The Cobalt Treasury

Many years ago I was given a copy of ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’, a beautiful hardbound anthology of verse covering the entire scope of English poetry from Dryden and his friend Anon, up to Shelley and Keats. The book is quite fascinating; the contents page carries a list of titles, but not authors. It would have been considered normal for any educated person to be familiar with the title and first line of every poem included in this volume; and many of the entries take as their theme the frailty of human life and vanity (Pope’s Solitude, for instance) and the eternal nature of virtue.
It occurred to me that we need a new compendium of verse; not just a collection of modern poems, but a selected body of work which represents the current view of what literature is for – in the same way that Palgrave sought to capture the Victorian heritage.
The Golden Treasury is filled with references to nature, history and classical myth; our modern world is filled with machines and activity. It might therefore be appropriate for the new age to have as its handbook The Cobalt Treasury, since this metal is useful (hardened tool steel) and dangerous (its radioactive isotopes are lethal if not properly shielded) while the nucleus of cobalt atoms has the highest specific binding energy.

As every schoolboy knows, the element Cobalt is believed to have been named after the malevolent spirits who inhabited silver mines, spreading illness among the underground labourers. We now recognise these ailments as being symptoms of cobalt poisoning caused by inhalation; and the compounds of this metal are generally viewed as being toxic. To this end, efforts have been made to identify a suitable replacement for cobalt as a drier in alkyd-based paints. Alas, numerous alternatives have been proposed, but none of them can match the performance of this material.
The generally superior nature of cobalt compounds as oxidative catalysts has led some researchers to abandon their search for alternative metals, and instead to focus on ways to reduce the health risks associated with cobalt compounds. One approach developed involves fixing the cobalt atoms onto a polymer substrate, which reduces the bioavailability of the metal. The actual drying properties of the cobalt are almost unchanged (it even shows the same yellowing problems seen with traditional drier systems) but toxicology trials indicate that the metal is no longer water-soluble.
Years back, when we had the miscellaneous bookcase at Sterling, I remember reading ‘Ripley Under Ground’ in which Highsmith depicts the adventures of Tom Ripley as he gets involved with a scam involving an obscure painter whose catalogue of works has been augmented by some convincing fakes. An astute collector recognises that one of the pictures makes use of cobalt blue, and questions whether this is a new development in the artist’s technique. One can imagine collectors of Kincade’s ghastly cottage scenes discussing whether the smoke from a chimney was a coded reference to an emotional crisis in the painter’s life. Or diehard fans of the pop band One Direction carefully analysing the significance of the colour of trainers worn by the lead singer.
And even longer back, I worked briefly at the testing laboratories of B’ham City Council; each day I would buy The Independent, and we would share the crossword puzzle over tea-breaks. One clue was: ‘Pigment flows from ball to cube’, and one of my colleagues spotted that it was an anagram of cobalt blue.

But perhaps we are all engaged in the process of compiling our own treasury; a volume of personal memories, pictures, music, scientific formulæ and scraps of conversation which have given shape to our lives. In the novel Red Dragon, detective Will Graham is constantly facing the threat of injury or death at the hands of dangerous criminals; we are told that his wife treasured their time together, and that ‘She could hold a moment by its stem’. Exactly how red was that red dragon, I wonder…
And what are the moments that I would select for my personal rose-bowl of treasures? Being at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1984 to see the Swedish Radio Youth Orchestra performing Mahler’s First; and feeling a great jolt of emotion when the brass players stood up to perform their fanfare at the end of the piece.
Taking part in a sponsored charity motorbike ride for the British Red Cross; one of my friends had organised a trip from Salford to Manchester, calling at Chester, Lancaster, Leeds Wakefield, Derby etc en route. Altogether we covered twelve cities in twelve hours.

Journal Entry, 28 Jan 2008:
Yesterday (how long ago that seems) I joined the others for the ’12 Cities in 12 Hours’ charity bike run. Left here at 5.30 a.m. and exactly 12 hours later I was riding through Stoke on Trent, so technically I fulfilled the goal.
Had trouble keeping the group together so we got split up a few times. I lost the others then shot off to Derby. As I was getting ready to make a phone call the others appeared behind the Cathedral so I hastily rejoined them.

Journal Entry, 26 Feb 2008:
Today at work had meeting with Eugene Rafferty & Kevin Smith.
I arrived at work to find two bags of red pigment for testing from Bruce in the Development Lab.
While we were sitting there, Bruce stuck his head round the office door and then abruptly vanished (obviously looking for Adrian).
Adam turned to me and said ‘Oh, not good enough are we?’ So I mentioned that Bruce had left me a couple of samples and would probably ask if I had the results ready for him yet, even though I had only been at work fifteen minutes.
A few seconds later B- stuck his head round the office door again, and Adam and I both burst out laughing.

Journal entry, 24 Nov 2012:
Today had some junk mail in the post; an A4-sized sheet advertising the Virgin Media Mobile/Broadband package, printed in white on a bold red background. And I wondered to myself how much work had gone into the production of this leaflet.
The colour register was perfect – no blurred edges or skewed print, no variations in the shade or gloss, carefully designed logo, just the right amount of text and image to impart information rapidly and clearly. And what kind of red pigment was it, I wondered. Was it DPP red from India or China, or a red 170 from Europe, or some other organic material?
Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs opens with a bleak dystopian narrative in which he describes a world ruined by poverty, pollution and crime. At one point he utters the phrase ‘Red mutant eyes gazed down on hunger city…no more big wheels’, carefully selecting the first three words and bolstering them with sonic embroidery. Exactly how red were these red mutant eyes? Would the CIElab colour space have to be extended to capture this dramatic scarlet howl?

(Original Hardback: The Golden Treasury of the best Songs and Lyrics in the English language, awarded by West Bromwich Municipal High School to Brenda Jackson for Needlework in 1933. Brenda Peakman was a much-loved English Teacher at Thomas Telford High School in the 1970s)

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One thought on “The Cobalt Treasury

  1. I felt the urge to search for my nan today and it led me to Banwell’s Spingtime festival and here. It really touched me your final paragraph. I just hope I can inspire children when I teach, the way she clearly did.

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