Xqizit-Zombii Greens

Journal Entry, 24 Jun ’09: Am sat here drinking French dry white and listening to Radio 3, an elderly recording of Ben Britten conducting Brandenburg II, which reminded me of Gomeldon Avenue and Dad’s double album of JSB selected by Joseph Cooper.
Last night B- and I went to kino to see ‘Last House on the Left’ which ws good, but would have been far better if they hadn’t put all the best bits in the trailer.
At work, Dave Earnshaw was going through some drawers and found a key labelled ‘Eileen’s Middle Door’ which sent us into hysterics. Meanwhile, Eileen has lent me her copy of ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’.

25 Jun ’09: Tonight I logged onto Skype and rang Andy and Reina, had nice long chat. He got drunk and her bike got vandalised.
Then I rang John and Alan; apparently they were just passing round my postcard from Germany and were stunned that I’d chosen that moment to call.
Tomorrow – take books for Rob P to practice interview technique.

26 Jun ’09: Today’s news – Michael Jackson has died from heart failure.

28 Jun ’09: I was looking at my old copies of BSH, wondering whether or not to chuck them out, and issue no.163 includes:
A review of the Sewer Rats first rally
Listing of the PILRC formation and the Nottingham Toy run (where I met Tim)
Letter from Geoff Eborall complaining about Rick Hulse

Sat morning David from Hot City called in (an hour late!) to check my fusebox for the annual safety inspection at 11.55
Went to Blackpool Rugby Club for rally: apart from the MAG gang, there was nobody there I knew. Had three pints and went to bed. I think. My Gayger counter started ticking furiously at a rather dishy grey bear. Bill Green suggested 3M in Clitheroe for work – their website lists a pay range 23 – 25K for new graduates.

23 Jul ’09: Anniversary of starting work at STL in 2001?
Found a job advert on Reed website – terribly vague, carries only a set of generic phrases such as ‘Do you have an appropriate level of knowledge?’

Borrowed Gray’s Goethe from the library again: it’s long and tormented but not very clear. Long long long sentences, almost as if he’s afraid to mention the gruesome subject matter. But the book is pitched at “…for the general reader and student, an introductory text.”

Today at work we had a visit from one of the neighbouring residents: last night the police arrested two oiks who had broken into the factory. Then the police came and surrounded the place cos there were two more lads in there.

25 Jul ’09: Problem solving skills: at work, everyone used to get confused by the alignment of labels in the printer for making Smart Stamps. So I turned the printer round through ninety degrees and lo! The screen image corresponded to the location of printed labels.

6 Aug ’09: New library books: Black Ice (Cyber-Terrorism), Hunter’s Moon (thriller) and The Age of Improvement by Asa Briggs, which is a bit like an England-centred version of my Open Uni course A207.
Meanwhile at work I was browsing t’internet and found a press release from our friends at Union Colour. It says that they have purchased the Technical Centre from former rival company European Colour who went into administration in April. Then it says: ‘…they have re-employed many of the staff from that plant’ which rather gives the impression that they have taken us over and come to the rescue of an ailing firm, when what actually happened was:
Sue Grecian was poached from the sales dept
Mike Allen was poached from the sales dept
Dave Coney retired but started phoning up to get loads of production technical info from his ex-colleagues, without revealing who he was actually working for, and
Poggy was made redundant but made sure the UC crew were kept up to date with proceedings during our financial turmoil.

17 Aug ’09: On Sat morning I rode to A-Plant (portakabin hire place) and came back, and this morning was the first time since then that I rode my bike. When I left the house I noticed that around the front wheel had been placed several thin pieces of wood, regularly studded with nails, probably from a window frame.
One of these had an end trapped beneath the bin; yet I couldn’t have ridden over them – and into my current location – without sustaining a puncture.

23 Aug ’09: Went to work Fri morning, picked up bike, came back and walked up the garden to the house. All the builders (one of whom looked about 14) stopped and stared at me. Loaded bike up, set off for Green Man festival, and got stuck in traffic cos it was the V Festival as well.

27 Aug ’09: Last day (minus one) at ECP.

Today on way home I saw a young lady biker sitting on pavement so I pulled up to see if she was okay – she hadn’t fallen off, just felt a bit dizzy.
Went to library and found that Tolstoy’s novel AK had been shelved among the other authors’ names beginning with K. One would expect library staff to be familiar with this work.

28 Aug ’09: Rode to work on m’way, Pennines looked like a set of cardboard stage flats, smooth, uniform grey shapes. Said goodbye to Hell’s Kitchen and got a farewell hug. Iron Mountain came and took away our archive paperwork boxes (but only after I had rescued the invoice file for Luke at Mazars).
Went to pub for lunch, during which Eileen mentioned Poggy’s girlfriend by name. ‘You know’ said I, ‘He’s never referred to her by name in all the four years I’ve been here.’


