Laundryette Revisited

“That’s a nice shirt”. This morning I went again to the Laundryette: sometimes it puzzles me how few clothes I own, and how much meaning they carry. This double-cuff shirt, for instance; I bought it years ago from a charity shop (British Red Cross, I think) in Bolton. The fabric is pale blue with a design of fine black lines, rather elegant…but on closer inspection the lines are actually small black dots laid upon a thin band of gleaming white fabric, which makes them seem to hover faintly. For Christmas I was given a pair of cufflinks – silver, with a line of tiny black beads along each one. How perfectly matched! But my gift came from a friend who, having never seen this garment, had no idea which design of jewellery would be most apt.

While waiting for the machines to run their dreary cycle, I began dipping into Justine, the novel by Lawrence Durrell. I can’t remember when I bought this book; I would never claim that it was one of my favourites, but the language and the ideas and the atmosphere of the story fill me with wonder. An occasional phrase from the narrator or one of the characters will spark off a chain of recollections, where the places I have been (and persons I’ve met) become confused with those I have only read about.

And then sometimes, looking around me I will be reminded of the times past I have spent at various Washeteriæ; at Oxford in 1989, reading ancient sci-fi paperbacks; at Castle Bromwich in 1993, reading Ramsay Campbell; at Derby in 1997, reading Back Street Heroes; at Tamworth in 2001, reading a biography of Liszt; and now at Swinton, reading ‘Take a Break’ magazine, or Durrell, or Foucault.

“That’s a nice shirt”. I remember now one occasion when I wore this particular item, at a conference a few years back, some exciting event about the arcane world of adhesive research. After the final lecture, I had met up with some of the other delegates in the hotel bar. One chap engaged me in conversation, and we had a very polite discussion about Chemical Engineering and the problems of business travel. After a minutes’ silence he laid a gentle finger on my sleeve and said “That’s a nice shirt”.

So few words; but how much meaning. We returned to his room, took a shower together and spent about an hour in bed.  Only later, when dressing, did I notice that we had flooded the bathroom floor. And now as I look out of the Laundryette window at the rain, and the eager spreading rings of light in the puddles, it all seems remote and unreal. The events in Justine, so potently described, seem to inhabit my memory more solidly than many of my own experiences.

Prometheus & Ganymede

The P-G Paradigm


In February 2010 I was studying ‘From Enlightenment to Romanticism’, an Open University Arts course which explored the transition which occurred between the years 1780 and 1830; instead of a clear change from the Classical (elegant, rational, polite) to the Romantic (emotional, transcendent, unkempt) there was a dramatic upheaval which saw bold developments in art, politics, science and religion.

As part of this course we were required to submit a 2000-word essay discussing the nature of Romantic works of Art: do these creations share a ‘common essence’, or do they simply have a family resemblance? The assignment was to be centred around two of the Goethe settings composed by Schubert, along with one other piece (which could have been a poem by Wordsworth or Byron, the Museum of John Soane, any of the late paintings of Delacroix or the Royal Pavilion at Brighton).

And naturally the two songs by Schubert which I most wanted to discuss were the settings of ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymede’. Here we have two songs – same poet, same composer, same instruments and same cultural context (classical mythology) but which represent distinctly opposing views of the relationship between man and God. Ganymede was the devoted cupbearer (a delightfully coy expression) to Zeus on Olympus, while Prometheus was the ultimate rebel, a titan who stole fire from the Gods as a gift to Man.

In the P-G Paradigm we see the essence of Romanticism – the reckless, passionate pursuit of an ideal – but one of the characters is a slave to the existing order, while the other is utterly defiant. And yet the same musical idiom serves to embody their individual missions.

While pondering these ideas, I would sometimes walk from my landlord’s house up to the local branch of ASDA (the only place where I could receive a decent cellphone signal). It was early in the year, and the sky would be dark at six o’clock. Sometimes I would glimpse the moon through the bare trees, and think that this was the essence of the Romantic ideal.

And then I found myself thinking about the mystery of Schubert’s musical output. His Great C-major symphony, a huge orchestral creation, had as its slow movement a jaunty march where one would expect to find a sensuous cantabile. And Franz did know how to compose a slow movement – symphonies five and eight both have the most glorious, poignant melodies as their second movements. So why, in this tremendous manifesto, did he restrain his natural talent?

