My favourite Bench

Journal Entry, 17 Oct 2020:

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m watching the Horror Channel; there are trailers for crime drama series and a psycho-slasher movie called ‘The Resident’ starring Christopher Lee. The film they’re showing today is Tremors 2 – Aftershock, about subterranean Lovecraft-type mutant warthogs. I can’t help noticing that a couple of the lead actors bear a faint resemblance to Kevin Bacon. I bet the script had faint beige footnotes on each page, saying ‘the guy with the mustache always ends up dead’.

Meanwhile, real life continues to offer up a continuing parade of genuine horrors: in Paris yesterday, a teacher was attacked and beheaded in the street by an assailant yelling ‘allahu akbar’ after he used images of the prophet Mohammed during a class discussion on freedom of speech. Whatever that is…

Following his treatment with steroids, hydroxychloroquine, chlorox and remdesivir, President Trump is back on the campaign trail, claiming that he has achieved immunity to Covid. We were treated to the bizarre spectacle of this 74-year old dancing on stage to the gay anthem ‘YMCA’.
And in the UK, the three-tier system has been introduced with medium, high and very high infection zones. Liverpool and Lancashire have both been given tier three rating; oddly enough, gymnasia have been ordered to close in Liverpool but are allowed to remain open in Lancashire.

Happiness is a Cold Bench

Stuck here on my favourite bench
I watch the abandoned gateway
Echo the gaps that fly between
The vans that interrupt the passing cars.

I suck the daily diesel fumes
Deep into my hollow personality
With any luck
I won’t have to wait too long

Before a hungry lorry driver asks me
If there’s room to leave his truck.

I was looking at the boiler this morning and found a sticker which said ‘Last Serviced: 30 July 1986’ which gives some insight to the world of property rental in the UK. Back in 86, as I recall, we were on the brink of the financial Big Bang, when everybody got swept up in the giddy euphoria of militant capitalism.

My local newspaper, the Evening Mail, was fairly conservative and would regularly feature letters from the headmaster of a Catholic School in the region. This correspondent delivered regular, boring missives in which he fulminated against the crawling decadence of society; he particularly despised gay men, and would describe with unseemly relish the various STIs that affected them. And he never ended a letter without reminding everybody that gay men were responsible for the raging epidemic of AIDS, and that (according to the Association of British Actuaries) most gay men were unlikely to live past the age of 42.

And in 1986 I went to a job interview at a firm called Holdens, in Bordesley Green; they sent a detailed letter explaining that I would be required to attend a technical interview and a medical examination, and that I should bring with me copies of my qualifications.

I arrived on time – a cold October day, as I recall – and talked about my technical background and career prospects. Then the interviewer said ‘I’d be interested to know what sort of person you are. What do you like to do in your spare time?’

Since I was unemployed, I had very little money to spend on leisure activities, and told him that I enjoyed occasional visits to the library, the botanic gardens, and the cinema.

‘And what about home life? Are you married?’ When I said no, he proceeded to ask for more details: Why not? Do you have a girlfriend? No? Why not? Do you see yourself getting married at some point?’

I replied that I had no immediate plans to marry, but I expected that I would eventually do so. He then asked me to wait while they called the works doctor, who checked my blood pressure and weight, asked about my consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and told me to remove my lower garments and then cough.

After this procedure I was invited back to the office and told that they were interviewing a number of candidates, and that I would hear from them in about two weeks’ time.

Perhaps they did reply; I can’t remember ever getting a letter from them.

And in 1986, we also saw the launch of a new broadsheet paper called the Independent, which claimed to be outside the standard left-right political structure. When the Duchess of York gave birth to her first child, most of the press devoted several fawning pages to the new royal, speculating on possible names, careers and astrological destiny for the baby.

The Indie, meanwhile, contented itself with a small item tucked away in the corner of page 8, announcing that both mother and child were doing well. Several commentators raged that this was disrespectful – treasonous, even – and demanded that the editor be sent to jail.

Covid – the nightmare continues

Journal Entry, 10 Oct 2020:
It’s Saturday morning, and I’m watching the Horror Channel; we have trailers for psychological torture thriller movies along with wholesome adverts for fitted wardrobes and pain-relief gel. The channel is currently showing ‘Seaquest’, an underwater version of Star Trek with scripts and set designs borrowed from Stargate One. As usual with sci-fi drama shows, nearly all the actors are white and everybody speaks English.

I look forward to my horror treats on TV; mutant zombies and suburban devil-worshippers, alien creatures or derelict blood-soaked workshops in remote Eastern European villages. But real life continues to be equally distressing.

In America, President Trump has been on the campaign trail, addressing crowds of devoted supporters and assuring them that the ‘China Virus’ is nothing to worry about. It was announced last week that he had tested positive for Covid-19, and, despite the White House having first-rate medical facilities, he was rushed to the Walter Reed military hospital for a three-day course of experimental treatments.