Xqizit-Zombii Bluez


‘Disappointed. Deeply disappointed.’
This was the brief comment made by my PhD supervisor when he returned my draft of the first few chapters of my thesis. He proposed a completely new structure to the work, ordering me to jettison my original arguments. I wonder how disappointed he would be if he could see me now, wearing a navy-blue polyester uniform and hefting groceries onto supermarket shelves so that weary shoppers can stare at the bewildering variety of gravy powders and fabric conditioners and tinned peaches.

My mother was also disappointed in me; as an Irish Catholic, she was conditioned to expect that her first son would join the clergy. The idea of my pursuing any other career path was never even considered, since having a priest in the family is a guaranteed bonus ticket to the Pearly Gates.

So here it is, Merry Xmaz Everybody’s Having Fun! It’s the day before the day before Christmas; this time last year I was just nearing the end of my second month at Kernow Coatings, down the road in Tamworth where I was employed as a technologist – spraying powder and liquid coatings onto gritblasted aluminised steel panels.

The gritblast booth was downstairs in the workshop next to the warehouse where they cut the rolls of fluorinated plastic film into sections. There was also a liquid ammonia treatment tank for activating the polymer surface but I never had any contact with this department.

The lads on the factory floor would have a radio blaring all day; and in the run up to Xmas, the playlist included Slade, Wizzard, and Mud along with Dame Eltonia (Step into Xmas) and Gilbert (I’m Not Dreaming of a White Xmas).
Did they listen to any of the Christmas Oratorio by JS Bach? No, they did not.

But now it’s a year on, and I am working as a shelf-stacker in a local supermarket, carrying cardboard trays laden with tins of peaches, pears and prunes. Cartons of milk – skimmed, semi-skimmed, goats’ milk, soya milk, almond milk, rice milk. Plastic tubs of fruit, the mandarin segments drifting lazily in their crystal-clear juice like laboratory specimens. Tinned fruit in syrup. Tinned fruit in juice. Plastic fruit in peach jelly, in strawberry jelly, in tropical jelly.

The individual cartons are packed together as a group of three in a gleaming cardboard sleeve, gorgeously printed with the company logo and an illustration of the fruit itself. The cardboard had to be inspected during production; the pigments in the printing ink were tested for colour strength and light-fastness and nitrosamine residues before they were approved for use in this food-packaging application.

The pigments and resins and surfactants were all produced on the far side of the globe and transported by ship to Europe, where they were inspected and packed into smaller containers, each of which bore a company identifying label; the adhesive and paper and printing inks on this label were likewise carefully tested for lightfastness and mechanical strength, and to ensure that these labels did not succumb to attack by moulds and moisture, the components were all dosed with a tiny level (0.3 – 0.7 percent) of some biocidal preservative compound such as the lovely isothiazoline or nicotinamide derivatives.

Of course, the peaches begin their life on trees where they are sprayed with an assortment of deadly potions to stop attack by insects and diseases. Then they end up on a cargo ship where they are generously dusted with preservative powder to prevent microbial degradation before being packed into large cartons by illiterate, poorly-paid workers on inspection lines.

Renoir and his contemporaries enjoyed painting peaches as preparation for rendering in smooth, unctuous oils the tempting buttocks of their female nudes. The French Impressionists used powerful, vivid colours made from lead chromate, which cannot be matched by any of the currently available organic yellow pigments, the luscious derivatives of benzimidazole or quinophthalone carefully crystallised from huge pressurised vats of solvent – one false move and the residents of a small town could be annihilated, another Bhopal or Seveso, another clumsy dosing of the air with dioxin contaminated agent blue-agent-green-agent-purple-agent-pink-agent-orange.

The supermarket floor, meanwhile, is firmly bound with stain-resistant tiles carrying a random design of mottled grains so that any blemishes are easy to ignore. The powder-coated shelves are finished in a neutral beige that renders them invisible; the passing shoppers see nothing but the tins they’re looking for. They don’t see the tins of low-cost, budget merchandise that snobbery won’t even let them touch; they don’t see the shelf that holds the goods aloft; they don’t even notice me, on hands and knees trying to adjust the position of a tray of blueberry pie-filling tins.

We have a dazzling array of jams and preserves – strawberry, black cherry, fig, raspberry, seedless raspberry, strawberry plus wild strawberry, apricot, blueberry, blackcurrant – but today a customer asked me for quince jelly, which I had never seen on our shelves. I felt quite deflated by this encounter, and my only consolation was thinking that quince fruit is a bold yellow shade that could be achieved using a blend of bismuth vanadate with benzimidazolone yellow.

We have a staggering range of cake decorations – tiny milk chocolate strands, small candy beads in a range of colours, white chocolate stars, gold confetti, dainty little flowers made of icing, white pearlescent beads, metallised silver beads, and food colouring gel – but today a customer asked me for dark chocolate hundreds-and-thousands, which I had never seen on our shelves. This failure to satisfy plunged me into a grim depression.

