Manchester Art Gallery I

Journal Entry, 29 Jan 16:

Many years ago I bunked a day off school with my mate John; not to go glue-sniffing or carry out an armed raid on the local post-office, but instead to travel down to London (British Rail had launched a special offer of return tickets for just six pounds!) to visit the Great Japan Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. We wandered round London and had tea at Harvey Nichols where I defaced our receipt so that it read ‘Over (rather than ‘At’) The Top’.

Then we made our way to the Academy, and encountered a vast display of paintings, porcelain, kimono and ceremonial swords; everything had been embroidered, gilded and lacquered to within an inch of its life. I remember feeling exhausted and having to rest. When we boarded the train for our journey home there were no seats left in second-class (it wasn’t called ‘standard’ class back in those days) so the train guard instructed us to take up residence in the First-Class carriage, an experience from which I think neither of us ever fully recovered.

I was reminded of this when I called in to the Manchester Art Gallery yesterday as part of my job-hunting activities. En route, I passed the All Hallows RC School which had a large banner fixed to the railings outside proclaiming that the school had been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted because of the “Fantastic GCSE results” (58 percent of pupils scored five grades A* to C).

Is this fantastic? Does the quoted figure mean that 42 percent of the pupils failed to achieve anything higher than a grade ‘D’ in four of their exams? Perhaps Ofsted should adopt a new gallery of writhing superlatives, alongside the prosaic ‘Good’ and ‘Adequate’. How about ‘Marvellous’, ‘Splendid’, or even ‘Corking!’ as tax-bands of attainment?

Anyway, back to the Art Gallery: I had not been for several months, and did not realise that there were three new exhibitions to be enjoyed. Keenly drinking in the atmosphere of cultured elegance, I made my way through ‘Black on Black’, in which curator Jo Bloxham had brought together items of jewellery made from Nacron synthetic resins, animal skin, oxidised silver, or genuine Victorian jet. The gallery walls had been painted with a special vintage shade of black from Farrow and Ball; the whole thing was just too much, or as Harvey Nicks would have it, Over the Top.

And after this journey through the Chamber of Gloom, I ascended the frosted glass stairways to the second floor where the gallery was holding an exhibition of Modern Japanese Design. Except that, in Japanese culture, nothing is truly ‘modern’. The top floor gallery had the original white plaster nymphs and muses around the distant, elevated ceiling; beneath them, large, sturdy glass cases contained small ceramic figures or those amazing sculptured garments created by Issey Miyake from endless yards of welded polyester fabric. Around the gallery, elegant banners carried brief descriptions of the aesthetic and philosophical concepts behind and inside Japanese art, such as the notion that beauty is enhanced by small imperfections or asymmetries.

One object on display was a set of red plastic trays mounted on an upright metal spine; the caption described these as being ‘metacrylate’ (sic), a tiny blemish which marred my enjoyment of the display. Likewise, the exhibition of black jewellery included some item labels saying ‘steel’ and ‘paint’…surely, if the objects are valued at thousands of pounds, a precise technical description would be justified.


LGBT STEMinar, Sheffield Jan 2016

Journal entry, 18 Jan 16:
On Saturday afternoon, Paul and I made our way by train from Sheffield to Manchester; the snow on the Pennines reminded me of a similar journey I made several years back on Good Friday.
We had gone to Sheffield so that I could attend the LGBT seminar featuring some of the best and brightest scientific researchers in the UK and beyond. The event had been organised by Beth Montagu-Hellen, and included presentations about heart disease, rodent predators, cancer crowdfunding, and photovoltaic cells. We had keynote talks from Dave Smith and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who have spent years studying the sociology of LGBT issues in the science and engineering field.
I had looked online for a suitable hotel to stay at, and found something called the Harley – the website did not make it obvious that this was a well-known rock bar which played grime and grunge and hard happenin’ house music from 11 till 4.00 in the morning.
We initially asked the manager if we could check out rather than stay for our second night, but he charmed us into staying put (the breakfast was superb).

Journal entry, 10 April 98:
Good Friday. Il neige! Il pleut! Downstairs the door lock is broken; can’t get key in. Yesterday Sheila and I went to Ciba in Macclesfield to see their labs (spacious and well-equipped) and their canteen (clean and smart with flowers on the tables) and their workers (hunky guy with a Bandit 600).
Went to Manchester on the train (snow on the hills between Sheffield and M’cr), went round Arndale Centre then to Rembrandt and Clone Zone and Paddy’s Goose, a gay Irish bar where everybody was watching footie on TV. Bought a novel called ‘Call Me’. There was a Goth night at the Railway Tavern in Derby – ‘666 Night’ but I didn’t go.


LGBT STEMinar, Sheffield University 15 Jan 2016.