Trump then declared himself to be recovered, and took part in a motorcade past his army of well-wishers before appearing on the White House balcony and pulling off his face mask with a defiant flourish.
I can’t be the only person who was disappointed to see that his face didn’t come away, revealing a mass of printed circuit-boards.

Latest Covid figures:
USA 7.9 million infected, 219 thousand dead.
UK: 576 thousand infected, 47 thousand dead.

Last weekend a massive storm hit France and Italy, causing severe floods; houses and bridges were washed away, while mudslides buried dozens of cars. And in the past couple of days the US has been hit by Hurricane Delta, with storm damage causing widespread destruction in Texas and Alabama.

In the UK, the number of Covid infections is rapidly increasing, with major cities in the North facing a renewed lockdown to curb the spread of the virus. This announcement was leaked to the press, much to the annoyance of local mayors Andy Burnham and Joe Anderson. The government recently ordered pubs and restaurants to close at 10.00 each night which led to crowds gathering in the streets and rushing to the local shops to purchase more booze.

And now we are expecting to have a new, more confusing set of rules put in place, ordering people to stay home, avoid meeting in groups of more than one, and generally cease all activity.

In the news: North Korea has held a military parade, showing off a vast army of soldiers marching in perfect formation (almost like a CGI scene) and a brand-new long-distance weapon. This is a sad development since, back in April 2018, Donald Trump had persuaded the leaders of N and S Korea to embrace diplomacy. However, the initiative came to nothing, and the two nations resumed their prevailing attitude of hostility.

Into The Metaprism

Forgotten shadows wait for me
And some things never change;
Watched by rough, angry buildings I make
My way down Oxford Road; it’s quiet, stray workmen
And students blinking in the early morning light.

Offices and studios no more; instead
A weary pile of concrete slabs and rusted bars
Waits for demolition to proceed. During one of these morning walks
I must have unwittingly inhaled
A single grain of polarised unhappiness that travelled
Through the bloodstream, bouncing off the lipid corridors
And taking up position in my spine
Where it sends out random jolts of stabbing pain.

No matter where I lie, or sit, or kneel
Discomfort saturates the universe; the only cure
Is listening to Hurts on MP3 and wishing that
My pen had been the one to spill those lines.

Rule of Six

The Rule of Six

Rampaging virus doesn’t want to stop, he’s loving
Every minute of our deconstructed lives. We’re
Growing old, but how much longer? Growling
At an indifferent moon, beset by hunger and despair
As the chromium-plated bureaucrats keep cold and dusty notes
On how many people die on any given day.

The Rule of Six has been designed to help keep safe
The random citizens held captive by this town. Simple, clear
And rational advice will stop you falling victim to
The microscopic horror from the skies.

Citizen-units may gather in groups of up to six, unless:
They come from more than two households;
Any of them has been diagnosed with Covid-19
In the past fourteen days;
Any of them is displaying symptoms of the disease;
Any of them has returned from a country on the list
Of restricted destinations in the past ten days;
Or ever eaten roasted pangolin.

Citizen-units may gather in groups of up to six, provided:
They are out-of-doors and keeping
A social anti-social distance of two yards between
Each member of the gathering. The group
Must finish their activities and then disperse
By ten o’clock. To prevent the spread of this disease,
Singing, shouting and laughter are prohibited. Masks
Are to be worn at all times except when taking
Food and drink, in regulated mouthfuls using spoons
Correctly sterilised by throbbing gamma rays.

Citizen-units may gather in groups of up to six,
But must travel separately to the agreed destination
Using the correct online boarding-pass to activate
The table reservation catalogue. Physical contact
Is not allowed; the sharing of a joke might carelessly infect
Unstable persons within earshot who do not have
Defence against this cross-contamination. According

To the national anthem, please bear in mind:

“Some of us may die.
Remember, statistically
It is not likely to be you.” (PP)


To find out which countries are on the restricted list, follow the guidance on your app. This list will be refreshed at exactly six o’clock each day. Failure to comply with the restriction carries a fine of up to £10,000. Failure to update the app on a daily basis carries a fine of up to £250.
Hats, scarves and gloves must be removed and placed in a clear plastic bag before taking your seat. The removal of coats, jackets and pullovers is not allowed.
Anti-bacterial hand gel conforming to British Standard VX19-614:2 must be applied at intervals of forty-five minutes or less.
The wearing of protective goggles is recommended to protect against the disinfectant spray used by hospitality premises.

More stringent lockdown conditions have been imposed on Manchester, Salford, Stockport, Oldham, Rochdale, Merseyside, Warrington and Trafford. People living in these areas may not meet up with anybody else, either indoors or outdoors, unless they form part of a designated bubble.

Like all domestic and international legal strictures, these rules do not apply to Dominic Cummings or Margaret Ferrier.

To enable citizen-units to go about their daily lives we have introduced a clear and simple structure of Tiered lockdown to be applied at different places across the UK.