And since it is Christmas, the store is filled with tempting pastries – mince pies, brandy-laced mince pies, puff pastry mince pies, gluten-free mince pies, diabetic mince pies, large family mince pies, chocolate flavoured mince pies, ice-cream mince pies – but today a customer asked me if we had any mince pies and I cheerfully advised him that we had an aisle dedicated to festive produce. He shook his head sadly; sorry, he said, but you’ve run out.
I wanted to yell ‘Thank God for that!’ before performing a series of cartwheels the entire length of the shop and somersaulting gaily into a towering display of Fox’s Luxury Biscuits: but instead, I merely said ‘I’m sorry to hear that; we may have some delivered tomorrow morning.’

After unpacking the tins and packets of peaches and noodles and healthy soya-bean bars, we are left with an immense mound of torn cardboard. Some of this card is actually a pristine white colour, and is printed to make it resemble brown kraft paper board. Instead of the usual CMYK four colour print system, these cardboard cases often use bespoke inks in blue and brown.
And the packaging design has probably been tested by a dozen focus groups to establish which particular style of lettering and which background colour serves to make the contents look most appealing. All the abandoned cardboard reminds me of the ESOF16 Science Fair, when I worked as a volunteer helper, packing the delegate bags with glossy brochures and advertising flyers. After an hour, we had generated enough waste card to fill three mobile skips.

In the store, we have had the public address system broadcasting suitably seasonal tunes; we have Shakin’ Stevens and Paul McCartney and Slade and Wizzard (but no Gary Glitter, whose jaunty tale of another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas filled many a dancefloor in the seventies).
But tonight, for some reason, after about eleven o’clock we were treated to Simply Red Greatest Hits. Whenever I hear ‘Holding Back the Years’ I am reminded of Del-boy Trotter looking miserable at a wedding reception, and I half expected the lights to be dimmed and a languid mirrorball to cover the walls with skating mysterons when this song started up.

On previous occasions, when I have left the store at half-past midnight, there has been bold, vigorous birdsong echoing across the car park; but tonight it was silent except for the hum of the chiller units. Perhaps the bird had been scared off by Hurricane Barbara who descended on Scotland today and then hit Manchester, giving us a five-minute horizontal deluge…like walking through a car-wash, as my workmate described it.

Anyway, I was instructed to fill the shelves with all manner of full-fat sugar-laden goodies, and my colleague told me to make sure that all the tins were uniformly aligned, with their name facing directly forwards. This struck me as being a kind of obsessive behaviour, and just goes to show that ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’.


I remember going to the cinema a few years back to see a movie called ‘Borat’, starring Sasha Baron-Cohen as an inept journalist from Kazakhstan who embarks on a sort of cultural mission to inform the American people about the joys of his homeland.

The film includes lots of coarse behaviour and lewd remarks, along with some casual racism and vulgar misogyny. But one particular scene caught my eye; in the early part of the film, the journalist has managed to book into a flash hotel. He is escorted into the lift, and, impressed by the mirrors and the carpet, starts to unpack his luggage in the mistaken belief that this is actually his room.
This episode stopped me in my tracks, and I wondered how many times this had really happened.

We think of privilege as being a set of assets or entitlements which are available only to a select group of individuals; and to this Eastern European misfit, a carpeted lift was something completely alien.

Many years ago I lived with a landlord called George, who invited one of his friends to visit for a few weeks from Ghana. It was winter time in Oxford; and one morning I came downstairs to make some breakfast, when Inoni (the landlord’s friend) rushed into the kitchen. ‘Tim!’ he exclaimed, pointing out of the window, ‘Is that SNOW?’
It was a remarkable experience to see someone encounter snow for the first time (I’m sure dog-owners enjoy relating the same anecdotes) but I felt at once complacent and privileged (‘Yes, of course it’s snow. Doesn’t everybody know that?’) while at the same time deeply grateful that a near-stranger had woken me up to the beauty of a British winter.

And I recall one time when I was wandering through Birmingham Art Gallery, and came into the room where a family group was standing in front of a huge painting of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.  The gentleman (late fifties, at a guess) was addressing the lad – aged about twelve – who I took to be his grandson, saying ‘What about this? You remember visiting this place, don’t you?’
I felt a brief twinge of envy at this, since my first ever trip abroad had taken place in 1993, at the age of 29. But does that mean that the young lad was privileged, having been taken across Europe at an early age; or was I the privileged one, since I had still that particular city to look forward to, and that our encounter would be charged with a whole catalogue of emotional and cultural responses?

It’s the day after the day after Christmas; I am working in a supermarket as a shelf-stacker and instead of having two weeks off work for the holiday season, I now find myself with only one day’s rest. Although, if I were a farmer or a nurse, I would not even be able to have Christmas day to myself.