Last Friday, 15 Jan, I attended the first UK seminar devoted to scientific research projects being carried out by LGBT workers.

I don’t remember having ever seen any event of a similar nature listed in the UK; indeed, when we were about to leave Leicester Poly in 1986, the Careers advisor told us that “The chemical industry is a rather conservative environment, and your managers are not likely to be impressed by any unorthodox personal or political views that you might hold”.

And over the past twenty years I have attended numerous job interviews, where I have been asked ‘Are you married? – Why not? – Have you got a girlfriend? – Do you see yourself getting married?’ etc.

(Subtext: “Are you married? We don’t really care, but we want you to know that we are carefully watching for any sign of discomfort when you reply, and we have no qualms about asking an illegal question.”)

When I was embarking upon my career as a humble polymer chemist, I would have been strongly encouraged by knowing that there were other members of the gay community working in engineering, or chemistry, or astrophysics. Instead, I was left with a vague idea that any discussion of my private life would be severely frowned upon. “You must remember” said one interviewer, “This is a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, and you won’t be able to keep any secrets from people round here.”

Anyway, Friday’s STEMinar was a really enjoyable event: we had over a dozen speakers presenting papers on a range of topics including biochemistry, astrophysics, psychology, solar cells and the predatory rodents of Gough Island.

I wouldn’t normally attend a lecture series covering these topics; but here it felt completely natural to listen to experts in unfamiliar fields of research, giving an enthusiastic account of their work and placing it in context.

We also had two keynote presentations from distinguished speakers: Professor Dave Smith from York University, who has explored the invisible nature of LGBT personnel in STEM fields, and Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Professor of Enterprise and Engineering at Sheffield University.

It was great to be able to discuss openly some of the issues relating to sexual identity in the STEM workplace; if you are the first person in your department to come out, does this make you a role model? And should workers feel pressured to come out in order to make life easier for the next wave of employees?

My own experience has been in the field of industrial coatings, on old-fashioned sector which seems to operate on a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ basis. On one occasion I had just started a new job and my boss was taking me through the employee induction checklist – health and safety, timekeeping, holidays and pensions etc – and when we reached the ‘Diversity and Equalities’ section he just said cheerfully ‘Well, that’s not relevant to you’ and moved on to the next item.

I mentioned this to a couple of friends, adding ‘Well, obviously he doesn’t realise that I’m gay’, at which point they fell about laughing. But being aware of this mistaken assumption left me permanently on my guard against giving away anything about my personal life, a rather stressful state of affairs.

My own contribution to the seminar was a poster outlining some research work carried out 25 years ago into the adhesive bonding of polypropylene. I found that by scrubbing the surface of PP with silicon carbide paper through a wet layer of primer solution, we could obtain strong adhesive bonds. During my time in industry I’ve mentioned this project to various senior colleagues, all of whom have been dismissive: “No, you’re mistaken; everybody knows that you can’t bond polyprop, ‘cos it’s got an inert surface.” (A standard example of status-quo bias, refusing to acknowledge any challenge to the prevailing dogma)

Sooner or later, some producer of plastic items is going to try using this technique, and will find that it gives them a commercial advantage; in the same way, a few engineering firms will start recruiting non-straight technical staff and will find that the diversity helps them to solve problems in a dynamic, more creative way.

Many thanks to all those involved with setting up the LGBT STEMinar, especially Beth Montague-Hellen, and all the speakers, who were splendid ambassadors both for their technical research fields and for the wider LGBT community. Hope to see you all again next year!

Can’t Bond Polyprop?

In case I get run over by a herd of antelopes on the way to work tomorrow, here is the synopsis for my poster, to be presented at the Sheffield University LGBT STEMinar on Friday 15 Jan:

Can’t Bond Polyprop?


Adhesive bonding is a valuable part of industrial design, allowing different materials to be joined so that their properties can be fully exploited.

Polypropylene is a fairly rigid thermoplastic which enables designers to achieve weight reduction in components and assemblies.

The inert, low-energy surface of PP helps to prevent staining, but also inhibits bonding and coating processes.

Conventional wisdom: ‘Polypropylene is impossible to bond, and can only be joined using heat-welding techniques.’ Numerous online message boards carry postings from disillusioned DIY enthusiasts who have arrived at this conclusion following their attempts to glue PP components.

Experimental work

Shear strength measurements on lap-joints showed that through-primer abrasion created stronger bonds than pre-primer abrasion. The technique has been used with three different grades of PP (brittle homopolymer, ethylene copolymer, and rubber-toughened PP copolymer) and two different adhesives (epoxy and polyurethane) giving strong, durable joints.

Options for future work

New variants of the primer system: water-borne and chlorine-free polymers, rather than traditional xylene solutions of chlorinated PP.