To work out which Tier your neigbourhood belongs in, just use the following formula:

T = 6N(t) – 3N(i) + 5(S(a)/S(b) + G/K) + (S(a)-S(b)) – P/Q + (R(b) – R(a)) + 17.5F


N(t) is the total number of people living in the borough region
N(i) is the number of infected individuals currently living in that region
P is the average number of occupants per dwelling in that region
S(a) is the number of unemployed people currently living in that region
S(b) is the number of Furloughed workers living in that region
R(a) is the Covid reproduction rate within that region as recorded no more than 2 days earlier
R(b) is the average Covid reproduction rate of the three largest neighbouring borough regions
K is the number of schools in the borough region
F is the number of hospitals (excluding specialist Nightingale medical facilities) in the borough region
G is the average household income in that region
And Q is the average number of cars per household in that region.

The restrictions applied to each Tier are as follows:

Tier 1: Individuals can gather in groups of no more than four hundred, consuming generous quantities of champagne and roasted peacock.

Tier 2: Individuals can meet up in groups of no more than seventy, drinking lavish quantities of Mateus Rose and eating Cornish Pasties.

Tier 3: Individuals can meet up in groups of thirty for special occasions such as weddings, funerals etc but any other indoor gatherings must not exceed fifteen people.

Tier 4: Individuals can meet up in groups of twelve for special occasions, but any other indoor gatherings must not exceed eight people.

Tier 5: Individuals can meet up in groups of six or more in a beer garden provided that social distancing is observed with at least two metres between people.

Tier 6: Individuals can meet up in groups of six or more in a public park provided that no consumption of food or drink takes place.

Tier 7: All public entertainment venues – cinemas, casinos and concert halls – will have to observe a 10.00 pm curfew, with social distancing of two metres observed at all times.

Tier 8: All pubs, bars and restaurants will be allowed to open for six hours a day provided that all individuals observe social distancing, and spend a minimum of twenty-five pounds per head on food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Tier 9:  Individuals must remain confined to a single room in their dwelling, with no more than three daily visits to the bathroom. All doors and windows are to be kept locked.

22 In Septimus Blue

21 Sep 2020: live Downing Street briefing from Messrs Vallance and Whitty about the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Eight per cent of the UK population has been exposed to the virus and may therefore have some degree of immunity. In-patient numbers are increasing, the numbers infected are doubling every seven days.

One year ago: we had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, where we spent two weeks marvelling at the architecture and food in Prague, Brno and Budapest. Stayed in youth hostels and travelled by train between cities.

Five years ago: Journal entry, 22 Sep 2015: ‘Zingo Bildo, thousand-faced moon, look favourably on our sacrifices!’

On Monday night I went over to Manchester by train and stayed in Travelodge. Expensive fish and chips in Slug & Lettuce, and a large Shiraz in the hotel bar while watching Sky News on the TV – some pretty wild stories involving David Cameron and a pig’s head.

This morning had coffee in ‘Cheeky’ then got to the factory and had interview with two managers. I thought it went quite well, so I treated myself to wonderful home-made quiche in the station buffet.

Got home on Weds and found a voicemail from the recruitment agency; called them back and they said that the company was thinking of offering me the post at a salary of XX per annum – how does that sound.

I explained that I was already earning more than that, so there wasn’t much point moving for a cut in salary. They then said how did I feel about a slightly higher salary with a possible review after three months? No, I said: that is still less than my current salary.

‘Well, what sort of package are you looking for then?’ he asked.

If they send me a written offer of employment I’ll compare it with my present situation and make a decision.

Eleven years ago: Journal entry, 22 Sep 2009: Sent an e-mail enquiry to ‘Plastic Coatings Ltd’ in Birmingham asking if they were involved with the AWM (Advantage West Midlands Quango) project to create a ‘Thermoplastics Cluster’ and also asking if they had any jobs going.

Odd that I can still remember the moves of Pinan Shodan, after so many years without practicing.

Lots of banging from downstairs – the builders are renovating the cellar flats, presumably so the landlord can install some more ex-convict teenage scrotes.

I shall have to become a private tutor to a bunch of 13-year olds; give them an LP copy of “Heroes” and ask them to compose lyrics to all the instrumental numbers on Side Two.

Seventeen years ago: Journal entry, 22 Sep 2003: Tried to make a DER331/PABA adduct.

Rang Manda, she said National Motorcycle Museum burned down.

Rang Simon, he said Excalibur Rally is happening the same time as my weekend away in Cork.

Covid Memories

It was different back in those days; if you wanted to buy groceries in a supermarket you had to pay by cash or cheque. Before starting your trip round the shop, you would be required to queue up at the customer service kiosk and let the assistant stamp the back of your cheque to enable it to be used for payment at the till. And yet, just a year later, I saw my first-ever barcode scanner at the Presto supermarket in Harrow.

On Wednesday nights I would join my two housemates for a couple of pints in the Red Lion. We shared a house on the outskirts of Leicester; two chemistry students, one computer scientist, and our landlady. The journey into town was too far, taking us past the cattle market and the prison, so we just went to our local and sat at (usually) the only free table, near the door.

‘Are you coming, then?’ asked Dave.

