of Victorian prosperity. We forget that England was a dangerous place in the 1870s; for the less well-off life was harsh, food was scarce, and the rule of law was weak. But none of this is apparent from the ornate structures which dominate the skyline of cottonopolis…

Meanwhile, on the corner of Princess and Whitworth, we have a huge building site which was earmarked back in 2005 for a luxury residential and leisure complex. Unfortunately the UK economy tanked three years later, so the funding dried up; and the building site is still just a concrete bowl of disappointment…

Drift against Hope

“Every schoolchild” writes Craig Brown in his review of Peter Ackroyd’s recent book about gay life and culture in London “has been taught the tale, first mentioned by the Venerable Bede, of the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great setting eyes on a group of fair-haired young English slaves in a market. On being told that they were Angles, Pope Gregory is said to have replied ‘Not Angles but angels’.”
And so it goes: the phrase ‘as every schoolboy knows’ is used to simultaneously imply that there is a vast body of common knowledge which aids social cohesion, while poking fun at those poor individuals who, through their own  negligence, failed to attend Grammar School and never mastered Greek or Latin.

Mark Liberman has tracked down a reference to particularly brilliant pupils: He quotes Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), vol. I, Lecture XVII, in which Blair writes:
I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: “Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere.” Not Cicero the pop singer, but Cicero the classical historian.

The poet Macaulay is also regularly cited for his 1840 essay on Clive: “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa”.

Alas, I didn’t study the classics at school; in fact we didn’t study much of anything for three years, since the local edukayshun authority had chosen us as guinea-pigs for a new system of teaching. Instead of English, History and Geography, we would be assigned a Topic, which the entire class would study for a year, and which would include the humanities and language skills as part of an organic whole, rather than being taught separately.
This system probably works very well if you have well-behaved pupils and lavish classroom facilities; but those were the far-off days before the arrival of computers or photocopiers. Indeed, I spent much of that period living with my grandmother in a terraced house with no fridge, telephone, washing machine or colour TV.

So we embarked on the grand topic – for example, Roads and Rail – for which we studied the development of the road network starting with the Romans and moving up to Thomas Telford and the motorway system. As part of this topic, we learned the Highway Code. Since my family didn’t own a car, I never managed to link the requirements of the Code to normal everyday transport, and it remained for many years an abstract set of rules and decorative road signs.
It was a severely patchy schooling, and left some formidable gaps: we never did Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Byron; we never studied the works of Plutarch or Cicero or Sophocles; and, constantly aware of these shortcomings, I find myself compelled to haunt charity shops where I buy second-hand paperbacks of Balzac and Gide and Rushdie and Zola and Christobel Kent and John Cowper Powys and Thomas Pynchon and Armistead Maupin and Matt Thorne, whose ‘Eight Minutes Idle’ I read in 2003, not knowing that fourteen years later I would end up in a call-centre myself.

I also spent a lot of time in the library. Normally I am highly organised, and will return my books on time; but on three occasions I ended up being fined for taking them back overdue. One of these was in 1979, when I was hastily transferred to a council-run care home. I had a copy of ‘The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse’ which was due to go back to the Blue Gates library in Smethwick; the journey there took over two hours, and on arriving I discovered that I didn’t have enough money with me to pay the fine (70 pence was an awful lot of money in those days) but they were kind enough to accept the meagre sum I had taken.
The second occasion was in about 2006, when I had borrowed a book about Time Management Techniques; it seemed faintly hilarious that this, of all books, was going to incur a small fine for late return. And the third time was when I was late returning Katie Roiphe’s book of essays, ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’. And what could be messier than forgetting to return one’s books on time?