Advanced polymer substrates: glass-reinforced PP, non-woven textile systems.

Message to aspiring researchers

There are opportunities for exciting developments in seemingly established and unpromising fields of technology. The established views (‘you can’t bond PP so don’t bother trying’) need to be challenged using detailed programmes of experimental test results.

Tim Norris, PhD, ATSC

Leicester Polytechnic, Oxford Polytechnic, Open University

Carrs Paints, Mason Coatings, Newtown Industrial Paints, Sterling Technology,
EC Pigments, Kernow Coatings, Exova, Corrocoat, FBS Prestige

Awaiting context and footnotes

Journal entry, 27 May 1991:

Last night went to the Apollo and got drunk, chatted to Richard and the NZ Tony. Recently the papers have carried adverts showing a boy sensibly dressed for cycling in bright clothes and a hard helmet, rather than in dark gear.
I was wondering if accidents would be reduced by having fewer dark-coloured cars on the road – lower insurance premiums for sequin-coated Escorts.

29 May 1991: Last night Di rang and told me about a vacancy for an epoxy chemist at Proderite, so this afternoon rang them and asked for an application form.
Wrote to Brenda Peakman, phoned BIP confirming my interview next Tuesday.

1 June 1991: Today at long last had cheque from Dole office – only nine weeks after I signed on! Today went to Oxfam shop and gave them a pile of my old paperbacks then went to the Imperial Cancer shop and bought one Barbara Cartland and one Alistair McLean. Tonight went to the rave disco and as I was leaving they gave me a Safe Sex poster and a Durex.
Just as I was trying to decide which was to go I saw R – walking home alone. Don’t think he saw me.
Recently in the papers there has been a story about a man charged with sexually assaulting a dolphin. Claire at work suggested that this guy might have been interviewed by a reporter and asked whether he was bothered by his wife leaving him after this episode: “No”, said the man, “there are plenty more fish in the sea..”

2 June 1991: Something a wee bit different today; lambs’ kidneys with pasta and mushrooms. Must remember the cream and sherry next time. Phoned Dad and Glad to ask if I could stay at theirs Mon night before my interview. Bought new PSB single ‘Jealousy’ which has an intro vaguely reminiscent of Strawberry Fields Forever.

4 Jun 1991: Last night went from work to Dad’s by coach (laid on by BR since train cancelled) then this morning went to BIP for interview. Arrived 10.20, then ten mins later the personnel man collected me and told me all about the job. We went to see the Tech Manager but his secretary informed us that he was in a meeting all morning, and the personnel dept had failed to pass on the message that I would be attending.
Anyway, eventually Tech Mgr turned up and we chatted for half-an-hour, think it went well.

9 June 1991: Today went swimming before dinner. Yesterday went to Randolph Hotel and had cream tea with Pam, John and Rob (clean shaven – an unprecedented sight!) and saw Stephen Hawking trundling round in his wheelchair.

8 Feb 1988: Went to interview at Fosroc, and halfway through the meeting it transpired they had been using a CV from some other candidate (into rock-climbing, water-polo etc). I spent 40 minutes waiting at Reading station, and it was a completely wasted day.

Footnotes and context:
‘The Apollo’ was a gay pub in Oxford, not far from the Police Station; our usual haunt, The Jolly Farmers, had been closed down by the brewery.
‘Di’ was my friend Diana Smith, a fellow postgrad student at the Poly.
‘Claire at work’ was a young lady who worked with me at the Infirmary, where we spent the day packing blood-taking kits and listening to Radio One. It was a temporary post. When I finished I was never issued with a P-45.
‘Brenda Peakman’ was a former teacher of mine, who had kept in touch by letter and sent me paperback books.
‘BIP’ was a chemical firm (British Industrial Plastics) which manufactured amino resins, used as curing agents for epoxy and polyester compounds.
‘Randolph Hotel’ was the grandest place in Oxford, and Rob Halliday had invited me along to help celebrate his PhD.
You don’t really need me to tell you who Stephen Hawking is…
‘Fosroc’ was a chemical producer, who invited me for an interview which had been arranged by Professional and Executive Recruitment.
I was in the Apollo one evening when a chap struck up a conversation, and I mentioned that I was researching adhesive technology. “But how can you do research into glue?” he asked “I mean, you can’t actually learn anything about it.”

New Year 2016

Journal entry, 3 Jan 2008:

Earlier this year LK insisted that I must go up to New Abbey for Hogmanay – she had seen Andy and said that he seemed very ill. Andy now settled in Manchester, reasonably cheerful and in good health. We drove up to visit LK, stopping off at Tebay for dinner.
Went out en-masse for a trip to Dumfries, but apart from that we stayed in the house for four days. Robbie had invited two friends over for his Hyacinth candlelit supper on 1 Jan, but they cried off.
Got to work to find OCCA committee minutes from Dec including a reference to me giving a presentation at the half-day symposium in March.