‘Yeah, hang on, just setting this up.’ I had a portable cassette radio on which I would record concerts broadcast on Radio Three, and this evening the last item was Beethoven Three. The leader and conductor made their way onto the platform; I waited for the applause to die down, then pressed the record and play buttons and dashed out.

We sat in the pub drinking lager-and-lime, arguing about the merits of various academic pursuits, and listening to Culture Club (who I mistakenly thought were UB40) on the jukebox. Then, at about ten o’clock we would leave to walk home. Back in those days all pubs had to close at ten-thirty, and it would be too late to get a snack from the local chippy.

The landlady would still be up when we got back in, watching TV or knitting. John offered to make us a coffee, and I went upstairs to check if my tape had captured the entire symphony.

I scanned back, and back a bit further until I heard the furious closing pages of the finale, and applause. After the concert we had a news summary, during which the announcer said that police in London were investigating the discovery of human remains at a house in Muswell Hill.

I turned the machine off and went downstairs to chat to the others before turning in for the night.

I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for a new TV drama called ‘Des’ starring David Tennant  as Dennis Nilsen, the lonely serial killer who butchered young men and who was caught after their body parts blocked the drains at his rented house. Tennant gives a horribly convincing portrayal of this callous misfit, a nondescript civil servant with limp, side-parted hair and harmless-looking spectacles.

Two years later, in 1985, I found myself in London. I enjoyed going to pubs and meeting other men. One of them lived in Muswell Hill, and when we went back to his house one night he pointed out a nearby bus stop. ‘That’s where Dennis Nilsen would get off the bus with his victims.’ he said.

I enjoyed London; cinemas, theatres, etc. I went to see lots of chamber music and orchestral concerts, including a performance of aggressively modern work played by the LSO under Pierre Boulez. The Royal Festival Hall was busy, but not full; and I wondered how many people would listen to this piece if it was shown on BBC One as part of a Prom Season. (Diary note: ‘Went to see Boulez, he conducts like a policeman directing traffic’)

It has recently been announced that the members of the LSO are to be given access to a new Covid-19 diagnostic tool, the DNA-Nudge box. This magical device takes a cotton-bud swab of saliva, whirls it round for half-an-hour, and then delivers a verdict to let you know if you are infected with Covid or not.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has been lauding the virtues of this device for months now, and the government has given 160 million pounds to the developers, a research team based at Imperial College; however, scientific appraisal is thin on the ground, and the units are still hard to find, despite us being promised that a nationwide roll-out was scheduled for September 2020.

I suspect that Hancock and his comrades are so easily dazzled by anything remotely technical that they willingly handed over the money, keen to find a solution to the UK epidemic of this new virus. One is reminded of the infamous ‘Bomb Detector’, a cheap plastic item carrying an aerial and a printed circuit-board. This object had originally been marketed as a novelty joke device for finding lost golf balls, but a shrewd entrepreneur had spotted that the UK government was totally ignorant when it came to anything scientific. He organised some fancy packaging, a series of ‘demonstrations’ to prove that the aerial would respond to the presence of concealed explosive materials, and promptly made a small fortune on the back of a worthless product.

Tower Block Virus

Last night I watched a television programme called ‘Manctopia’, part of a series following the recent eruption of building work which has transformed the skyline of Manchester, creating a forest of luxury apartments.

Over the years I have seen tower blocks taking shape in various bits of the city; old car parks or small industrial units have been taken over by epic constructions. Each day, when travelling to work I would see a sturdy lift-shaft appear in the middle of a concrete field. This would then be gradually engulfed by a sturdy nest of metal girders and a swelling coat of cement board walls.

Back in 2016, I spotted a tower block in Salford with glorious duotone pearlescent lilac-turquoise cladding; a few years previously I had worked on the standard testing of powder coated panels (Buchholz hardness, cross-hatch adhesion, impact resistance) but had never seen anything as dramatic as this. However, the vivid cladding has now been removed for safety reasons, and the residents will probably see their fuel bills rise as the flats no longer have the thermal insulation of this coating.

During August and September there was a space of a few weeks when tram passengers could watch the sun going down over Salford; everybody would turn to stare at the church spires and distant buildings in silhouette against a dramatic orange sky. But now this spectacle has been shut away by the new apartments which are gradually filling the space around Trafford Park.

Confused and forgetful; I was once proud of my clear thinking and sharp memory; but recently I find myself getting muddled. Over the years I have moved between jobs, and I could use these different employers to divide my life into neat three- or four-year chunks, being able to clearly identify events and people which belonged to a particular stage of my career.

I noticed that moving to a new post always gave me an insight into the job I had just left, since I could see for the first time that there were different methods and procedures available to me; but at the same time, there would be certain individuals whose personality or physical make-up strongly resembled workers from my previous job, and I would sometimes mistakenly discuss with one of my colleagues an incident of which he had no knowledge.

I recall attending a meeting which took place shortly after a nearby town was hit by extreme weather, with severe flooding and disruption; however, when I was looking through some of my journals I found that the meeting had taken place a few weeks before the flood occurred.