The concept of ‘Every Schoolboy Knows’ can be gradually extended to the sweeping statements employed by grown-ups to impress their workmates or family members. Many British factories have a canteen, with grubby eau-de-nil walls and Formica tables where the lads will sit eating sandwiches, playing cards, and reading The Sun.
Occasionally, someone will comment aloud about a story they have just been reading: ‘Look at this, some woman teacher has been convicted of having sex with a couple of fifteen year old lads!’ And there will be a grumbled chorus of lucky bleeders and it’s what every young lad needs, which undergoes a neat segue into the tedious narrative about how it’s different when you’ve got a bloke messing around with young girls, I mean you can’t trust any bloke who would want to be a teacher, it’s not a real job for a man is it?

I sometimes wonder if my workmates had been coached in the sequence of these debates, since their comments were exact copies of the remarks I had heard previously and would hear again at different factories in the future.
Other remarks which formed the staple of canteen conversations were modern art: ‘Did-you-see-that-Lowry-picture-on-the-news-last-night-four-million-qiud-at-auction-pile-of-rubbish-my-five-year-old-could-do-better-than-that’
And drink-driving: ‘Well, everybody knows you drive better after a couple of pints, makes you more relaxed’
And higher education: ‘Honestly, these bloody students, useless the lot of ‘em. Haven’t got a clue, good at passing exams but no real experience of anything.’ When people look back at the nineties, they might realise that the Blair Government successfully changed the nature of higher education. Instead of being a glamorous rite-of-passage for a small handful of wealthy teenagers, the University system was made available to anybody with enough brains who wanted to join the worlds of business or science. 

I derived great benefit from attending Polytechnic back in the eighties; it got me away from my home town and forced me to become independent. I even managed to learn a bit about Chemistry on the way, although I soon found that there was a significant gap between what we had been taught and what was considered useful by the industrial sector. But now, thirty years later, I find myself working as a call-centre advisor, rather like the hero of ‘Eight Minutes Idle’, a bleak, funny novel about a phone centre in Bristol.

Some people view higher education as a Bad Thing, claiming that it takes talented youngsters away from home at just the time they should be working to cement their position in the local community, starting a family and building a career. And worse, it exposes them to new ideas and different types of people; ‘Oh mummy, it’s just so awful! Caroline’s house doesn’t have a tennis court or a piano!’

But life in the call-centre is a bit awkward. The weather is warm, so we need to open the windows, which means that we can hear the constant banging from the building site nearby. I don’t know what they’re constructing; a nuclear power station or car park or something. Half of the open-plan office is full of staff dealing with customers on the phone, so our instructor is unable to shout – instead, she wanders from desk to desk, trying to make sure that we are all at the same point in our training schedule.

And it was thirty years ago today…that I landed my first proper job, working as a Lab Technician, feeding bricks and concrete lumps into a crusher, after which they were milled to a fine dust and mixed with dilute acid.

Journal Entries, 26 May 1987: Phone Manpower – arrange interview, see Joyce Jones and tell her can’t come tomorrow, go Dole Office and change signing-on time, buy Baby Bio for spider plant.
Posted my weird letter to John F and my even weirder letter to Steve R. A bee just got into my bedroom, obviously thinking that the Shostakovich trio was a fellow insect in distress. He went all round the room looking for something.
27 May 87: Industrial Research Lab, Curzon St, Digbeth. Went to lab to be interviewed, then went to sign on, then went to Day Care Centre. While there, had phone call from Manpower saying ‘Success’. ‘Don’t know’ I said, and he replied ‘No, I’m calling to tell you that they want to offer you the job!’
He told me I would be starting next Monday, so I went to the jobcentre and handed in my signing-on card. Then later I had a phone call from Manpower telling me they now want me to start tomorrow.
30 May 87: In the post had a dole giro for two days’ money, so I put it in an envelope and posted it back through DHSS letterbox.

Uncertain Surfactant


The Adventures of 2001: A Camp Odyssey
Journal Entry, 2 May 2001: God, what a hideous cosmodemonic day, a psycho tag filled with bukrah-fil-mish-mish and inverse collapsed nus-nus.
Got up early, walked to town, got the 7.29 to Peterborough, tried to buy a BT phonecard and almost got a Cellnet card instead.
Got train to Huntingdon. Some little old lady asked me to look after her bag while she went to spend a penny. I was panic-stricken, thinking of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Ministry of Fear. Anyway, she came back and I heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Thank God she’s not a Russian spy.’
And from her bag she pulled a glossy programme for a Bolshoi Ballet concert. Argh!