This year began with a bang: there was a sensational firework display in London, more impressive than usual. Then in January we were stunned by the news that David Bowie had died, just after releasing his Album ‘Blackstar’. This was just the first of many celebrity departures in the worlds of music and theatre; Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Glenn Frey, and even Prince. Prince! And then, on Xmas day we learned that George Michael had passed away following a heart attack. Does this reflect the modern world, where it is easier for talented people to record and broadcast their work, thus entering the nation’s memory more readily? And now we hear that Liz Smith, veteran UK actress has died, just a few days after a TV repeat of the Royle Family episode where her character passed away.


Plutranomides Unbound

Journal Entry, 16 April 2003:
La-da-daa-da-dah! (As Generation Landslide would say)
Today at work Andy F is away as is Mags, Kevin H has got the key and combination for Andy’s office.
Finished reading ‘Behind the Scenes at…’ Utterly wonderful.

Phil Hendry rang: they need someone to go up Blackpool Tower (who says fairies can’t fly?) cos Ken Roberts has had complaints about paint flaking off intermittently.
As soon as I heard this I coated a few panels with the appropriate primer. And when I got home I found a message from Aquatec Paints asking if I was still looking for a job.

Went to cybercafé: sent message to Anthony Kershaw at Aquatec Coatings.
Sent my fantasy escapade of climbing Blackpool Tower in a Wonder Woman costume while a trio of drag queens standing in an open-top stretch limo perform ‘Ain’t no Mountain…’

24 April 2003: Went up Blackpool Tower.
Problem really is topcoat/primer intercoat adhesion (or lack of).
I reckon that the primer has no driers and is therefore still permeable to chlorinated paraffin which oozes in and leaves the topcoat brittle. And brittle it was!

25 April 2003: Compiled a beautiful report about our trip to Blackpool – analysed the numerous defects in existing formulations and why they would give rise to our problems.
My suggestions were ignored by Rob who dismissed them as irrelevant. He says it is just water getting into the coating.
(Notes: the coating system consisted of a red oxide topcoat (chlorinated rubber paint) applied over a red oxide primer (air drying alkyd), which meant it was impossible to clearly identify the regions that had not been overcoated)

One: the air-dry alkyd system was badly formulated, having no driers present and using a very high loading of red oxide pigment. If the appropriate level of driers was added, the resin would crosslink and thus not absorb any plasticiser material from the topcoat.

Two: the primer is actually prepared by high-speed mixing, but this is done at quite a low pigment: binder ratio, which means that the dispersion will not be very stable. We could try using the beadmill – or a lower resin content – to improve dispersion. I actually put a half-litre sample in a ball mill and improved the appearance of the material.

Three: the chlorinated rubber topcoat has a very high loading of pigment which may serve to adsorb the plasticiser or increase the permeability of the coating to moisture. Since the CR is applied over a red oxide primer, it doesn’t need to have great colour strength of its own.

Four: the level of plasticiser in the CR topcoat is very low. We could increase the level of chlorinated paraffin, or could try using a mixture of epoxidised soya oil with the CP.

30 July 2002: Ordered some galvanised panels from Chemetall, gave the requisition form to Andrea but when I rang Khaled a few hours later he hadn’t heard anything about an order.
Steve M asked me if I had the Coatings Division Products CD, and when I said no, I hadn’t (it was on his desk) he said he would get Sean to make a copy for me.
‘But why?’ said I, ‘I don’t have access to a computer.’

The Meaning of ‘Is’

A dozen windows grow blank
As they file into the theatre
Where the music that crumples
And glitters is that of fear.

You were somebody big in the seventies
You were everybody else in the eighties
And now that the years have taken their seats
The curtain rises again on an empty page.

But in the windows will I see
The person you were later to become?
I wait to find another self
Who like the leaves is waiting in the wings. 

23 Jan 2003: It’s about twenty-to-one in the morning and I’ve had four bottles (or is it three?) of Budweiser.
At work, Lucchini have sent us a huge test specification full of equipment we haven’t got such as Persoz Hardness pendulum, Hydraulic Adhesion unit from Elcometer (if we’re going to check the curved axle sections then we need curved dollies) and a freezer at minus twenty deg C.

Started reading ‘Pillars of the Earth’. Non-stop action.
At bus stop got chatting to some homeless type dropout young guy with a small black dog. And I started to wonder how much we really need: even the homeless pauper must be able to love.
FTSE has fallen for ten days in a row.

11 Dec 1987: Today have got second interview at Alcad, 9.00 a.m.

Job rejections to date: Redland Technology, Freeman Chemicals, Courtaulds, Bonar and Flotex, Cassella Cyanamid, Holden Surface Coatings, BASF, Kodak, BP Composites, Pyrene, Tufnol, Mullard Mitcham, Brymor, Fisons Pharma, BCL Ltd, Albright and Wilson, Ferodo, Delta Metal Products, Autotype, Henkel, British Alcan, Reckitt and Colman, Ferranti, Metal Box, Postans Ltd, Carrs Paints, Regent Labs, Lever Brothers, Bostock Hill and Rigby, May and Baker, F Ball and Co, Halesowen College, Bassetlaw Health Authority, University of Bath, Supra Chems, Alcad Ltd, Century Oils, Resolution Chems, CP Pharmaceuticals, Tate and Lyle, Carello Lighting, Thames Water, Fosroc, Firth Furnishing, Himont-Cole, Shirley Institute, Cuprinol, Aston University, Polymer Labs, Blythe Colours, J Whelan & Sons, Trace Labs, ECLP, Morton Thiokol, NRA, Crown Berger, Railko, Kent Industrial Measurements, Harco, Diversey, UCB.