I can only think that it would unbalance the whole work if he had included a languorous, swooning rainbow of melody in this work. Indeed, the entire symphony seems to rely on small motivic cells being repeated  hundreds of times to generate an irresistible momentum, and this technique would not work in a section where the main tune was twenty bars long.

And of course, in producing a symphonic movement like this, with the barest variety, it becomes possible – as in a Japanese Noh drama – to create bold shifts in feeling with only subtle key changes. Having mastered the art of composing tender, poignant slow movements, Schubert wanted to move beyond, to the essence of music – ‘Heard melodies are sweet….’, where the plainest tunes can evoke a range of emotional responses.

Behold, the twin towers; ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymede’
They chase each other round the focal point
That hovers like a seed of possibility.


House Prices

Tamworth, Staffordshire: 2000

Back in the year 2000, the UK property market was in a state of high excitement. The mood of optimism veered between buoyant and reckless, and in the Spring of that year an article appeared in ‘Your Mortgage’ magazine (a popular finance rag) which announced that:

“…due to an increase in commercial and residential demand, property prices in Tamworth are likely to see a 40 percent increase over the next 5 years…”

Of course the local press were delighted by this prediction, and promptly carried the news item on their front pages for the next few weeks. Indeed, so hasty were they to celebrate the good tidings that after a while, the headlines simply proclaimed ‘Tamworth House Prices to Jump 40%’.

Although I didn’t carry out a detailed survey of property prices in this period, I had my eye on a one-bedroomed flat which was on the market for £38000; six months later, this same property was being advertised for £51000.

And it seems that much of the demand for property was actually generated by families and firms twenty miles away in Birmingham. The sudden collapse of the Rover Car Company at Longbridge (Autumn 2000) caused a loss of consumer confidence and dented demand for houses in Tamworth.

But after all this fuss, the estate agents still managed to pocket their hefty bonus payments for selling overpriced houses; local journalists generated vast amounts of lazy coverage; and Tamworth remains a disappointed backwater with a castle, a cinema, and little else.

Cornwall, December 2009: 5 Hours by Train

From The Guardian Website, 28 Dec 2017:
Influential Tory former minister Nick Boles has condemned the idea of a universal basic income to cushion workers against the rise of robots as “dangerous nonsense”.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.”

From the BBC News Website:
Half the members of the House of Lords clock in and out of Parliament for a few minutes a day in order to claim a £300 daily attendance allowance, a former Conservative peer has said.

Lord Hanningfield made the claim when challenged to explain his own attendance record. In 2011, he served nine weeks of a nine-month sentence for parliamentary expenses fraud totalling nearly £14,000.
During his trial, a court was told he had submitted false claims for hotel bills including one when he was actually on board a flight to India at the time, and that he had fraudulently claimed for train fares and car mileage.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed in the Telegraph (21 May 2020) that the Lib Dem peer Lord Fox has arranged for his wages as a company director to be paid by the taxpayer, using the government’s furlough job retention scheme. This is meant to support employees who cannot work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. However, he still manages to carry out his parliamentary duties via the Zoom video-conferencing app. And he claims a daily allowance for attending the H-of-L, even while working from home (a 2-million pound house in Windsor, if you were wondering…)

From The Guardian Website, 25 Apr 2017:
The Trussell Trust runs a network of 420 food banks across the UK, and has distributed 11 thousand tonnes of food over the period 2016-17. Many of their clients are families waiting for Universal Credit payments to be issued.

According to WRAP, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, the UK wastes about 7 million tonnes of food every year, more than half of which is fit for consumption.

Across the UK there are over 600 thousand empty homes. Meanwhile, the agency Shelter reports that there are 270 thousand cases of homelessness being handled by Local Authorities.

In November 2016, Countryside Properties brushed aside fears about the health of the UK’s property market as it reported a 34 per cent jump in operating profits to £123m.
But in March 2017, Shelter reported that about half the occupants of new-build housing had complained about problems with finishing and utilities. It also turns out that many new build homes were sold as ‘Leasehold’ meaning that the owner has to pay rent on the land – an unspecified sum which can be increased without warning or right of appeal.