Then got train to Huntingdon (didn’t see John Major) and got cab to Linx.
Technical questionnaire: chemical formula, project management, stainless steel, and ‘what do you know about Buckminsterfullerene?’
To which I replied C-60 or C-70, balls or tubes, metal complexes, conductivity, mechanical strength, and Leonardo’s dodecahedron sketch in the Ambrosian museum in Milan.
Showing off as usual.  They didn’t offer to pay any of my travel expenses. Nor did they ask anything about why I was made redundant.
Rang Harco in Grimsby, cancelled interview tomorrow – transport problems.

Got back to Tamworth, went to the Jazz Club – it was Terry’s birthday, so they played a bossa nova version of ‘Happy Birthday to You’.
And Tuesday night was the AGM for Derby MAG. I arrived early, chatted to Kate, then Liz turned up at 25 past 8. She looked stunned, gesturing at the empty room: ‘Is this it?’
Anyway, within the next 10 mins everyone turned up including Tony S (whose business is thriving) and a new couple – Andy and Angie.
We had loads of discussion about rally. AGM itself was short and sweet; unanimous appointment of committee.

3 May 2001: Mail – letter from Sci-Temps about my forthcoming interview at Acordis including idiotic advice for interviewees.
Rang Perry at Listgrove: thrashed out a list of 15 companies to whom he wants to send my details on-spec.
Rang David Keen: Vantico have decided to focus on experienced epoxy synthetic chemists so I’m out of the running. Gave me some highly encouraging advice – sell myself more at interviews.

Fri 9 Mar 01:
Rang Austin M: he asked if I was still interested in a job with Spencer in Aberdeen, I said yeah, so he said they would arrange a flight for me.
Wed 21 Mar 01: Snowing fairly hard outside.
Mail: letter from Britannia about interest rates, rejection letter from BIP, and a note about my Nat Savings Certs.
A few weeks ago a couple of brothers who own (‘mismanage’) a pig farm decided to save money by not boiling the leftover swill they fed to their animals. This saved a bit of money and time, but also possibly led to the current epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease.

On train to Sheffield, some girl had a mobile ringtone of the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme. Of course her conversation wasn’t as thrilling or riddled with espionage as it should have been.
British Telecom – not so long ago, they attracted hostile comment because their profits were measured in pounds per second. Now they’re in debt, share price slumped over past year.
Rang Austin M: any news on my possible interview in Aberdeen? He said he’d call back next Weds with arrangements.
26 Mar 01: This morning on way to town I saw a heron standing in the river eating a big silver fish. Then near Ramsbury saw a lorry painted with “Mister Blair Just Be Glad Livestock Can’t Vote” on a farm whose stock of healthy pigs had been slaughtered cos their neighbour had F-and-M.

Tue 10 Apr 01: Well well well; just as I’m about to start signing on, I get a phone call (9.30 a.m.) from Nick Dubbels at Spencer Coatings in Aberdeen saying they want to offer me a six-month contract.
[Note: as I recall, the conversation went like this:
Hello, is that Tim N? This is Nick D. I’m just calling to offer you a job.
Great! When would you like me to start?
Well, we would need to arrange an interview first…
Great! When would you like me to come up for the meeting?
Well, we’re not sure when the MD is available because he’ll need to be involved…
Great! Can I get in touch with the Jobcentre and tell them that I’ve been offered a job?
Well, it’s only going to be a temporary six month contract…
Great! When do you want me to start?
Well, we need to sort out an interview first, and you need to make sure that you would be happy working here….
Great! I spoke to Austin M a few weeks ago, and he told me that I had just the kind of technical skills you were looking for; he said he had interrogated my ex-colleagues who had assured him that I was a good worker who would have no difficulty fitting in with your team at Spencer’s. So when would you like me to start?
Well, we need to check when the MD gets back from an overseas meeting and we’ll arrange an interview….]