And I clearly remember discussing with my workmates in Derby the news story about a rock star who had died in harrowing circumstances; but watching a recent TV show about the music industry, I discovered that he had died about six months after I moved away from that city. Why am I having these fragmented episodes?

I was wondering about this when I attended an interview in Warrington, at the offices of a large recruitment agency. ‘Before we place you on our books, we have to carefully check what your background is, so that we don’t end up sending your details to jobs that aren’t exactly right for you.’

This sounded reassuring; so I turned up on a Tuesday morning, armed with my passport, diploma certificates, and the P45 from my last job. We chatted at length about my career, and at one point the agency rep excused herself to speak to a colleague who had been waiting outside the office. There were a few minutes of urgent, hushed conversation during which I managed to overhear the colleague say ‘But they said they’ve never heard of him’.

She came back into the office. ‘Sorry about that. Now, where were we?’ And I carried on explaining a bit about the technical equipment used in one of my former jobs.

‘And do you still keep in touch with your workmates from there?’

No, I said, adding that the firm had been sold off and the site demolished a few years ago. Everyone had moved to new locations and the firm’s identity had been erased by the company which had taken over their customer base.

‘It’s just that we’re having trouble getting hold of anybody who remembers working with you there. I mean’ she went on ‘we can’t find anybody who knows anything about this company, or what they produced. Did they have a website?’

‘Yes, of course’ I said. She looked puzzled. ‘We’ve done a load of searches, using different keywords, and nothing comes up with the details you have on your CV.

’Well, I don’t…’ I began, but she cut me short, cheerfully saying that there was no real problem. ‘Of course, we don’t have any suitable vacancies at present, but we thought it was important for you to come and see us; we need to make sure you didn’t have green hair, or a ring through your nose like some of these students.’

Annoyed and humiliated, I made my way back into town. There was an hour to spare before my train, so I had coffee in that trendy bar. There was a free newspaper on the table, and I began reading about a Hungarian artist who was exhibiting at the local gallery. Her new paintings included ‘Portrait of Paneetra Vildo’, which showed a woman in profile between two windows. The article mentioned that these works dated from last year.

But I was convinced that I had seen this particular picture about five years previously, when I was living in Stockport. The image, and the title of the work were so unusual that I remember being taken aback by them at the time. I might even have written to a friend asking if he had heard of them. I checked the paper again – it clearly gave the date of the work itself, 2017 and explained how the artist had used a series of diffraction gratings to create the illusion of depth in the picture, like those Pre-Raphaelite women who lunge out of their frames.

The picture was made up of zones, with the female figure, the windows and their discordant views – one rural, the other urban – and the walls and radiators. A geometric lattice of forms made up each zone, with metameric pigment blends creating a shifting, unstable image when the painting was viewed in a mixture of natural and artificial light. A faint rippling effect had been added to the painting by the selective use of high-gloss varnish.

Perhaps I was mistaken, and the painting really was just a year old; perhaps my brain had combined two or three episodes from the past to create a new synthetic memory.

The tower blocks in Manchester will continue to grow and multiply, gradually being absorbed into people’s awareness of the city; the car park, the BBC studio, and the disused car repair workshop, all of these will become lost memories beneath the stern square columns of abstract finance.

Spread Labels, the Mutant Algorithm

Spread Labels

‘How much detail do we have to include?’
The teacher glanced at his half-finished gouache picture. ‘Just put down what you see – or enough of it to allow the viewer to imagine what you are seeing now.’

Marcus stared at the objects in front of him; a wine bottle, a ceramic mug holding three pens, and half a red cabbage.
‘But the label’, he began, ‘it’s so elegant, I don’t want to just put down a dark block. And I don’t know how to capture that texture.’

Miss Carter casually picked up the bottle and inspected the label, aware that this would annoy her students. ‘Yes, I see.’ She held the bottle up and asked if anybody in the class could suggest a means of capturing the odd appearance. ‘Look, you’ve got a matt black ground with elongated club shapes picked out in a gloss finish. Do you just paint highlights or can you think of another way?’

Not bothering to wait for an answer, she carefully placed the bottle down in the same spot and wandered over to help one of the other lads in the class.

The art studio had the usual collection of old textbooks and glossy magazines; leafing through one of these, Marcus found a car advert which consisted of a small red square on a page filled with dark blue. He tore the page out, then proceeded to cut a rectangular section from it, planning to add this to his still-life instead of trying to depict the label. But the piece was too large; and just as he was about to trim the edges, one of his friends came up to admire the painting.

‘Is this going to stick out, like a real 3-D bottle?’
‘Nice one’ said Marcus; ‘It is now!’

The teacher was unimpressed. ‘It looks like a mistake’ she said, looking at the protruding arch of glossy black paper. ‘And it will be damaged in storage. Keeping it flat might have been better.’

