The Polymer Chemist Makes a Sandwich

At 7.30 a.m. on Christmas day the world is silent; I play my 1976 LP of ‘In the Mist’ and look out at the trees and spider-webs adorned by dew. Memories gradually crystallise.


In a bewildered tone, was the single work uttered by my host as we sat in a branch of Frankie and Benny’s waiting for the pizza to arrive. The in-house music system was playing mediocre Europop, while in the Gents’ toilet we were treated to Italian language recordings; how to say ‘I came here by car’. So much for romantic Latins, I thought; or perhaps after dark the soundtrack changes into something more intimate, and gives you instructions on how to tell a young lady that ‘I think your hair is very beautiful and I want to make love to you until the apricots blossom.’

Somewhere in the kitchen, our dough was being firmly beaten. I remember thinking that it would have been more enjoyable and less tense if we had grabbed a sandwich and headed for the park.

I had travelled up at short notice to attend a job interview, and my companion was supposed to be interrogating me for the post of Research Chemist. What I didn’t know, and was to learn a few months later, was that my area of expertise coincided with a massive commercial and technical disaster which had recently befallen the firm. It was considered vitally important that the company directors did not find out that their problem could have been avoided; they were convinced that nobody knew more about this topic than they. My arrival could easily have exposed their clumsy half-understood reaction schemes, and shown that a better, cheaper technique was already being used in four different cities round the UK.

I imagined myself gesticulating with a half-eaten sandwich as we sat by the river listening to the drone of traffic and the occasional car radio, a middle-aged woman drumming on the steering wheel. Consider this material, I would say, as being like the mustard pickle. Under normal circumstances, these two materials (pointing to the granary bread and the roast ham) are quite incompatible; but if the additive is precisely applied, and the molecules allowed to accumulate in this orientation, we can establish a permanent and durable bond….

But alas, it was too late. They had failed to incorporate the correct material in the right manner, and the intimate marriage of the two components had failed to take place, and…well, I’m sure you recall the headlines. It was pure chance that the woman had been walking below the building when the barrier fell. A few seconds later, or a less vigorous gust of wind, and she would have been unharmed and the firm would have remained an obscure production site, supplying ordinary merchandise to a host of uncomplaining customers.

But now, I am making my own sandwich; behind me I can hear Doves singing about The Storm, and I am playing with slices of white and brown bread, trying to decide whether to hold the filling between them or just heap it generously on top, leaving it to cascade like a Venetian still life of gleaming vegetables. The song reminds me of other meals, and other journeys to distant towns. On my plate were olives; should I arrange them in the shape of a molecule of Monolite Yellow 83, or perhaps instead spell out the skeleton of Orion?

The Camembert has a streaked skin like an alien from Dr Who and its parchment-coloured heart gleams coldly. The artisan boule loaf is too dense to make decent toast, with a firmament of tiny pores uniformly spread through each slice, denying me the spongy pleasure that comes from a proper loaf of Milanda’s.

Reckless and wasteful to discard the crusts, but they impair the aesthetic charm of this dainty snack; it is as though somebody has taken a black marker-pen and drawn bold outlines onto Hughes’ classic portrait of Juliette Law. Their removal is deeply satisfying, both as a process of improvement and in the final result, leaving the sandwich in elegant harmony with the room, instead of being aggressively at odds with my pristine kitchen bench.

On the way to work I pass a yellow Vauxhall Viva which has been parked (or perhaps abandoned) in the front garden of a nearby house. The gleaming chrome bumpers are pitted with spots of rust, in a kind of constellation which may be Orion or Monolite yellow. Beads of sap and dead flies lie scattered over the paintwork, waiting to be removed by the owner’s kids as they perform the weekly ritual of cleaning this dead motor. I wonder if the original owner drove to work each day in 1976, wearing sunglasses and Brutus Gold flared jeans, with cheese-and-tomato sandwiches in the glove compartment (prepared by his devoted wife who had no idea that his actual dinner was a pint in the local boozer, followed by a clumsy petting session in the back seat with one of the secretaries from his firm). One day, inspired by an episode of Reginald Perrin, she prepared elegant sandwiches with the crusts removed. She eagerly awaited his return that night, and enquired about his lunch; had he noticed anything different?

No, he said; and at that moment the deception began to unravel, with tearful accusations and light-hearted denial. He spent that night sleeping in his car, and two weeks later was severely beaten up by unknown strangers.

Perhaps it would be interesting to create an inside-out sandwich, with a few pieces of toast held in the centre of meat and relish. This would be rather like that experiment I heard about; normally, we assemble adhesive joints using sheets of oxidised aluminium sandwiched together with epoxy resin. But one researcher made up a slurry of aluminium oxide in a mass of epoxy, and cast it into thin coupons which were then analysed. The overall composition was the same, but the end results were entirely different, and nobody could explain why.

He had been listening to Janacek; surely that makes everything clear?