Thu 19 Apr 01: Rang Nick D at Spencer Coatings – he made some excuse about himself and Austin M arranging to recruit me without firstly getting approval from the MD who has been away and now reappeared.

Mon 23 Apr 01: Rang Steve Turvey at Crosbie Coatings – they’ve made no decision yet, following my interview on 9 Apr.

Thu 31 May 01: seven teenagers (between 13 and 16) from Tyneside are in hospital after taking amphetamines and cannabis and getting wildly drunk.  Meanwhile, two 19-year old girls in America have been charged with attempting to buy beer in a restaurant. Daughters of George W Bush.

Tue 5 Jun 01: Rejection letter from Spencer Coatings. ‘Dear Sir’ not ‘Dear Tim’ or ‘Dear Dr Norris’, signed by Phil Buck no less. This after Kevin Phelan said ‘You’ll be coming up to Scotland with us, then?’ back in March.

Document 46B – 219 – K77

Approved by the NOVA-848 Committee for Technical and Cultural Elevation of the Faithful: A Fictitious and Frivolous Account of Events, People and Places, Seeking to Preserve That Which Might Be Forgotten.
Edited transcript of meeting held at the Magnolia Chapel Children’s Home, Selly Oak.

Present: Simon Wilkins, Social Worker assigned to Child Y
 Ethel Cardewson, House Mother at Magnolia Chapel.
Father Trevor McKillip, Priest at St Joseph’s Church.

While waiting to be admitted to the Senior House Mother’s office, Simon began reading the list of rules pinned to the wall near the main door to the building. Beneath a splendidly engraved heading, which read “Conditional Indulgence and the Dimensions of Sin; Instructions to residents at the Magnolia Chapel Care Home”, he found the following strictures:

The staff members are responsible for all cooking and cleaning duties, but the children must do the washing up after each meal.
Smoking and drinking are not permitted on the premises.
No door keys are to be issued to anyone except approved members of staff.
Attendance at Sunday Mass is compulsory unless in cases of genuine illness.
Children must be advised to attend confession once a month. The total number of sins should be between four and eight; the required contrition should be at least five Ave Marias, but no more than three full Rosary sequences.
When using the bathroom, children must wash their own underwear and place on the drying rack. Each child shall be allowed to use four spoonfuls of detergent powder to do their washing.
When using the sink, always add the hot water after the sink is quarter-full of cold water to prevent burns.
Any homework must be inspected by the House Mother before being taken to school. No confidential information about the Home or the members of staff shall be disclosed.
Ashtrays must be washed in cold water only; the use of hot water imparts an unpleasant odour.
Taps must be turned on using the left hand, and turned off using the right hand. This prevents the accumulation of sin on the metal surface.
There are six orders of demons who govern the attack on the human senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste and thought.  At the start of every hour, we should become aware of any sinful temptations which approach from these various aspects.  

He was about to ask someone about these remarks when the door opened and he was ushered into the office. Minutes of the meeting are briefly recorded below:

SW: When did you first meet (Child Y)
TM: About two or three months ago. The house mother was concerned that his spiritual development was being neglected and that he might fall in with a bad crowd, so she invited me to give some after-school tuition.

SW: How often did you see (Child Y)? Did the meetings take place at the church?
TM: No, he did attend one of the youth club meetings at the church, but then I would call in to visit Magnolia. Usually once a week, but sometimes twice.

SW: And what form did the tuition take? Did you supply teaching materials, or did he just ask for help with normal schoolwork?
TM: Usually he would bring his school exercise book and I would go through some of the questions with him.

SW: And do you have any teaching qualifications related to any of the subjects that (Child Y) was then studying? Or any expert knowledge that would improve his chances of getting a good mark in an exam, for instance?
TM: Well, I can’t say I’m a teacher; but his welfare was being neglected and I was asked to provide guidance.
EC: Trevor is a very wise man, and this is what is lacking in (Child Y)’s education.

