A scumbled Art of Sci


(Why didn’t they use the right catalyst?)

Journal Entry, 13 Nov 2016: It’s Remembrance Sunday, and the nation fell silent at eleven o’clock today to pay tribute to the people who died in the First and Second World Wars, along with the other recent conflicts in the Middle East.

At work on Friday morning we congregated around the TV set mounted on the wall of the Blackfriars Restaurant to observe two minutes’ silence; and the same thing happened at football and rugby matches around the UK.

I recall a few years ago taking part in the Salvation Army Toy Run, when hundreds of bikers would ride en masse through Manchester, eventually arriving at the Trafford Centre to make donations of toys and money for needy children at Christmas.  This was one occasion when the eleventh fell on a Saturday, so we observed two minutes silence; hundreds of bikers standing motionless, the only sound coming from the distant motorway and a few balloons bobbing against petrol-tanks in the breeze.

I sometimes took photographs at this event, and in one picture we see a crowd of bikers standing outside the homeless shelter run by the Sally Army; in the distance, one could make out the super-de-luxe Hilton Hotel halfway through construction.

For the past three weeks I have been on a work experience placement (the sort of thing normally arranged for young jobless persons) at the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, helping out in the Maintenance Workshop and the Linen Room. This gave a fascinating insight into the backstage goings-on at a large city centre hotel; the supply chain and repair schedule, the timetabling of events, the dense networks of communication needed to maintain smooth running over a fourteen-storey building.

My journey to work each morning (what a lovely phrase that is!) takes twenty minutes by train, followed by a seventeen minute walk from Deansgate Station. The train is full of regular characters for whom I construct imaginary life stories. Sometimes the young ladies will place their expensive designer handbags on the seat next to them, in order to deter anyone from sitting there. Alas, I cannot help myself; a brisk request of ‘May I?’ as I ease myself backwards, leaving her just enough time to snatch the bag indignantly away.

Since I have only a modest allowance of internet access on my cellular telephone, I pass the journey by reading ‘The Vivisector’, Patrick White’s novel about a brutal, ill-mannered artist called Hurtle Duffield who is rescued from working-class squalor while still young. At one point in the book, Kathy and her boyfriend Clif visit the artist, and Kathy remarks to Hurtle: ‘Clif’s interested to see the paintings.’ adding  ‘Of course he doesn’t understand art. He’s a scientist.’

Are scientists really so immune to the charms of visual art as is often assumed? While working at the hotel, I was helping to clear out a dank warehouse full of broken furniture and abandoned picture-frames. Against one wall I noticed a tarpaulin covered with strange grey markings, and I realised that this was the protective sheet where room fittings had been placed when they were spray painted before being installed in the guest suites. The creases and folds in the canvas had produced a series of optical echoes, with feather-edged zones of light and dark giving the illusion of depth.

Was it art? Was it science? Could you use the patterns of overspray to deduce the shapes of the objects that had been so carefully painted? I could easily imagine the image before me, neatly framed, on the cover of a coffee-table book about Sigur Ros or Rammstein.

The word ‘scumble’ reminds me of a short story by John Wyndham in which two characters, numb with cold, attempt to start a fire using screwed-up (‘scumbled’) newspaper. And it appears again in an online blog about the collision of Art with Science:


The term ‘scumble’ refers to the overlaying of paint layers so that the underlying images remain visible; this technique is said to impart an impression of depth to the picture. A scientific concept, viewed from an artist’s perspective, might take on new significance. And the worlds of painting and music and sculpture and verse can suggest ideas for research projects in medicine and materials and power generation.

Working in the laundry department had a few moments of excitement: the bundled sheets and towels would emerge at high speed from the galvanised metal chute, landing on a sturdy rubber mat. In the past, I was told, the washing would land on the bare tiles with a deafening slap. The fastener on the service lift was gradually working loose, and I dreaded being inside there when it finally came adrift and the alarm would need to be pressed..
We had a tumble drier for the face cloths and bathrobes; some of the robes were expensive cotton, but others were pure fluffy polyester, and these would build up high levels of static electricity. They would emit a fiendish crackle as you pulled them out of the warm chamber.

The face cloths were thrown into a large plastic tub on castors before loading into the washer; this tub looked vaguely familiar, and after two days I realised that it was the same hundred-litre keg in which I used to prepare my five percent salt solution (stirred with the dedicated light-sabre) at Exova in Salford.

In case this was not sufficiently entertaining, we had a small radio playing Smooth FM, a station which played Lionel Richie, Karen Carpenter and Randy Crawford to the exclusion of all else. A fine soundtrack to the end of the world; for on Wednesday morning we awoke to the news that Donald Trump, loudmouth billionaire TV celebrity, had been elected President of the US. God shows his contempt for money by the people that he gives it to…

I wasn’t able to discern
The colour of the cobbled sky that day;
From the linen room, my field of view
Was filled entirely by hotel windows, their
Stern rectangular black regiment
Blotting out all other features. In front

Of the parade of windows,
Languid gulls made carefree arabesques,
A drifting sweep around some
Ever-shifting point of gravity. Then

Someone leaned from an open window
And threw a piece of bread into the air;
Abruptly magnetised, the gulls gave
Angry chase, flapping to fend off
he deadly spear of one another’s beak.

From time to time I find myself reminded,
By a perfect array of testing cells or other
Multitude of perfect squares, of that wall
Of windows where the gulls
Performed their dance of Winter just for me.


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