Oblique towards the Sea

Confusing Job Advert

I recently found a job advert online which ran to 250 words but managed to say absolutely nothing about what sort of work would be involved, or what kind of person they were seeking. I think this job advert is actually a brilliant piece of neo-modern post-ironic brutalist poetry and should be submitted for next year’s Turner Prize.

The advert says:

“The scope of the job will include:-

To ensure the effective operation of manufacturing processes that fall under the span of control. To ensure that all process operating methods are clearly documented and maintained up to date. To ensure that the manufacturing processes under your control are continually developed / improved to ensure that technological advancements can be realised.

Main Responsibilities:

To support the manufacturing operation by reacting to and solving process issues in a timely manner when they arise.

To initiate corrective actions, training plans and process improvements where necessary to ensure that the processes under your control operate at their optimum level.

Ensure all processes, operation instructions and procedures are fully documented and that all company quality procedures & documentation is rigidly adhered to.

Ensure process controls and measures are identified, implemented and monitored for all processes within areas of your responsibility.

To review departmental process controls and identify improvements on an ongoing basis.

To identify manufacturing capacities for processes under your control. Liase (sic) with Team-leaders to ensure these capacities are understood and utilised.

Liase (sic) with the Pre-Production Engineering department to ensure that CAM & Planning practices reflect current manufacturing capabilities & methods.

To continually monitor and reduce scrap levels within areas of responsibility.

Actively participate within / drive the Company Quality Improvement Program, ensuring any corrective actions required are closed down within the relevant time scales.

Active member of the wet area team the candidate must have a can do and proactive character.”

(Apologies for the unauthorised reproduction; if you’re really that bothered, go ahead and sue.)



Many years ago I bought an LP record of ‘Vexations’ by Eric Satie (or at least about as many iterations of its theme as can be fitted onto two sides of vinyl…)

The response from my friends was amused, puzzled, and scathing. ‘You actually paid good money for this?’ was the typical refrain.

I no longer have the album, since I gave away most of my records (David Bowie, Barry White, Schubert, Laibach, Nana Mouskouri, Thompson Twins etc.) when I moved house two years ago…but I was reminded of the piece when I started reading Yasmina Reza’s play Art, a dainty three-hander filled with bold ideas and arguments, centred around a totally white abstract painting.

One message board commentator remarked that this piece was very funny and interesting, but it showed an intellectual dimension completely missing from British culture. Only in continental Europe, said he, would you find people so engaged with modern (postmodern?) art.

The play has been performed by stars, by unknowns, by female actors, possibly even by black actors (with a canvas to match – I have no idea). The play was broadcast on BBC Radio Three (ironic, huh?) to celebrate the award of the first Turner Prize. Since we have recently had Hollywood movies featuring one or two actors (Cast Away, All is Lost, Gravity) it is only a matter of time before some huge Director brings out a glorious big-screen version of the play where the end credits run for two hours and feature an army of wardrobe consultants, lighting coordinators, and stunt doubles.

‘Oblique towards the Sea’

The mask of a white painting
Is as much about the viewer as it is about the art
A nebulous poem where nothing happens
Like a job advert that fails to specify a
Single trait to solidly confirm
How able you might be
To do the job. I found myself lost and
Dreaming in a foreign tongue, unable
To say how scared I was; instead, I
Managed to say out loud ‘rejoice’, and felt
Once more as calm as anyone
Arriving home from a lengthy voyage. 

Last Thursday saw the announcement of this year’s ‘A’ Level results, when slender blonde girls hugged each other on sunlit lawns while clutching A4 pages glowing with achievement. We certainly didn’t behave like that back in 1982, instead trooping along to the school reception area where a type-written list of grades was pinned casually to a notice-board. If one of my teachers had said to me ‘Well done! And where do you think you’ll be in thirty-five years’ time?’ I might have said ‘Oh, probably managing ICI.’ Instead of which, I’m working as a section leader in a paint factory, being insulted and ignored by the other staff (‘my insubordinates’), living in a rented flat with a TV but no aerial and no hi-fi and no car and no motorbike and reading library books (Yasmina Reza and Joan Baez) and a head full of knowledge about coatings technology acquired over the past 23 years.

Leeds Victoria Gate

Victoria Gate, July 2015

This is the new Victoria Gate shopping centre, currently under construction in the centre of Leeds. It will replace the run-down shops and pubs that stretched up the hill, so that visitors to the city will emerge from the coach station to be greeted by a gleaming retail cathedral. I noticed that the steel beams have been painted to prevent any rust formation, and hence prolong the life of the building; when the Old Trafford extension was being constructed ten years ago, it appeared that the steel members were already brown with corrosion as the building took shape.

And, viewing the gradual assembly of this edifice, I can’t help thinking about the sheer cost of building this centre. How much for each of those steel beams, and how much to have them painted and tested and transported to the site? How much for the Quantity Surveyors who plot the material requirements for this temple of shopping enjoyment? And how long will it take before the centre actually generates enough income to pay for its own construction?

Vic Centre Jul15 1 vic centre Jul 15 2