SW: Can you tell me about the aspects of human biology you discussed with (Child Y) during these lessons?
TM: No, not really. We just went over the stuff that his teacher had asked them to study using the standard handouts.
SW: Did you comment on the lack of moral guidance in these handouts?
TM:  Well, I might have said that the physical aspects of human relationships are only a part of the picture, and it might be worth considering the emotional and spiritual elements which the teacher seemed to completely ignore.

SW: We understand that you told (Child Y) that sex outside marriage is wrong.
TM: No, it is God’s instruction that sex outside marriage is wrong. I was just pointing out what the Church tell us is an acceptable model of behaviour.

SW: And did you comment that – quote – when two people get married, the sperm cells become strong and healthy and suitable for creating children, while unmarried men have badly deformed sperm which can lead to the production of handicapped children – unquote?
TM: I don’t think so, I may have said that in some deprived areas there is a high level of childhood disease caused by neglect, which is directly caused by the lack of a stable marital home.

SW: And did you tell (Child Y) that ‘Odd numbers are God numbers, but Even numbers are Evil numbers’? Why is he so anxious about writing any piece of schoolwork which runs to an even number of lines?
TM: The number of the beast. You must recognise that God’s authority prevails in all things. I simply encourage him to become aware of the unseen hazards of everyday life which may lead him to commit sins.

SW: We have also been told that you engaged (Child Y) in a discussion of the chemical structure of Holy Water. He claims that you told him that medical solutions prepared using Holy Water show a greater effectiveness in treating disease than identical solutions using water that has not been officially blessed. Is this correct?
TM: I was just outlining a few recent reports published by the church, when we sent some very ill children to a Catholic Hospital. They showed remarkably quick recovery, and the nurses said that this was entirely due to the use of Sanctified Saline Dispersion (SSD).

Eyes With Minds and Lies 

Well, you told the unseen audience
It doesn’t really matter if you win or if you lose
But you know that isn’t so today
Cos you’re waiting for the after-Dylan blues.

We chase the money and divide the space
To keep the wicked relatives at bay; we
Couldn’t choose a better time to live, my friend
As we listen to the after-Dylan blues.

Can you remember anything about that time?
When eyes with minds and lies oblivious
Became entangled, and you and I were free again
Discovered by the after-Dylan blues. 

Journal entry, Wed 17 Oct 2001: During our tea-breaks at work, the conversation always turns to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and this afternoon Sean M made a comment about anti-war protesters.
‘Bloody hippies’ he said, ‘they probably go home, and put on high heels and fishnet tights.’
Quite a hostile outburst – and this from someone who works in the lab and wears cufflinks.

Journal entry, 10 Apr 2017: It’s Monday morning, and I’m eating some leftover cucumber – it reminds me of that weekend in 1992 when Dave Flint called down from Oxford. Patrick was away for the weekend so I slept in his room and allowed David and Paul to have my bed. The following day I made myself a ham salad for breakfast, with ornate rings of cucumber and tomato and boiled eggs and dark rye crispbread.








LGBT Engineers – Website discussion

In May 2014 the Engineer Website carried an article entitled ‘Why engineering must start addressing its sexuality issue’ by Stephen Harris, in which he discussed the lack of information about LGBT employees in the industry.
The article included reference to the fact that happy, secure employees will deliver a better performance in the workplace, and said that if the engineering sector is not seen as explicitly supportive, then firms stand to miss out on talented graduate recruits.
A series of responses were posted, some anonymous, by members of the association. One correspondent, called ‘Jacob’ submitted a wonderful reply in a sort of incoherent chav-speak; indeed, his narrative was so clumsy that I suspected it may have been a spoof. I have added questioning notes (in italic) to various sections of his diatribe…