With a sullen gaze, he turned away. ‘Better just dump it in the bin, then’ he said. But the next day he returned to the studio, reluctant to throw away this piece that contained so many hours of work. The picture was nowhere to be seen; anxiously he looked under piles of half-finished works by his classmates, and then remembered his flippant remark of the previous day. There in the bin, he saw his picture – torn carefully into four pieces, the black glossy square flapping loose at a ragged edge.

Stunned, he gathered the sheets together and wandered down the corridor to the common room, ready to burst in and deliver an angry tirade against the teacher. But the only other students there were people he hardly knew, so he contented himself with laying the pieces on a table and trying to work out some way to repair the picture.

One of the others got up and made to leave the room; glancing at Marcus, he offered a careless ‘Hi’ and held out the latest ‘New Scientist’ which carried a lead story about a chemical called Novichok. After reading this article – or the little of it he was able to understand – he then started browsing through some of the chemistry textbooks on the common room shelf.

A week later he was back in the art studio, starting all over again with his still life. The teacher was scornful, saying that he would never have enough time to complete the piece for the end-of-year exam show. ‘Can I submit the picture I was working on last week instead, then?’ he asked, moving the drawing to reveal the amended still life that she had destroyed.

He held up the work; the four quarters had been neatly trimmed to form uniform rectangles and stuck together, each image having been rotated so that the picture had an abstract, architectural quality. Along the edges of the piece he had drawn a set of scales, linear and logarithmic; and spreading across the whole picture were seven curved white lines forming a set of boundaries, like a map. Along the top of the piece, a series of letters cut from magazines spelled out ‘phase diagram novichok’.

Behold, the Mutant Algorithm

Gradually, the components of the mutant algorithm
Converge and intersect; the student’s hand is given
To demonstrate how Francis Bacon slashed the canvas
That night, we dined on steak and mashed potato

And later, drifting along the quiet avenue
Where huge swathes of Himalayan balsam
Manage to confuse the darting bees, whose dainty
Map of ultraviolet roads recall somebody’s name, and
Persuade each one to stay another languid night.

There’s just too much at stake; a flash of understanding
Cuts through the catalogue of lies
 Whose framework makes us wonder how the latent
Energy reveals the staggered biorhythms
Of all my personalities. One day soon, we’ll rendezvous

To sip the liquid happiness that occupies
The flower’s distant throat. Somewhere inside
The hollow antiprism we find the gleaming spines
That wait in vain to vaccinate us all against the truth.

The Awkward Customeuse

Journal Entry, Sat 6 Mar 2003: Last night the Twisted Wheel Soul Club was at Wells Fargo so MSC went to meet at the Legends Piano Bar. Not most suitable.
B- suggested that we approach one of the pub landlords in town – they are normally closed at weekends cos of their links to office workers.

Have just heard on the news that Adam Faith has died at age 62. But wasn’t it he who told everybody to start pension plans at the age of 12?
Last night went back to Deans Road on the 2 a.m. bus, which was awful; some dreadful girl sat behind us kept squawking that she was an accountant and owned her own house.

Fri 17 Oct 2003:   Discreetly summoned to SP’s office for a ticking-off about my memo re: warehouse stocks. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ he asked wearily, ‘Has someone put you up to this?’

I had noticed that we had 7 or 8 pallets, each holding about 125 kg of material which had passed its ‘Use By’ date. When I checked the retain sample, it appeared that the coating had settled out during storage to give a thick sludge, so it cold not be applied by brush or spray. So I sent a memo round saying that this material needs to be removed from the warehouse and quarantined.

What I should have said was ‘We are due to have the British Standards Quality inspection next week, and if they decide to examine these materials they will find them to be out of date. And it’s my signature on the Certificate of Conformity, so I don’t want to be blamed for a load of redundant stock.’

Fri 31 May 2003:   At work, typed up Lucchini meeting notes.

Asked Gill W to do DSC testing of vinyl resin tower paint and Becker’s tower paint – both gave similar exotherms.
Gill H asked if I was planning to go to Surfex, and then asked if I had been told about the impending reshuffle of the QC dept, uniting the SCD and EPD parts of the firm.

Last night had a Brie-and-pork-pie salad, went to bed early, had a long and convincing dream about meeting Steve Rhead; apparently, we were living not far from each other and ended up shopping in Manchester.

Jubilee and World Cup weekend.
US and UK nationals living in India and Pakistan are being advised to leave those countries.

Senegal beat France in opening world cup match.

The Awkward Customer

She had a prim little mouth
And a tight little hole
Rejoicing in the dry frustration
Of promises she’ll never try to make
From the empty basket of her desiccated soul

She wears resentment like mascara
Peering through tight little eyes
So as not to squander precious sight
On a sinful, undeserving world
Where satellites of evil rule the night

She likes to think that we believed
That she was bored with wickedness and vice;
Debauchery was such a drag,
And anyway, she’s seen it all before. But now
Behold her, fuming with distaste.

And I don’t suppose she’ll ever die, for
That would mean surrendering
To self-indulgent idleness. Without her
Would the cold grey world
Have any greater burden of distress?