9 April 1991: Last Thursday went to Kodak for interview – completed another personal profile analysis sheet which gave results almost the same as the previous one.
18 April 2001: Yesterday rode up to Wigton for interview at UCB. Stayed at Royal Oak Hotel. Interview started with a psychometric test sheet, just like the one they did to me last time ten years ago.
25 April 2001: Rejection letter from UCB together with personality profile analysis – which reads exactly like the one I had ten years ago.

8 May 2001: Left here at 7 a.m., walked into town, got train to Derby, had brekky, got train to Spondon, went to Acordis. Sat through company H and S propaganda video. I was then met by Brian McGarey, had to change into safety shoes and remove tie.
Taken round factory, pilot plant lab etc. Back in the office, chatting about the job and I said I’d be happy to do the job and had the ability etc.

Mentioned something about three months, and he said: “I don’t know where you got that idea from, because it’s only for one month.” So I whipped out my letters from the Jobcentre confirming that they couldn’t pay my train fare cos it was only for three months.
Furious bad mood; I told him that I didn’t think it would be practical for me to take a job that lasted only four weeks.

29 Feb 1987: Went to work today (Volunteer at Balsall Heath Elderly Day Care Centre), saw Mrs Jones and fixed lightbulb and towel rack. The government is to spend £14.5m on research into an AIDS vaccine.
On Wogan: Chad Varah, Kenny Everett and a female deacon-to-be. While at work I read a bit of ‘Mrs Harris Goes to New York’. Last night went to Jester and got smashed on Diamond White. Tonight on Radio 3: Panufnik 9th Symphony. Well I never – Elgar was a chemist!

Have just watched ‘Whistle Test’ which opened with the video for ‘The Great Pretender’ by Freddie Mercury, the most extravagant orgy of self-admiration likely to appear all year. Completely bereft of restraint in any form. I imagined an encounter between la Mercury and a journalist, at which Freda exclaims “What! You mean they let other people watch my video?”

29 Oct 2018: Yesterday to cinema to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the new Queen biopic starring Rami Malek. A bit cliched, shallow and dishonest. Perhaps they should have asked Tarantino to direct – he could have used his fractured-narrative technique, with three identical Freddies (the sybarite, the musical craftsman, and the reflective connoisseur) wandering round and narrowly missing one another like a French farce.

31 Jan 1987: The perfect way to start the day – a rejection letter from Cassella, who say they will keep my CV for future reference. Extremely nice notepaper; they must be worth working for. First-class post, too; it’s almost as nice as being offered a job.

Purple Mask and the Stamp

Purple Mask

Many years ago, when I was at school, I really enjoyed art and poetry and literature.  Some of my teachers were quite dismissive of these subjects, since they were of no practical use; instead I was encouraged to look at topics in the field of science, or technical drawing, as a more sensible way to drive myself towards a successful career.
So I carried on studying art and physics, side-by-side, with no clear idea of where I felt my future lay. I had discovered early on that I had no talent for woodwork or metalwork. Unfortunately I was at a school in West Bromwich, where the boys would go to work at the Qualcast Foundry when they left while the girls went to Woolworth’s – that is, if they didn’t already have a young one to look after by then.

As part of my preparation for O-level Art, I had created a dramatic collage, using dozens of celebrity faces cut from the Observer Magazine, together with some illustrations of eyes, snakes, and a nest of baby rats. I thought it would make a tremendous impact on the examiners when they came to view the show, and spent hours carefully embellishing my very own Sistine Chapel.

We all dispersed; the next few weeks were a blur of revision and exams, and I decided to pop back into the Art room to pick up my portfolio.
‘Hi Miss’ I said, ‘Just thought I’d call in to say ‘bye and collect my pictures.’ She waved towards the corner of the workshop. ‘Everything’s over in that pile there.’
So, I wandered over to where thirty or forty large cardboard panels were propped up against the wall and began leafing through them in search of my masterpiece. After a few minutes I looked across the room to where the teacher was asked her if they were all in that area.

‘Oh yes’, she said smugly, ‘Every one of them is there.’

I resumed my search through the gallery, puzzled that my glorious creation didn’t appear to be among the collection. ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I can’t find it.’

She walked over and began leafing through the pictures, finally stopping and pulling one out to show me. I stared in silent horror, as I realised that my vista of famous faces had been thickly smeared with purple and blue acrylic paint, the angry brushstrokes obscuring some of the celebrated smiles.