Jacob 16th May 2014 at 3:35 pm

“This smacks of trendy tokenism, forcing the LGBT agenda in to every corner of our lives.
“Firstly, the how I’ll be treated argument weighs very little. It does NOT matter what your sexuality is, what matters is your work output.
[Note: if your work output was the only important factor, then workplace nepotism wouldn’t be a problem. There are numerous instances of incompetent staff being supported by family members on their rise through the company’s ranks. Likewise, it is possible that personal hostility by senior members of staff could hamper the career progress of gay employees, even if their performance at work was outstanding]

“I’ve worked with many strange people whom can only be described as ‘creatures’. They would probably not be tolerated in other industries, let alone accepted, but have found a ‘home’ in engineering because they were so good at their jobs.
“Think back to the geeky school kid, with heavy rimmed glasses, who was bullied by all at school. That guy is as likely as not a respected engineer now.
[Note: how many respected engineers would admit to having been bullied at school, and was Jacob one of them? And again, it is assumed that engineers are exclusively male]

“This brings me to the second point. The recruitment pool argument weighs very little. Just as the school nerds tend towards engineering, those of the LBGT community tend towards the arts.
[Any evidence? This is the type of comment you might expect to see in the Sunday People in 1978, as part of a sensational expos
é called ‘The Twilight World of The Homosexual’]

“No disproportionate amount of group hugging will change that. And it amounts to an awful lot of effort for very few people just so a company can claim it is fluffy.
[Perhaps the diversity initiatives carried out by European and US firms have shown an impressive financial return that wouldn’t have otherwise been realised]

“If an effort has to be made, wouldn’t those resources be better spent addressing the social inadequacies of some existing employees? As good communication is the foundation of any business with serious aspirations.
“This might even help get more women into the sector by shedding the dull geek image.
[But he has just defended the dull geeks as being natural born engineers, and said that it doesn’t matter what you look like so long as you are good at your job]

“Lastly, the open sexuality argument weighs very little. A company’s primary responsibility is to seek a profit for the shareholders and secure employment for ALL its employees.
[No, a company’s primary responsibility is to maximise profit for shareholders by any and all legal means. The welfare and security of workers are tiresome burdens which can be overcome by increased use of advanced technology]

“And this isn’t about LBGT staff in a foreign branch feeling secure, where the likelihood of the laws of that country proscribes said sexuality. That company has to follow the laws of the land it operates in, or nobody will work there. Instructing engineers to accept LGBT colleagues is not going to change that.
“It provides the best workplace for all by not concerning itself with its employee’s personal lives, which is pretty creepy anyway.
[The birth of a child, or a major wedding anniversary, or a bereavement; these are aspects of employees’ private lives which have an impact on their performance at work, and need to be shared. If a company maintains a stolid indifference to pastoral welfare, then the workers may feel neglected and will start looking for jobs elsewhere]

“So what have we learnt?
“-Bullying bosses/colleagues are everywhere and at every level, pushing you to a result is their job. They tolerate/accept you on performance.
[I am not sure that any handbook of business studies would advocate bullying as a normal or productive means of getting results. Perhaps it is true that bullying bosses are everywhere; that wold help explain why there is such a high level of staff turnover in engineering]

“-A return from the recruitment pool is unlikely to justify the effort.
“-Private lives are called private for good reasons.
As for the right thing to do, that is the justification for saying tolerating is no longer enough, you must now accept (like).

[Note: The writer seems to find a clear distinction between the world of engineering and ‘the arts’. Surely part of good engineering practice involves component design, using fuel and materials in the most efficient manner possible. This strikes me as being an artistic endeavour – weaving together technical skill and imagination to obtain a superior result.

And when I read comments like these, I wonder if some people turn to careers in engineering because it offers a haven from the messy world of human relationships. People are irrational, uncoordinated, and prone to err; but machines are elegant and reliable.