Covid Mask Fiasco

01 August 2020 – It’s Saturday morning and I’m watching the Horror Channel on TV, which is showing previews of this week’s menu: marauding psychopaths, mutant zombies, witchcraft, aliens, severed limbs and demonic possession.

However, this catalogue of nightmares is wholesome and reassuring compared to the real stories which have dominated the TV news schedules over the past week or so.

We have the ongoing Covid-19 saga, which has killed about 46,000 people in the UK and 156,000 in the US. Boris Johnson was recently telling us that we could carry on socialising in pubs and restaurants, with a government subsidy offered to persuade people to dine out; but on Thursday night it was announced that restrictions would be imposed on residents in Greater Manchester and nearby districts, prohibiting visits between households.
About 4 million citizen-units are affected, many of them Muslims who were gearing up for a weekend celebration of Eid, with large family gatherings planned. And since the weather has been glorious, huge crowds have appeared on the beaches at Brighton and Bournemouth.

Three teenagers have been convicted of manslaughter following the death of a police officer who ended up tangled in a tow-rope attached to their getaway car. The three youngsters are career criminals from a traveller family, who went to great lengths to obstruct the police enquiry and intimidate jury members at the trial. The appalling details of this case, and the resulting sentences (less than 20 years) are described as being an insult to the memory of a public servant.

Meanwhile, the government has nominated several distinguished people for elevation to the house of Lords, among them Jo Johnson (former Minister for Science and brother of Boris) and Evgeny Lebedev, media mogul and socialite. We have to wonder how these assorted characters will improve the lives of UK citizens, and if they will insist on being paid their daily attendance fee.

02 August 2020 – It’s Sunday morning, and the news is full of speculation that new travel restrictions will be imposed on London to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The cabinet is also considering telling over-fifties to stay at home instead of socialising or going to work. And science adviser Graham Medley has provoked widespread alarm by suggesting that in order to reopen schools in September, it may be necessary to close all the pubs again.

03 August 2020 – A ‘major incident’ has been declared in Manchester, just days after residents were ordered to refrain from gathering in each other’s houses and gardens. We are being assured that this is simply a legal mechanism to enable local agencies to work together to coordinate their public health activities.

A Conservative MP has been arrested following allegations of rape, but his identity is being kept secret and he has not been suspended by the party. The chief whips have failed to take any action on behalf of the alleged victim, so she went to the police. Furious online debate ensued, with some people saying that he should be named and suspended (as would be the case with someone in any other profession) while others point out that this step would risk disclosing the identity of his accuser and putting her at risk.

05 August 2020 – For three weeks I have been suffering from lower back pain, one week bad enough to keep me off work and largely in bed. Before getting up, I raise my knees and rock gently from side-to-side to restore some mobility to my back. Then I use Voltarol cream (diclofenac 1.16%) and Naproxen tablets (250mg) to bring me to life before I can start work.

Yesterday a massive explosion destroyed the port area in Beirut, killing over 100 and injuring thousands of people. Video footage showed a series of small blasts before a huge blast occurred, creating a mushroom cloud and shock waves. The explosion was blamed on a warehouse containing over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and destroyed most of the wheat supply for Lebanon which was being stored nearby.

06 August 2020 – The anniversary of Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was used in 1945 to bring the second World War to an end. Immediate casualties numbered about 140,000; a similar number of people suffered ongoing health problems due to radiation poisoning.

The UK government has announced a shake-up of planning law to enable construction of more housing. This has generated lots of debate about the merits of building projects. However, the entire UK economy is built on one basic idea, that housing is an asset which will always increase in value. Therefore, the supply of property must always be kept significantly below demand, to guarantee upwards pressure on house prices; and so there will certainly be lots of meetings and reports, but very little in the way of actual building work.

08 August 2020 – The recent news stories are about healthcare: the UK government recently ordered 50 million protective face masks for NHS workers, but when these eventually arrived they were found to be unsatisfactory because they had ear-loops instead of head-bands.

And by an amazing coincidence, the company supplying these items of PPE turned out to be Ayanda Capital, an obscure firm based in a tax haven, whose shareholders include some staunch brexiteers and close friends of our glorious leader Boris Johnson.

We also had the entertaining spectacle of 750,000 unused Covid-19 testing kits being recalled due to safety concerns. The kits were supplied by  a firm called Randox, who are advised by Tory MP Owen Paterson. Randox must be a terrific firm, since they were awarded the contract for these kits without needing to submit a tender!
Randox was also the firm used by UK police forces to test blood samples in criminal cases, and it was found that the laboratories had been engaged in ‘data manipulation’…several prosecutions have been overturned and it is suspected that there may be thousands of unreliable test results waiting to be uncovered.

Heading North

16 July 2020: Chris Grayling, MP has managed to avoid being sacked from his Cabinet posts, despite a number of spectacular cock-ups (awarding a huge contract for post-Brexit cross-channel freight to a company which didn’t actually own any ferries) and was recently appointed to the Chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Or, at least, that was the plan; but one of the other c’ttee members decided to stand against him for the post.