‘What’s going on?’ I yelled, ‘Who’s done this!’

‘I decided it wasn’t really finished, so I thought I would make it look a bit more convincing’ she said casually. I ranted and raved about how my work had been vandalised, and told her she was a terrible teacher who didn’t care about her students.

I was tormented by the idea that this travesty had been placed on display under my name, and without my knowledge. I fumed out of the building, determined never to show the faintest interest in anything vaguely artistic again in my entire life. And thus, I embarked on a career in the chemical industry, a journey which has brought me some very mixed fortunes.


The Stamp

I suppose it all started with Bette Davis.

As a bolshie teenager in the seventies, my twin obsessions were David Bowie and Salvador Dali; only several years later was I to discover just how little I knew about these two figures. My classmates were all into Blondie or XTC or The Police, but I was largely indifferent to pop music.

So when the art teacher told us that our next project was to be ‘Design a Postage Stamp’, people began eagerly suggesting footballers or guitarists, or (in one case) Patrick Steptoe. ‘I suppose you will be creating a Salvador Dali commemorative stamp, won’t you?’ was her only comment when it was my turn to speak. I said I wasn’t entirely sure, and decided to look through the pile of magazines for inspiration.
Leafing through one of the magazines I came across a review of some fashion photographer who had recently died; and to my delight, there was one of his pictures showing David Bowie, in a three-piece suit, standing barefoot on a raised gravestone. However, I realised that this image had almost no visual impact and was unlikely to survive being reduced to a one-inch square. So I turned to the next page and found a full-page black-and-white portrait of Bette Davis.

This figure intrigued me; I didn’t know much about her, but I thought it might be interesting to create a picture which would baffle the teachers (who might wonder why I had chosen this subject) and confuse my classmates (who would just say ‘Bette Davis? Who’s that, then?’)

So I started making a series of enlarged copies of this photograph in pencil and charcoal to work out where the shadows and highlights belonged; eventually I decided that one of them was suitably glamorous, and sprayed it with fixative ready to begin painting the next day.

I arrived in the workshop the next afternoon to admire my sketches; then I realised that I would still need to use the original magazine picture for guidance. So I went over to the windowsill where we kept the various glossy magazines. ‘Has anybody seen that Observer Mag that I was using yesterday?’ I asked. Nobody responded, so I checked in the waste bin – no sign of it there – and I looked on the teacher’s desk – again, no luck. And just as I was about to try the next classroom, I spotted my photograph. One of the other students had been making some kind of crowd scene, with dozens of faces and assorted pictures of wildlife or machinery all taken from magazines and stuck to a large sheet of card.
And there, looking serenely away to an unknown romantic Hollywood sunset, was Miss Davis, firmly stuck between Idi Amin and King Tutankhamen. I was furious: ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing! I was going to use that picture!’

My classmate shrugged, and said that he had just found the magazine on top of the pile so he thought I had finished with it. I was tempted to abandon my original idea and try another subject, but by then I had done so much preparatory work that it seemed a shame to waste it. So, seething with rage, I returned to my pictures and began trying different amounts of colour on them to create depth and shadows. The teacher walked past: ‘I like it’ she said, ‘are we doing an Andy Warhol?’

‘No, this is Bette Davis’ I said.

She gave me a puzzled look. ‘You do know who Andy Warhol is, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, course. He did that picture of a soup tin. And David Bowie wrote a song about him.’

‘Only you could come up with something like that’ she said; ‘I despair sometimes, really I do.’ And she went on to explain that Warhol had used a production line of assistants to create his pictures, and that he had specialised in using multiple versions of the same image – most notably Marilyn Monroe. I was sorely tempted to ask who Marilyn Monroe was, but I thought that would provoke an act of serious violence from an already annoyed Art Teacher. But she told me that it would be a good idea to submit all six pictures as a single unit work, and I felt a lot better about the loss of my original picture.
Until, that it, I overheard her saying that my idea for the picture of Bette Davis had actually been borrowed from the other student’s crowd scene picture. ‘Don’t worry’ she was saying as I came down the corridor towards the art room, ‘I’ll make sure that the examiners know that you created that picture first, and some of the others decided to copy ideas from it.’

I was unsure how to deal with this. If I complained, then the other members of staff – and the visiting examiners – would be forced to compare the two pictures; and, much as I disliked my classmate, I had to admit that his sprawling landscape of faces was a much more impressive creation than my own limited offering.