Journal Entry, August 1990: Frustrating day at work. Tried applying primer solution between 0.5 and 3.5 percent, unable to quantify film thickness. Bond strength values: 1.31, 1.16, 1.29, 1.04, 16.83, 41.22, 184.91, 178.61, 182.58. Even at the lowest bond strength, the electron microscope pictures show the same frond formations on the failed surfaces. Not sure if physical entanglement responsible for the adhesive performance. Adding zinc phosphate gives much sharper SEM images; might be coordinating to the chlorine atoms on the primer.



No players decorate this football pitch; instead
Abandoned storage drums three-quarters full
Of rancid disappointment stand around
While dirty goalposts gather rust, condemned
To wait forever in this silent field.

Today at work I weighed some clouds; they nestled
In their fallen bowl
Subdued by accidental dreams
Instead of bursting rain or taking shape.

Last night my dreams were made of wood
They creaked and sang as all
The xylene vapours made their great escape.

Tomorrow night I’ll wait for you
On the corner of Radium Street again
Watched by a moonlit poster hanging torn
From the wall of an abandoned shop. The dust
In the window remembers me, though you do not.

The Photo of Dorian Gray

Raised voices from the other room: Dorian heard one speaker say that the portrait could be created in less than half an hour, and it would be instantly recognisable.

Hallward sounded despairing as he replied: ‘But no – your images can be just a few square inches, while I can paint a full-length portrait of a person. Your photographic pictures are just made of black ink, while my flowers and landscapes are coloured. And your images are – ‘

The painter fell silent as he saw mister Gray enter the room. Carson, who owned a studio producing photographic portraits, turned to the newcomer and stared.

‘Dorian! I’m so sorry, I had forgotten you were calling round today. Mister Carson, may I present my friend, mister Dorian Gray?’

Carson bowed. ‘Pleased to meet you, sir. We was just talking about the merits of my new photographic portraits, and mister Hallward is not convinced that there is any future in my business. I think he is a very talented painter, and anybody would be proud to own one of his pictures.’

Hallward smiled faintly. ‘You are most kind.’

‘But’ continued Carson, ‘only a few people would be able to buy one of your pictures, whereas my photographs can be purchased by most people and carried around with them.’ He went on ‘We could even do a picture of your friend mister Gray here, and I would have a portrait ready in three hours, but it might take you a couple of days.’

‘Oh, but Basil has already started – ‘ Dorian broke in cheerfully, before noticing that a flash of annoyance  – and something else – vanity, pride? – passed briefly across the painter’s distinguished features. He recalled seeing a printed notice advertising a public lecture which claimed that everything was in constant motion. Perhaps all things are indeed in constant, frenzied agitation, and the moment captured by the camera is just a tiny fraction of the real image that viewers behold.

Hallward sighed faintly. ‘Yes, I have indeed started work on a painting of mister Gray. It is just a sketch, a preliminary outline; I don’t really want to share it with you before it is complete.’

Dorian stayed silent. He remembered seeing the painting, fascinated by the way the painter had conjured up an impression of him in vague blocks of colour. He wondered if the picture would appear differently viewed by lamplight, or in daylight; or on one of those bleak winter afternoons when the park is covered with snow and a pearl-grey brightness fills the drawing-room.

‘Besides’, Hallward went on, ‘we have no idea whether photographic images are stable. The beautiful forms depicted by Rubens or Titian or Delacroix are still as vivid and compelling as they were two centuries ago; but how do we know that your prints will not fade or be corrupted over the next fifty years?’

Last night Dorian had been enjoying the company of two young men, and had taken liberally of some wine laced with absinthe; every few minutes a brief wave of fatigue washed over him, and when he looked at Hallward, sharp points of light began crawling along the man’s face. Carson, too, appeared to be crumbling steadily away at the edge of his vision.

Dorian started to feel anxious. From a great distance he could hear Hallward’s concerned voice: ‘What is it, Dorian? Are you not feeling well – you have gone terribly pale. Please, sit down, I shall ask Milton to fetch you some tea.’ The painter called for his housekeeper, while Dorian slumped on the sofa. Hallward bent closer to try to catch the young man’s muttered words.

‘What if…oh, Basil…please, keep it by the window. No…I can’t look at it by the candle…that face, that…oh!’ Why is it crawling, what have you done to my face?’