Other comments made on the message board include remarks such as ‘We should appoint staff on the basis of technical ability, not because of sexuality or ethnic background. This ‘technical ability’ which they so revere does not appear by magic; youngsters are constantly exposed to a bewildering network of influences – parents, teachers, friends. If your dad is an engineer and helps you build model railways and gets you a holiday job in his company’s office, then you might end up having the natural abilities and skills desired by manufacturing firms]


Withered Calyx No.2, by Andy Warhol

Neurotic Supermarket Victims

You see them parade down the cereal aisle, the ongoing and retired, condemned to resent their hard-won success. With a stern, determined expression, they manoeuvre a cynical trolley and fill it with tempting consumer goods. Look, here is a neat array of packets; I shall discard the one at the front, and place in my trolley the one behind it. Look, here is a gallery of sliced meat in a pristine polythene portfolio, all arranged in date order. I shall carefully rummage through, moving them aside into a jumbled mess, so that I can take one that has the longest sell-by date. Yes, I’m going to have it for my tea this evening; but you can’t trust the supermarkets, can you? They only exist to rip you off, to sell a range of foods from multinational conglomerates instead of good old fashioned proper food. None of this foreign muck; I love to go to Spain with the missus, we can get egg and chips for breakfast and a doner kebab for tea.

Pity our Dawn can’t make it with us this year, but she lost her job. The manager accused her of stealing. Stealing! Cheeky bleeder – on his wage, he’s the one who should be accused of stealing. Anyway, she didn’t do it. Our Dawn isn’t that kind of girl, she was brought up properly. And anyway, stuff in a supermarket doesn’t actually belong to anyone until they’ve gone through the checkout and paid for it, so it doesn’t count as stealing. Not really.

Actually, I’m not sure about having ham salad for tea tonight; perhaps I’ll have something else. What else is there? I don’t know. I can’t think. I’ll have a tin of soup; proper food, that is. Here; I shall take this packet of cooked meat out of my trolley and abandon it here on a shelf next to some chocolate Bourbon biscuits. Never had chocolate Bourbon biscuits when I were a lad. Look at all these – choc chip and walnut cookies, red velvet cookies, golden crunch creams – it’s all gone mad. Never had mint flavoured Oreos when I were a lad. I remember proper supermarkets, the Co-Op, now that was a good old fashioned honest shop. You could get tinned peaches and evaporated milk. It was good enough for me; and it should be good enough for the modern kids. Kids, indeed; that’s all they are. They have mobile phone things, and they can watch mucky films on them, laughing about it with their friends; but then they carry on wearing jeans and trainers to go out in, like they were still teenagers. And none of them wears a tie these days. When I were a lad, you didn’t go out without a tie.

What sort of soup will I have? They all seem a bit pricey. Carrot and corraye-ander? What’s that, sounds like something you’d give a rabbit. Never had corraye-ander when I was a lad. What makes these youngsters think they’re so special, eh? If plain chicken soup was good enough for my parents, and it’s good enough for me, then why do they need to have all these different varieties?

Oh, that’s right, I need to get some toothpaste. Eh, where have they put the Colgate, then? There’s hundreds of different kinds – whitening, enamel defence, fresh breath, spearmint, peppermint, foaming antibacterial gel – but no Colgate. Hee, I’ve just remembered, I was walking past here last week and I suddenly decided that I didn’t fancy sausage casserole after all, so I took the sausages out of my trolley and put them back there, behind all the bottles of mouthwash where nobody would find them. I bet they wondered where that funny smell was coming from, eh, that were a laugh!

Our Dawn was on the phone last night, saying that her and her boyfriend have missed out on that house. Pity, really; it would be handy to have them just round the corner from me; we could go shopping together. Mind you, she can’t come in here any more, not after getting the sack. But still, I’m sure they’ll find somewhere. Mind you, she was in the hairdressers the other day having her nails done – always been proud of her appearance, has our Dawn, spends a fortune on makeup and nice things – and the girl doing her highlights said that her friend Sally had just got a new job in the estate agent’s down the road. Oh, that’s great, said Dawn. We must go out for a drink sometime, so they arrange to meet up in a wine bar – our Dawn’s very trendy, she likes to be seen at all the right venues, smart girl – and this Sally was ever so nice. After a few sherbets she let slip that the house round the corner has gone to a nice young couple, apparently they’re moving over here from Northampton. He’s a history teacher or something.

