Working-Class Zero

Recently, I found this quote on a blog by an American writer called Visionheiry:

“When the specific gravity of certain poems becomes too much to bear, I start spreading poems them out on the floor. I walk among them, I talk to them: “Where do you want to be? Why are you sitting out there all alone — too good to fraternize, or are you shy, do you need someone to hold your hand?” I sing to them, listen for answers.”  (Visionheiry.tumblr.com      December 2011)
And then I found this poem by legendary writer and activist Felix Dennis:

Specific Gravity

Though kith and kin may sacrifice their life,
Though loyalty be bred into the bone,
Though God may bind together man and wife —
Yet still the minds of men must quest alone.

Bequeath your children all the books you please,
Or lead a horse to water in a drought —
The doors of revelation have their keys,
Yet none may force the portal from without.

‘Aye, nowt as strange as folk,’ the Yorkies say,
And said it since Neanderthal napped stone;
Though men join hands to ease each other’s way —
Yet still the mind of man quests on…alone.

What is density? What is specific gravity? Intensive versus extensive properties? The numbers don’t mean much, in fact when taken out of context, not only do they fail to inform, they are more likely to mislead and confuse which is all very well if you aren’t really bothered. The particles are held apart by dimensions of crumpled grief.

And consider this, part of SPECIFIC GRAVITY by Andrew Kreider on The Penguin Poet website…

Upon these wooden shelves
Above my head
Stood more books than I could
Throw my arms around
Every volume with a story
Of my life
What I was doing when I bought it
Where I lived
What I hoped
What I still promised
For someday
(Kreider)

Specific gravity should be obvious, but is not; why did Jennifer keep the blue lightbulb in her bedroom for two years after Clive walked out on her? Why did she mistakenly divide by SG instead of taking the Times? It would have cracked the code and set the meaning free. She kept a copy of the Periodic Table with the various elements mixed up at random…sometimes she dreamed of being alone in the salt mines carrying a flower instead of a lamp;  a soft blue light drifted from this bloom, revealing the huge white crystals that studded the walls of the cavern. Her friend had told stories of how the mines would surrender their gleaming treasure only to brave souls willing to penetrate the darkness.
We need a certain density; a body of workers, able to travel to a factory to perform soul-crushing duties for years on end. The money they earn goes to support local traders and sports clubs and schools and medical facilities. If the density falls below a certain level, motivation and energy begin to dissipate, and the thriving football club dwindles to a sparse collection of reluctant volunteers. Likewise, British industry needs a critical mass of workers with different levels of skill, and a mechanism that encourages the transfer of that knowledge; perhaps we should adopt the ‘transfer window’ policy of the football league, with a specified period when firms can approach staff from rival companies. The sharing of talent between firms may benefit the national economy, whereas allowing that knowledge to languish in a department is a criminal waste.

Journal Entries, Mar 2010 – June 2012

In January 2010 I drove down to Cornwall to start a new job at Vilnet Coatings in Lentorn; during my time there my only main project was the development of a water-based alu-back coating. This was an opaque finish designed to prevent background shadows from affecting the appearance of display banners.
Someone had already formulated a version of this material, but the paint was unstable and showed a tendency to congeal on storage.
After inspecting the list of ingredients I realised that there was too much cosolvent in the formulation, which was causing the emulsion resin to swell. I prepared a silver version of the paint with reduced solvent levels; this material remained perfectly fluid. I also made up a system with no aluminium pigment, but with the high loading of solvent originally used; this material turned to snot after six days’ storage.
In March I bought a cheap notebook with firm card covers, finished with a dull silver coating. It seems faintly ironic that my miscellaneous jottings in the journal should have recorded the abrupt decline of my career in Cornwall.