Like many of the rich and famous in Victorian England, Oscar Wilde was familiar with the camera; there are photographs of the great writer as a ten-year-old, as a teenager at Oxford, and on his deathbed. The process of photography must have appeared dramatic and mysterious to many people of that era, and I sometimes wonder why Wilde decided that it was to be a traditional oil-painting, rather than a photograph, that would cause the damnation of his youthful hero.

Perhaps Wilde’s friends were anxious that the new medium of photography would gradually drive painters out of business. He may have felt that painting was a genuine craft requiring skill and dedication and vision, whereas photography was mechanical and soulless; the long hours spent creating a picture in oils represent a kind of devotion, and the end product has a spiritual element. The photographic portrait, on the other hand, is an instant production carrying none of the emotional involvement, colour, or depth which characterise the finest oil paintings.

Of course Wilde makes no attempt to explain the mechanism behind this drama; young master Gray accidentally notices one day that his painting has deteriorated in a specific manner, and it dawns on him that he is now free to indulge in late nights without having to suffer from the tell-tale scars of loose behaviour. A lesser writer might have been tempted to concoct a tale of how Dorian’s Great-Grandfather once kidnapped an Indian princess, whose father was forced to pay a ransom for her release. Of course, the ransom would include fabulous gemstones, each carrying a mysterious curse so that subsequent owners would meet a horrible end. And the silver mounting for these jewels? Well, this would have been processed into the silver nitrate used in photographic plates – the very plates used to capture the perfect image of Dorian Gray, so that when the young man utters his wish to remain young, the curse takes effect and grants his wish. And condemns him to a life of cruelty, murder and despair.

Back in the late nineteenth century, there were probably many photographic studios which made use of inferior materials, and whose pictures would start to decay after a few weeks exposure to a normal household environment. Perhaps Wilde himself had heard about someone whose portrait had been horribly disfigured by this type of silent corrosion, and been prompted to compose the Faustian tale that we now know as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Di the painting itself change? Or was it just a psychological disorder, brought on by Dorian Gray’s exposure to absinthe, laudanum, and mercury?



New Management Gimmicks

Can you imagine what would happen if a company director called a staff meeting and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have decided that we are going to produce only poor-quality goods and deliver a carefree, slapdash level of customer service…”

Admittedly, the great Gerald Ratner achieved fame – and ruin – by declaring that his firm’s merchandise were ‘total ***p’ at a major business conference in the UK about twenty years ago.

But it is fairly common for managers to tell their workers (and customers) that ‘we are committed to quality and excellence’, as though this is a daring and orignal idea. It reminds me of those Indian Gurus whose devotees strip off and jump up and down, yelling the name of their chosen deity. I fear that one day I will arrive at work to find my colleagues standing on their chairs and chanting ‘Quality! Quality! Excellence! Excellence!’. It is for our customers – not ourselves – to declare that we have achieved quality and excellence, and this kind of reputation takes years of hard work and dedication.

Some managers have a weakness for business ideas from abroad, particularly Japan. The most popular flavour-of-the-month concepts appear to be ‘5S’ and ‘Kaizen’. Each of these has numerous cultural nuances which are usually lost in translation, which means that after a few weeks of application, the foreign business strategy has failed to deliver miraculous results and is quietly discarded.

The problems with applying these ideas may be due to the differences between British and Japanese society. In the East, great importance is attached to Loyalty and Harmony; loyalty to the Emperor, to one’s employer, to one’s family and finally to your own interests. By contrast (based on my limited experience of British industry), workers in the UK tend to view their employers with resentment and suspicion. ‘Why should I bother keeping a tidy workplace, when it will make life easier for other people? Why should I keep detailed records of the work process, when that will enable the boss to replace me if the fancy takes him?’ The prevalence of these attitudes makes it difficult for UK workers to fully embrace the ideas of 5S and Kaizen.

Another problem is the UK devotion to profit; the steady, continuous improvement advocated by Kaizen is eagerly supported by managers who imagine that it will lead to increased production and reduced overheads. Part of the benefit of Kaizen is that it changes the relationship between workers and their jobs; the process is improved, but so is the employee – a concept which fills most managers with alarm.