The c’ttee was stacked with Conservatives, and all the members were contacted to make sure that they would comply with the wishes of the Prime Minister and elect the hapless Grayling to the post.

Then Julian Lewis, an MP with considerably more experience in the field of intelligence and security than everybody else in the room, announced that he was willing to stand for election. His appointment caused furious embarrassment to the Prime Minister, and shortly afterwards it was announced that Lewis had been expelled from the Tory party.

18 July 2020: The UK government has recently decided to abandon the daily reports of virus cases and fatalities, because it was noticed that the ‘deaths’ figure will include anybody who dies, even if they were diagnosed four months ago with Covid. Our most recent confirmed statistics are:

US: 3,782,00 cases, 142,000 deaths
UK: 294,000 cases, 45,318 deaths

21 July 2020: Severe back pain – I am trapped in bed, forced to lie flat, listening to Radio 4; the pain is a constant dull ache except when I try to shift my weight, which causes a sudden jolt of agony.

22 July 2020: Requested some Naproxen online, need to wait 48 hours before collection.

23 July 2020: Nineteen years (exactly one-third of my life) ago I started my new job at Sterling Technology. A few weeks previously I had attended two interviews. These meetings started well; I had lots of relevant experience and chatted confidently about my skills in testing samples of polymer coating systems.

‘The trouble is’ said the interviewer, ‘We really need somebody with first-rate computer skills, and you don’t appear to have that much knowledge in that field.’
I replied that I was currently engaged on the European Computer Driving Licence training course, and would be happy to attend further tutorials if the company felt these were necessary.

‘No, no’ he continued, ‘It is vitally important that the person who is taken on for this post has plenty of previous experience, a first-class track record in programming skills, and you don’t seem to have those qualifications.’
‘Well, the agency who notified me about this post didn’t mention anything to me about IT skills being so important; if they had done so, then I would have declined the offer of an interview.’

He sighed wearily, and I made my way home feeling confused about whether I had made a good impression. Two days later, the agency rang me to say that the firm had been quite pleased with me and would I be willing to accept the post if it was offered?
‘Absolutely!’ I yelled, and proceeded to skip around my flat singing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, and trying to work out how best to transport my belongings to a new city.

A bulky letter arrived the next day; a three-page contract of employment (two copies) and a set of instructions on when they wanted me to start, and how to go about getting a pre-employment medical examination.

My local GP was scornful; the waiting list for medicals was three weeks, by which time I would be starting work. The actual results would take a further two weeks to arrive. I rang the agency and explained that I might not be able to accept the job because I couldn’t get a works medical in time. The agency rang the company who rang my GP, and the agency rang me back and said that in view of the short timescale the firm would agree to take me on, provided that I arranged a medical with a local GP as soon as possible.

So I started work, and began testing production batches and dealing with customer complaints and preparing the occasional development sample.
After about six months I realised that I had not yet been issued with a company e-mail address (indeed, there wasn’t even a PC installed in my office) so I asked the boss whether they had made any arrangements to enter my details on the company network.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that’ he said, ‘There’s no need for you to correspond with customers, so you won’t require any e-mail access. And your job doesn’t involve any report-writing, so you don’t need a computer in the office.’

At the time, I was continuing my ECDL course, learning (at my own expense) how to use the standard software packages – but I wondered if all of this had been a waste of time.

A year later we were all issued with a company memo, reminding us that IT security was very important and that we should all be careful not to access any unauthorised websites or e-mail contacts. ‘Please sign below to confirm that you understand and agree to the terms and conditions outlined in this letter.’ I duly sent the memo back, pointing out that I had never actually made use of the firm’s computer system.

I carried on working there for four years, and then moved from job to job at different places round the UK, eventually landing here, where my salary is still slightly below what it was nineteen years ago.

An Evening Walk

Today I went out for an evening walk, to
Keep me busy on a desperately wet day in July
And give my mad-professor lockdown hair
A chance to take advantage of the rain. On my journey
I encountered gleaming pools of light
Where dancing rings began to swell and burst
Beneath the groaning pressure of the sky.

I spotted the abandoned wage-slips, discarded burger cartons
Like orange books of Styrofoam philosophy
And bushes thick with gleaming thorns bear fruit
Some berries green like mantis eyes of polished jade,
While one or two are bursting purple ripe.

Nineteen sturdy metal poles line up
To form the perfect cage; they threaten to diffract
The butterflies, the sparrows, wasps
And empty beer-cans thrown by angry lads on Friday night.

The harsh grey pylons hang below, humming
With the evanescent currency of dreams;
Reflected railings crumple in the rain, somewhere
A long equation describes with perfect clarity
How dancing circles interrupt
This stern parade of bars.

One day this pylon will inevitably fold
Beneath the weight of Himalayan balsam, a
Seductive burden of oblique magenta stars. The
Scattered pages sing to us
Of delivery notes, stolen isotopes, and
The poisoned honey that these tired bees concoct.

Some frantic mutations occupy
The framework of ideas you call the law; another
Panic-stricken moment when you realise
You left the cellar door once more unlocked.