7 March:
“Where does a girl begin? How about November last year, when I was invited to an interview on the Isle of Wight.
So I went and booked a hotel room and bought train tickets, and 2 hours later had a phone call from the employment agency SCI Recruitment telling me that Vilnet Coatings had decided to offer me a job.
Let us move forward to Jan ’10; I had arranged to move all my stuff out of Flat 3 and into the Safestore Depot at Trafford Park.
Went to visit Luke and Shelley on 4th Jan, then to David H, and then home when it snowed heavily and I had to cancel my van hire.
Came down to St Austell in hire car.
Then in Feb ’10 a saga with LT, who refused to allow me to leave work an hour early to go drinking even though my 40 hours were completed.”

11 March:

“And here I am living in a house with Debbie and Simon; the place is amazingly clean and tidy. My latest OU essay on John Soane is due in tomorrow, have done about 1000 words – need another 300 or so.
The bathroom is fitted with low-voltage colour-changing bulbs. V distracting if you want to have a shave.
At work they stir everything in the lab on Silverson dispersers for hours on end, whether or not it’s needed. Don’t bother cleaning flow-cup holes correctly. Don’t monitor temp for viscosity. Don’t bother checking pH or NVC.
And a few weeks back LT and I were in the QC dept when he said ‘You need to have a word with that chap’ (pointing at old Paul) ‘cos you’re going to be spending some time in here’. LT perpetual troublemaker.”

13 March:

“Yesterday took laptop to work but still no wireless signal. Eventually used the office computer (after LT had cleared it with Andrew Chard) to send my John Soane assignment.
Went to Truro for drinks with Derek: Wig and Pen, Old Ale House, and the Swan. Then train back to Lentorn and had a pint in the Seven Stars.
Meanwhile at work, I was visiting QC Lab – they still haven’t told me anything about transferring over – and Paul L told LT to make an addition of one batch to another, by scrawling the two batch numbers on a Post-It note. Recipe for disaster.”

17 March:

“St Patrick’s Day! Last night texted Eileen & rang Aidan. Called in at Swampdogs MCC meeting and said hello to 2 of them but their actual meeting in a private room so I left them to it & came home.
Home? Hardly. At work my silver coating is also scrunch- and water-immersion resistant. Been making up an ordinary inkjet coating.”

18 March:

“Yeah, whatever. Visitors in lab. Couldn’t get any work done.”

21 March:

“Went to pictures to see the new Scorsese film – Shutter Island. Just a clumsy high budget movie about a psycho.”
I was about this time that I sent e-mail messages to several friends, telling them how cheerful and optimistic I was about my prospects in this new post; for instance, to Peter Davys, Programmes Officer at Manchester OCCA::

“Hi Peter (and everybody),
Well, the job’s going fine – I’m working on some coatings for
polyester films and making slow but steady progress. Am presently
staying with my big sister in St Austell, using her spare room; it’s
not ideal, and I’m looking round for a rented room closer to work.
I had planned to move all my stuff to Safestore in Trafford Park on
Jan 5th but the snow came down the night before, and all my
arrangements were cancelled. I just hired a car, made my way down here
and went back up to Manchester 2 weeks later to move out of my flat.

Yvonne rang to let me know that she was transferring me to Bristol
section, but since they’re 160 miles away I probably won’t be a regular
visitor. I occasionally grumble about the journey to work (6.30 walk to
station, 6.50 train to Truro, 7.16 train to Lentorn – if I haven’t
missed the connection! – and 15 minute walk to the factory) but it is
really peaceful down here, and every so often I catch a glimpse of the
harbour to remind me how lucky I am to have landed this job.
Right, must dash – I’ve got ten days in which to finish my 1500-word
essay on Robert Owen for the OU course ‘A207: From Enlightenment to
Romanticism’ : after Owen, we’re doing Humphrey Davy, Byron, Goethe’s
Faust and Brighton Pavilion. Hope all is well in M’cr”

Or another message to my Sister:

“Well, it’s Sunday morning and the clocks have moved on…now that the
light evenings are here I can start looking for a flat in Truro
somewhere.
Did I tell you we had a meeting with the boss? Each of us related what
we had been working on (fortunately I had some good results to report)
and then he said “We’re going to be very busy in April, lots of orders
coming in, so I can’t accept any requests for holiday during the month.
You may also be needed at weekends…”
Good job I don’t live 25 miles away, then. When my 6-month trial
period is over I can point out that I’ve been doing 50-hour weeks. Just
hope they don’t expect that to become a normal level of performance.