4 Jan 2008:

Stevie Teats told me a joke, so I told Jemma, and she told Alan Dobson: “What have George Michael and wellington boots got in common? They both get sucked off in bogs.” Alan looked puzzled for a few moments and said ‘Oh, he’s one of those, is he?’
Two months ago the lovely Jemma carried out some PFR work on a sample of violet 23 from Wuxi chemicals, and obtained a close colour match to the standard. Today I repeated her work and got significant differences; inspecting her original panels revealed numerous lumps of undispersed pigment in one batch.

Journal entry, 1 Jan 2016:

Last Monday Paul and I bought tickets to Bruges and had a mad dash to get the ferry – severe widespread flooding around the UK, train lines disruption, motorways and bridges damaged, houses ruined, three bad storms named Douglas, Eva and Frank trashing northern England and bits of Dumfries.
Last night we stayed in and watched TV – I’ve got a telly now! – Jools Holland, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Bryan Adams and Esio Trot, a wonderful charming piece with Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman based on a Roald Dahl story.
Pink Champagne (sorry, Cava) still in fridge. Might have for breakfast.

Have now been at work for two months – I received the job offer then had numerous small hiccups, with the HR department being unavailable, and then my references not being requested on time, then the flat agency needing a reference from a credit agency who stupidly thought that I was going to live in Irlam and commute to Nottingham even though I had clearly stated on the form that my new flat was near the place of work. Idiiots!

Journal entry, 31 Dec 1996:

Since Kenneth Williams always started his diary entries with the weather: there are two inches of snow outside, pale feathers chased by a Siberian breeze. Sometimes all the flakes move in different directions, while at other times it looks like computer-generated graphics, with all the while dots streaming parallel at different speeds. Today I drove back from St Awful, set out 10.00, got here 6.30. Felt like a rally driver peering through the grime on my windscreen.

Weds 1 Jan 1997:

Happy new year and all that, am sat here listening to Metallica and Daley Lorien in attempt to come through a hangover. Last night drank a bottle of red and three glasses of port and was violently ill at 2 a.m.
Down in Cornwall Jean decided to carry out some crystal healing on me, so she waved her lumps of rock over my back. I could feel ‘something’ at the time. Following morning (Xmas Eve) I woke up with a really stiff neck and could hardly move, gradually eased over the next few days but I still ache.

Sat 4 Jan 1997:

Blast and buggery! Went to Abbey National to collect my cashpoint card but they haven’t sent it down from Oxford yet. Landlord has donated all the furniture to the tenants to avoid enforced upgrading for fire regulations. Nothing at all wrong with the the flat.
Was just browsing through my copy of Northanger Abbey and found a ticket for ‘Tressine’s’, the awful nightclub where I ended up getting hopelessly drunk when I left IRL (Industrial Research Lab, B’ham City Council, 1987). It was £1.50 to get in on Fri or Sat nights, and the phone number started 021-.Oh happy days! 

Imaginary journal entry, 1 Jan 1980:

Well, I have been in this house for about seven months now, ever since my grandmother passed away and I was hastily transferred to a children’s home run by the City Council. Since nobody knew how long I would be staying here, they decided to let me carry on attending Thomas Telford School even though this involved travelling for three hours each day by bus.

We had a Christmas dinner party here in the Home, with a splendid chocolate log cake as the table centrepiece. Then we all went into the playroom to watch television (perhaps many of the population would resent the idea that their rates were being used to provide such frivolous distraction for delinquents such as myself) but when we returned to the dining room this festive log had mysteriously vanished.
Perhaps it was my fault; after all, I had incurred bad luck when I attempted to walk past Aunt Peg on the stairs. She put a hand on my chest and gently forced me to walk backwards, sneering ‘Didn’t you know it’s bad luck to cross on the stairs?’ And I had once been to the local church, where the priest (on being told that I was a new resident at the Home) had invited me to chat to some of the local teenagers after the service. Aunt P was furious when I was late getting back she rounded on me, declaring that ‘You don’t go to church to drink coffee, you go to church to worship God!’

It is January 1980; we are in the playroom watching the first edition of ‘Top of the Pops’ for the new year, and Madness are playing in front of a plain backdrop that simply says ‘1980’. I have already been hypnotised by the lyric to ‘Duchess’ by The Stranglers, which appeared in Smash Hits last year. I am studying for ‘O’ Levels, and struggling to get to grips with basic algebra and 3-D geometry, unaware that just down the road my contemporaries were using better textbooks under the guidance of more committed teachers, and that they would all achieve more and better exam results than myself.