About a week before the exam show, I made my way into the art room. Several of the display pieces were lined up against the wall. My own collection of six portraits was clipped to an easel; I looked round and spotted the big picture of faces, which looked faintly different. After a few seconds, I realised that it had been set in a frame, giving it the air of an expensive gallery piece rather than a student offering.
This apparent favouritism (why had nobody else been invited to have their work framed?) filled me with rage, and I was tempted to grab a craft-knife and slice through the grinning parade of celebrities. On the window sill – just next to the magazines – I saw two bottles of acrylic paint, and without really thinking, I grabbed them and squeezed each one in a frenzy of torment.
There was a faint ‘pop’ as the pressure released from the bottles, followed by two thick jets of blue and purple which landed on the parade of faces, obscuring the rich and famous and my own beloved Bette Davis. I dropped the bottles in the sink, and suddenly realised what a dreadful act of vandalism I had committed.
But it seemed feeble to just leave it as an unhappy accident, so I grabbed a brush and began daubing the bold colours across the collage. I quickly checked to see if there was any paint on my sleeves or shoes, and then rushed away from the room, hoping that I hadn’t been seen.

The Letter

13 Jun 197-

Dear Simon,

Thank you for inviting me to assist with the practical work assessment last week. However, you did ask for my honest opinions; it does the children no favours to tell them that they have talent when in fact that commodity is very much lacking.

There seemed to be a general lack of awareness – the students made no attempt to place their work in context. Some of the portrait work showed a degree of technical competence, but was not sufficiently engaging.

Perhaps I was too harsh in my comments about that picture – you know, the mixed-media panel with people looking out from gaps in a blue-coloured wall.  Whilst watching television the other night, I caught part of a documentary about chemical warfare. Apparently during the Vietnam conflict, the US sprayed the forests with chemicals called agent blue and agent purple. I don’t really understand the details, but these materials are thought to be responsible for some hideous birth defects among the local population.

Could this picture have been some kind of political comment? If so, we could adjust the grade up a couple of notches. I am always concerned that a promising career might have been damaged by a too-strict exam marker. But this part of the world doesn’t really need exam success, so we can’t really do that much harm, eh?

Give my love to Selina, look forward to seeing you both on the 18th.

Sundial Blues


Sundial blues

My window on the first floor overlooked the yard between the coatings plant and the office block; in the morning I would watch the senior managers arrive, and as their cars lined up against the wall I was reminded of a phrase from Dali: ‘Three hippies and a guitar take their place on the sofa; the day is ready to begin.’ Throughout the day forklift trucks would amble across the yard, clattering as they shifted barrels of resin or pallets of cement from place to place.

From my window I could also see Trafford Park, where the Kellogg’s factory would emit vast clouds of steam from three grand chimneys. In winter, the sun would go down behind the factory and occasionally the steam would catch the dying rays so that it looked as if the entire world was ablaze. My enjoyment of this dramatic scene was cut short when a miserable grey warehouse was built, blocking the view.

In 2004 I was called upon to carry out some testing on sections of rail-axle steel. We arranged for them to be cut into quarter segments, each of which weighed about two kilograms. The idea was that we could determine the durability of the items by placing them in a cabinet filled with warm salt fog, which would cause the normal journey of corruption to rush more quickly by.

We coated the curved chunks of metal with two-pack epoxy, enhanced with micaceous haematite and zinc phosphate and some elegant zirconium compounds vaguely related to lecithin. The inner, flat surfaces were painted instead with four layers of bright red chlorinated rubber paint.

When fully coated, the items looked like dissected limbs from some crashed alien life-form. We transferred them into the salt-spray cabinet and set it running at 35 degrees, as requested by the client. I had not received any written instructions about how to perform the test, or how to record the results, or even what to look for; so I just removed the pieces at intervals of two or three days and made vague notes about the appearance of the metal blocks.

Gradually, a series of black lines and flecks began to appear on the surface of the blocks, both on the grey-coated areas and the inner red-painted regions. There were no signs of flaking, cracking or blistering on any of the specimens, so I simply returned them to the test-chamber for continued exposure. Eventually I went to the boss and asked him whether he wanted to check the progress on these axle sections.

He sighed. ‘Didn’t anybody tell you we decided not to go ahead with that three weeks ago?’

So I turned the machine off and removed the metal chunks, placing them in a corner of the warehouse in case they were needed for future inspection. The lines of rust had begun to form trails which curved like some mysterious oriental script, and I wondered if these were some kind of message that we were all too dull to understand.

A few months later, one of the shop-floor workers asked if he could take these pieces home, since they appeared to be just scrap metal. I told him to ask the boss, which he did, and the pieces disappeared from their resting place a few days later.

Then, a year or so later, I was preparing to leave the company to start a new job in Stockport, when I found a magazine in my works pigeonhole. At first I thought it was another of those boring technical catalogues, listing the latest secondhand bits of lab equipment; but it turned out to be a review of arts and cultural events in a town on the south coast. One of the articles featured an installation called ‘Sundial Blues’, consisting of a rifle jutting from the gallery floor, surrounded at some distance by a ring of metal chunks. After a few minutes I realised that these were the axle sections I had coated the previous year. In her magazine interview, the artist said that the metal blocks were chunks of depleted uranium taken from a stolen warhead in Iraq; and that the average weight of the blocks was the typical weight deficiency shown by malnourished adult males in the Middle East. The installation was due to be put on display in two major exhibitions in Frankfurt and Milan, before being auctioned to raise money for the relief efforts being carried out by MSF in the damaged regions of Basra and Tikrit.