I’ve had a few emails from OCCA (the professional paint chemists’
club) regarding the committee meetings and minuting procedures. I sent
a reply pointing out that my nearest branch of OCCA is in Bristol – 170
miles away – so they might want to leave me out and concentrate on
members who are actually attached to a local branch.
Strange that there are dozens of paint firms in the Midlands and NW
regions, all of whom know me through OCCA (cos I was part of the
M’chester committee organising half-day seminars) and yet none of these
could arrange for me to be offered a job locally. So they’ve lost a
valued correspondent.
Anyway, am off to Scary Mary’s pagan wedding in Essex at end of July.
Meanwhile, one more Open Uni assignment on Romantic Literature and
Music, then my exam in St Awful on June 15th.”

And I sent the following to some former workmates from Stockport:

“Well, I can’t remember whether I   sent you both an update on my
situation here…I had booked a van for the 5th Jan to transport my
belongings to Safestore in Trafford Park, but then it snowed and I had
to cancel all my arrangements and drive down to Bristol in a hire car,
leaving all my stuff in the flat. (Sensible Timbo decided to stay in
hotel rather than attempt a 340-mile trip in one go on icy roads)
Two weeks later I went back up to Stretford and managed to move all my
stuff out; by this time, the builders had started renovating my flat
and had installed new radiators, ripped the kitchen out etc. It was
fairly chaotic and I ended up chucking away loads of books and clothes,
simply cos I had nowhere to put them. As it turned out, my Safestore
unit – 25 square feet – was just big enough to hold my possessions.
So now I’m down in St Austell, living in my sister’s spare room and
travelling 25 miles to work by train – not nice. I get the 6.50 to
Truro and then the 7.16 to Lentorn. If the first one is more than 5
minutes late, I miss my connection. And coming home isn’t much better –
I don’t roll in until 7.00 (yes, I know lots of people work longer
hours than this, but it’s a shock to the system).
Anyway, I’ve arranged to rent a room in a house near work (about 5
mins walk away!) and will spend the next three months looking for a
flat near Truro.
Work is okay…I ‘ve been there four weeks now, and my e-mail inbox
contains four messages – two of which are just scanned data sheets from
one of my colleagues. It’s not really the same as EC, where I was
beseiged by invitations to quiz nights and curry nights and snooker
parties during my first week.
Although last Wednesday I went to the local pub to see ‘Cinderella’
performed by the Lentorn Community Theatre. Cinders’ mother, Flotilla,
was played by our H and S manager from work. It was hilarious – the
three old hags (it borrowed a lot from Shakespeare, you see) threw off
their black cloaks to reveal three blokes in pink wigs and skirts, who
went on to do a parody of the ‘Sheilas Wheels’ advert. And Cinders
didn’t suddenly appear in a ballgown; instead, someone in a Gok Wan
mask dragged her away for a makeover. And Prince Charming was a Boris
Johnson-type hooray Henry, who retrieved Cinders’ slipper and was
desperate to find the other one because it was a really exclusive
designer label…
Will let you know more in due course,
Take care, have fun
Tim”

29 March:

“Well, on Friday night went off to Truro after work, met up with Jean and Gaz, and we went off to a 70s/80s disco at the Crab and Ale House. Good fun, nice atmosphere.
Saturday went to jumble sale at the Youth Drop-In centre in St A, bought a copy of ‘Crying of Lot 49’.
Yesterday came back here & found that Debbie and Simon had split up (he got drunk and tried to wreck the house).
Today at work was making excellent progress on my silver lacquer. At about 20 to 5 Craig asked if I had a minute to spare.
We went to the conference room & he said that after 3 months my performance didn’t warrant their faith in me as a poss replacement for LT or Richard so I was being let go; ‘we’re not sure that you’re right for us or we’re the right firm for you…’
I retrieved all my belongings from cupboards and drawers, packed bike up. Craig watched like a hawk to make sure I didn’t sabotage the PC or steal my lab notebook.
Still, now I know why LT has avoided speaking to me for the past 2 weeks. And during our meeting last week Craig said that we’re very busy, and so he would not authorise any holiday requests for April.”