Chicken soup, yes, that’s what I’ll have. I might get something nice in for the weekend, maybe a bit of bacon. But then again, you can’t be too sure, can you? I mean, it might look okay in the packet, but somebody might have put it in their basket, and changed their mind, and left it at the checkout, and then the store just puts it back in the chilled cabinet and no-one’s any the wiser. No, I won’t have bacon – can’t be too careful. And you never know who’s been handling the stuff before it gets put on the shelf. No, we’ll just stick to good old chicken soup.

I posted that letter yesterday morning, so it might be there by now. Of course, I didn’t actually accuse anybody of anything – you can’t go round doing that sort of thing – but, well; don’t you think it’s a bit odd, moving all the way over here for work? And was there a report in the Northampton Gazette about a teacher who had been disciplined for collecting indecent images on his laptop computer? It’s a very serious matter to accuse people of doing something wrong, but all I did was ask the questions – and if it turns out that no such report ever appeared in the paper, well, there’s no harm done, is there?

Of course, when the girl in the hairdresser’s opens the letter, she will see that it was actually addressed to the Estate Agent, and will take it round to his office next door; but with any luck, she will glance through the contents and emit a horrified gasp before stuffing it back in the envelope with trembling hands. And, throughout the course of the day, the gossip in the salon will become less and less inhibited, and people will begin to speculate and the rumours will gather pace.

I’m not sure she likes chicken soup that much, our Dawn; when I went round to theirs she was doing lasagne and salad. And garlic bread! Oh god, I can’t abide the stuff. But she’s a smart girl, and I think it’s only right that I should do my little bit to help her. With any luck, I’ll be helping her to hang some wallpaper in a few weeks’ time…

Whitworth Galaxy, Part Three: April 2017

Since it was a lovely sunny day, I decided to go again to the Whitworth Gallery. Large chunks of Oxford Road are being dug up and repaired. Although it was warm, we didn’t have the hordes of students lounging on the grass in shorts and sunglasses; so I took photographs of the architecture instead.

Inside the gallery there were new exhibitions – from Deanna Petherbridge, a collection of large black-and-white drawings, vivid slabs of precise technical draughtsmanship, depicting stairways and pillars and military hardware and organ pipes. I was reminded of some pictures by the photographer Vincent Serbin, or of the imaginary ruins created on paper by John Soane, or the galvanised metal pipes left isolated after the closure of the Mason Coatings factory in Derby. If I had ventured into this gallery after a couple of glasses of Italian red, I think the pictures wold seem like windows overlooking a workshop full of dead machines.

Other delights at the Whitworth included the three-screen film called ‘Vertigo Sea’ by John Akomfrah, which gives simultaneous images of whale-hunting, Vietnamese Boat people and other marine dramas. The picture quality is stunning, but it is the soundtrack – surging waves, narrated texts – that makes the piece so compelling.
There was also a collection of etchings by Raimondi, working alongside Raphael, showing some erotic images and invented allegories. This legendary catalogue of sexual gymnastics is called I Modi.

And there was a collection of Warhol pictures, brought together from galleries around the world, including a large self-portrait and some abstract designs. I recall amny years ago that I was supposed to buy a ‘Secret Santa’ gift for one of my workmates, and had decided that a printed mug – with the Campbell’s Soup Tin design – would be absolutely perfect. Alas, I couldn’t track down one of these items, and she had to go without.
There has been much discussion lately about education in the UK, with the proposed return of widespread selection. Message boards on popular news websites have carried remarks about the worthless nature of modern degrees, and the disputed value of education. ‘Imagine turning up for a haircut and finding that the salon staff were having an argument about the merits of Harold Pinter or architecture in Prague’ said one correspondent.
But education is valuable – we are all surrounded by people who speak a different language in so many ways; we cannot learn the shared experience that allows groups of people to communicate effectively, but we can gain awareness and recognise the need to translate.