Color Names Canes

Found in the ruins

Trevor was a hard worker, but his behaviour was eccentric to the point of being reckless. He would keep a bottle of ‘magic solvent’ under his desk, and if a batch of resin had been produced at the wrong viscosity then the addition of a few drops of this stuff would bring it into specification so that the production cards could be signed off.

The faulty material could then be shipped off to customers around the world who would use it to manufacture their own products which would in turn suffer from compromised performance and stability.

When the resin plant caught fire in 2003 we had to evacuate the factory and pay hefty compensation to the nearby residents whose cars had been damaged by the fumes.

While clearing the debris, we found the Quality Control book – a hardback A4 notebook with red-and-black covers, used to record the technical results from each batch. Trevor was on duty in the plant for two days each week. The job of QC resin technician involved long stretches of boredom, and he had responded to these by doodling in the book – at first in the margins, then later taking up whole pages at intervals through the book.

Most of the images were simple, crude sketches of cars, houses, and female nudes; but then we arrived at a series of pictures which all included the circular stain from a coffee-mug. He had etched an outline round the ring, and transformed it into planet with a ring system. Another sketch had a rubbing of an Arabic coin at the centre of the brown disc, from whose edges radiated long narrow stalks with eyeballs. And the last one was a kind of mandala, with squares resting inside circles all converging on the Sanskrit symbol ‘Aum’. The stylised ringed-planet pictures were scattered a dozen times over the page, with twisted snakes joining them to form regular hexagons. We later discovered that this was supposed to represent the structure of LSD.

Around the edges of the circles he had drawn alchemical symbols and the zodiac signs together with some assorted hieroglyphics.

And then, around the whole page, with some words in capitals, and some in mirror-writing, he had inscribed the following text:
[“QUOTE”] “So anyway, like yesterday I went to a job interview and it was like totally groovy and just a sort of informal chat, y’know, about like what I did in my spare time and what was my favourite chewing gun flavour (yeah, I just so cannot believe they already heard of Southern Comfort xylose-free!) and anyway, at the end they said: 

‘Right, just gonna let you do a couple of little test routines here’ and they sit me in front of this computer (OMG I thought, what kind of scuzzy chav bitch has been using this keyboard before me, I might catch something awful from this spacebar and die writhing in agony on the floor of the number 67 bus) but anyway, I bravely took the plunge and began answering the questions on screen. And it kept saying, like, ‘Which of these words is most like you? And which is least like you?’ and I just wanna scream that all of these words describe my personality cos I just lurch from one psychotic interlude to another, and I thought I can’t answer these stupid idiotic questions without killing someone and if I don’t get a drink in the next 15 minutes for god’s sake someone is gonna pay big time!

So anyway, I splurge through the moron-o-meter questionnaire hitting keys at random, trying not to fall asleep, and then when I’ve finished and I think ‘Great, I can go out now and get smashed to recover from this ordeal’ when bozo-man staggers back into the room armed with some pretty coloured tiles and says he wants me to arrange them into the correct sequence. Like, I just roll my eyes at this, cos he’s obviously got some kind of disorder – probably a neurological condition caused when a mercury thermometer snapped inside his urethra during a spasm of erotic drama – and I look at these tiles and the colours are just so stupid, I mean:

What sort of drunk bag lady would even think of putting this stuff on her walls? One colour was like a dead alien corpse, grey-green vomit colour, while the other was a disgusting slimy bruised jockstrap colour. And there was a whole series of tiles gradually changing shade from one to the other, and the ones in between were even more hideous than the two at the ends which is like saying something and anyway, I couldn’t face any more so I walked – honey, even without the proper heels on, I mean Walked – straight on outta that god-forsaken hole and into a nearby pub where I made frantic efforts to delete the memory of the past two hours.

And then, OMG, they asked me if I understood anything about alkyd technology. ‘Yeah, don’t make me laugh, know about alkyds, right?’ They paused, a menacing neutral silence waiting for me to come adrift and slip over the edge of the path, into the mud along with the dead rats and the broken bottles and the beer cans and the bitter memories of young men who walked out of theology studies before they could hear the magic word that would catapult them into the maelstrom of permanent success. ‘Alkyds? Listen to this – you’ve got all these little molecules, right, and then they react with oxygen in the air and then they react with little blobs of blue cobalt – or is it cobalt blue? – anyway, they get gently knitted together into a lovely undulating fabric.

But then, the little knitterings carry on, so that even after the paint has completely hardened, the tiny objects swarm here and there like the nanoscopic weevils that scoured away the robot and the people and the cars and the buildings in the remake version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. So over the lifetime of the object, the coating will continue to perish gently, and become tarnished by the rolling grains of time. Some units of the resin matrix will be joined together, while other segments will be cut loose and render the material more prone to fire.” [“UNKWOAT”]