30 March:

“Today I swooped down to my local Jobcentre Plus and got leaflet about signing on. Also found a job advert on their computer system for a Chemist (research in coatings and paints) at Fire Protection in Redditch.
Last night went down to Seven Stars, had 1 pint Heligan, watched a bit of Man City v Wigan and came back.
Pondering on my time at KC; a few weeks back, on St Pat’s Day, we used Machine no. 1 to coat some ‘Somerset Fine Arts’ paper. Going through the safety checks, we found that one of the machine stop pull-cords was not working, but LT said we would just carry on and get maintenance to fix it later.
Fortunately the firm has young Steph, a family friend of LT, to take over my job. And as I said to Derek, ages ago, ‘I feel as if they offered me the job on the understanding that I would decline it’.”
After this galling experience I sent a number of e-mails to friends, including the following to Andy and Robbie:

This message is being sent as a kind of insurance policy in case I end
up taking my boss to court for unfair dismissal. Can you print it off
and send it to me at my Manchester address? There’s an automatic
redirection order, so it should be sealed and dated when it gets to me
down here. (Don’t use any funny comments on the envelope or it won’t be
recognised) No hurry – next two weeks will do.
Anyway –
On Monday afternoon (29 March) my boss Craig called me into the office
and said ‘we’re halfway through your trial period and I thought it
would be an idea to take stock of how things are going’. He then said
that they weren’t sure that I was really happy (‘you seem to get the
work done but with a heavy heart’) and was I having problems?
Other remarks involved the idea that I was supposed to be gearing up
to take over from one of the senior chemists when he retires next year,
and that I hadn’t shown any aptitude to do this.
Did I have any suggestions on how to improve the situation? (Craig’s
family owned the firm – when he says ‘any questions?’ it actually means
‘now get out there and do some work’). So I said no. And the rest you
know….
Anyway, today I had a call from one of my colleagues: “What’s going
on?” he asked.
Me: “I’ve no idea….why, what have they told you?”
Colleague: “We were told that you felt that you couldn’t really cope
and you decided to leave since your three months trial period was up.”
(I didn’t point out that it was actually six months)
Me: “Weeellll, that sort of came out during the discussion…”
Colleague: “And there were some comments made that you had been rude
to the sales department and refused to take a sample of material for
them to inspect”.
Well – actually that’s sort of true. I had prepared a silver-coloured
coating called alu-back, as requested by James G, our sales director.
It was good stuff – hard, glossy, scratch resistant, didn’t turn to
jelly on storage, and you could laser print on it. I’d done a couple of
colour laser prints on this stuff – double-sided, no less – and when
the boss was in the lab, I said ‘Do you want to give these to James
when he comes in?’ and handed them over.
Don’t you want to? asked he; I thought that if I held onto them, then
JG would come in, meet the boss, then disappear again without even
seeing them. By handing them to Craig, it was fairly certain that they
would at least be discussed. And also there’s an element of vanity
here…the stuff is so good that I don’t need to hold its hand, or be
there to make excuses for poor performance.
If he’d come into the lab and said ‘Wow, Tim, these coatings are
really good’ I like to think I would have shrugged and said “Yeah,
that’s what I’m here for.” Like ten-pin bowling: when you let go of the
ball, just turn and walk away….if it’s a strike, you don’t need to
stand and watch it.
Among the other personal flaws that made me such a liability to the
department are the fact that I went for a 10-minute tea break before
we’d finished cleaning one of the coating machines (which no-one else
was due to use for at least two weeks anyway).
And today I had a letter from the MD, with my P45 and a cheque for one
month’s wages….but the letter gives no reason for my dismissal, nor
does it mention my trial period. The DHSS (or whatever they call
themselves these days) might look on this as me making myself
voluntarily redundant.
Never mind…at least the firm doesn’t have to look far for my
replacement. They have a young man called Steph working in QC, who
started work on the same day as me. He lives about three miles down the
road in Falmouth and his family are close personal friends of the chief
chemist. Handy, that, innit? At a guess, I think the firm will invite
about five candidates for interview before saying that none of them is
really suitable, but we could always try young Steph.
As far as I’m concerned I was doing a first-rate job in the lab,
solving problems that had defeated the other workers. (I even got told
off by LT for using the internet to look up data sheet info for acrylic
emulsions; ‘Don’t look online, said he…you should ask me first’.
But anyway, at no time had anybody said to me that they were unhappy
with my performance at work, or that I wasn’t meeting targets. Indeed,
Craig seemed to avoid talking to me a lot of the time.

Here’s to the next 20 years in paint!
And this to various former colleagues:

Well, as I mentioned I had finally landed on my feet in a pretty little town called Lentorn, doing a job which seemed to have great prospects. Anyway, last Friday we had a department meeting where we all briefly explained to the boss what we’d been working on. At the end of the session he said ‘Right, I need to tell you that we’ve got a full order book and a bit of a backlog, so I can’t accept any holiday requests for April…it’s going to be seriously busy.’
Fine, I thought…I’m living over the road from work; I can easily put in extra hours when needed.
Yesterday afternoon, I was called into his office and told that the team wasn’t making the right sort of progress, and that “…we’re not sure if you’re the right person for us, or whether we’re the right firm for you…” so I’m now back on the dole (good title for my memoirs, methinks) with all my goods in a Safestore warehouse in Trafford Park while I rent a single room (believe me, it’s very single) in Lentorn.

Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?

14 Jan 2012:

“…and here I am, two years later, reflecting on the way things turned out. Of course my time at Cornwall wasn’t entirely happy; I was feeling isolated, and everywhere seemed a long way off. My friends joked that if I attended any bike rallies, I would always win the ‘long distance’ award. And I had complained at work about the difficulty of living in a place where the shops didn’t remain open until ten p.m. (like the Trafford Centre). At one point I began wondering how practical it would be to fly to London six times a year for wild nights out, since Truro (so I mistakenly thought) had no gay scene.

(I recall once mentioning in the lab that I was going to start looking for a rented flat near Truro; John was nearby, and he seemed quite angry at this, saying ‘no, you’re not going to live in Truro, you must find a flat in St Erth near me and we can go for a drink together.’ He didn’t seem to like his staff to show any signs of independence.)
But when Craig told me that they wanted me to go, I felt a surge of relief; I would be able to start looking for jobs in big cities again, places like Birmingham and Leeds, places with shops and public transport and cinemas and restaurants.
And now, looking back, I recall the time I actually started work: Mon 11 January, 2010. I arrived at the lab in a rented black 1.2-litre Corsa at about 8.10 a.m., just in time to meet Craig getting out of his car. ‘Morning’, I said cheerfully. His reply of ‘Oh, hello’ seemed rather subdued and absent, and I remember thinking at the time that this was an odd way to greet someone who had just moved 320 miles in order to join your company.
I also remember my second interview with the firm (the travel costs came from the Dole Office, not Vilnet) when the MD asked me how old I was and whether I was married. Everybody knows that these questions are forbidden during the interview process; I felt sure that he wanted to see if I would squirm with embarrassment at the prospect of further interrogation. Still, it’s all valuable experience. And everything dropped into place in April 2010 when I was offered a temporary post at Exova – the call arrived while I was having breakfast in a café in Blackpool, so I was ready, willing and able. Lebens – Volens – Potens!”

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