Bande Magnetique


Just been listening to an ancient recording of Tippett’s Mask of Time, bootlegged from the Proms on Radio Three. My Sony Walkman still sounds good; and I reckon that the data-retrieval mechanism for tape is a lot simpler and cheaper than the ubiquitous CD laser system.

Although there is a certain degree of romance attached to tapes, since they can perish if not carefully looked after: the recovery of a lost recording can bring unexpected delights, such as the recent find of some Bob Marley concerts:

Listening to music can be a bit like sitting in a café looking out at the street. Various configurations of people, vehicles, weather are observed; each element can interact with the others according to a set of rules. The girl in the blue coat will pause at the papershop, hoping that a young man will admire her. A middle-aged woman has a small dog on a lead; as they approach the pigeons, the dog will suddenly rush forwards, barking, and the birds will scatter upwards in a lazy panic.

Listening to music, one hears a note or chord; depending on the instruments and the skills of the players, it may be sustained in a certain way, with minor variations. The use of recording technology – magnetic tape – allows the notes to be extended or distorted, creating unfamiliar sounds. This is rather like looking out through the café window and noticing that the girl in the blue coat has grown a third arm, or the pigeons are transformed into flapping, angry mackerel. The narrow range of possibilities has been enlarged. The borders of the map have been redrawn.

Some people find this deeply disturbing; they regard ‘classical’ music as being highly formalised, with a clear creative process. An individual – usually old, male and white – will visit a picturesque ruin or attend a performance of Shakespeare, after which, seized with creative fire, he will begin composing themes and variations and dramatic expositions.

The sequence of mental processes leading up to the production of this masterwork is a nebulous drama, not open to analysis or understanding, a magical process which cannot be taught but instead is in the nature of a divine gift.

The same attitude sometimes prevails among traditional workers in the paint industry. The process of formulating an industrial coating is somehow mysterious, and requires years of experience. An apprentice would be taken on by the firm and would undergo ritual humiliation, being sent on an assortment of pointless journeys around the factory, asking for long weights or tartan paint. Eventually the young man – and it usually was a young man – would be granted limited access to the recipes used by the formulating staff. These formulations would normally be based on the official production charts, but with minor additions or amendments which were a closely-guarded secret. “Of course I can’t let my boss know how this stuff is made” said one older worker, “Because then he’d be able to replace me with someone else.”

And when the Senior Technician eventually retires, the company discovers that production batches take a lot longer to make, since the actual details of additives, solvents and mixing times have been carried away in a small spiral-bound notebook. Why is it necessary to adjust the shade and viscosity so many times when all the batches from last year came out spot-on, first time every time?

Of course, the traditional approach to paint manufacture is that it is a ‘black art’ where formal technical knowledge is of little value compared with the hard-won craftsmanship owned by the High Priest (Senior Technician). Any suggestions that the manufacturing process should be examined or modified are abruptly quashed, using the sovereign mantra ‘We’ve Always Done It This Way’.

And this is perfectly reasonable, since any change to the existing method can have one of two possible effects: it can impair (or leave unchanged) the quality of the product, in which case it has been a waste of time. Or it can bring about an improvement – which means that the original procedure had been flawed. And nobody in the higher levels of the firm will ever admit that they made a poor decision when they approved this faulty procedure.



Ben Zim I Dazzle Own

The love song of Ben Zim Idazolone

Journal entry, 15 Feb 2007: Had e-mail from Lillian at Whitehall; apparently Becker’s don’t want me either cos I’ve got no experience in formulating or site visits.

16 Feb: Alan D has been trying to match up our subjective gloss estimates – 1 trace, 2 traces etc – with glossmeter readings. Meanwhile we are now going to add lead chromate replacements to our pigment bibles.
I was in the sales office and Andrew said something about me preparing for our trip to Nuremberg in May. Mike Allen looked shocked.

24 Feb: Train crash in Cumbria, Virgin train derailed and slid down embankment. Latest budget estimate for the 2012 Olympic Games is 9 billion pounds.

25 Feb: Meanwhile at work young Adam has been working on inks made from a blue dye complex.
The Dev Lab will typically bombard him with between 10 and 14 samples, each of which is used to prepare an ink. The inks are then kept for 100 days at RT, during which their viscosity is measured every two weeks (but the Brookfield instrument is not correctly used). So he ended up with a lovely graph showing viscosity against time, but no checks made on pH or colour shade drift.

3 Mar: Over the past 18 months at EC, I’ve occasionally mentioned that dispersing agents might be helpful in the paint work. Adrian has always maintained that we can’t use them because we need to inspect our pigments in their pure form with no interfering factors.

Then, yesterday had call from Andrew F – he and Tenchy have come up with some kind of project, adding yellow 150, 154, 155 and 184 to the paint range instead of yellow 151. But we’re going to team up with Khalid Siddiqi – the Noveon chap – at using Solsperse to ooptimise dispersion.

8 Mar: Andrew and I have been exchanging e-mail messages regarding new yellow pigments. He sent the entire lot to Dave Tench asking for comments and advice, and received the terse reply: “Stick with Tim’s ideas then. What do I no.” (sic)

A Beard of Stars (9 Mar 07)

Too Regal for the Zonophone they wait, so
Every scratch on this LP
(And thousands of them I observe
Not counting the long and winding ones
That occupy the faces one and two)
Seems a line from a poem
A hair from the storm of light
A black cat prowling through the night.

Regal Zonophone! SLRZ 1013
You intersect with some forgotten rays
The past itself would start to breathe
From this corrupted disc
(How eagerly my soul would take
Its own corruption as an epitaph)
If only we could play again
Allow black spiral to unwind, before
The dream exhales a beard of stars.

(6 May 07: Last night on Radio 2, bob Harris played a track from this LP and pointed out it was a vinyl record on the old Regal Zonophone label)

Farewell, Concrete Silo

Journal Entry, 30 Aug 2010:

Saturday afternoon I set off to spend an evening at Heanor with Reina and Andi and Pikey Pete and Lou Lou and Gaz and Gaz and Carol, and Vicky all turned up. On Sunday morning we went to Lichfield to see Roy do a bungee jump.
But on the way there it rained and rained and rained. I spent one-and-a-half hours in Morrison’s at Buxton waiting for it to stop.
At the Lichfield fundraiser it rained – short intense downpours, and they wouldn’t let Roy do his jump cos he exceeded the weight limit.
So Pete and Lou stood in (or rather fell in) for him.

Last night I decided to stay in Derby and go trolling round my old haunts (and possibly get a good shag in the process). So I booked into the Hotel International (faintly shabby and neglected) and went out. When I turned onto Curzon St it turned out that Freddie’s Bar had been knocked down and replaced by a half-finished block of apartments. So I went to The Crown only to discover that it was the only Gay Bar in town.

And then I was riding back to M’cr along the A6 – wonderful, no rain! – and all the traffic stopped to let a herd of cattle move from one field to another. They seemed very interested in my bike – good job Andy hadn’t been there on his Friesian Fabric covered Varadero.

Snippets from the MEN, regarding the wonderful statue.
04 Dec 2004: ‘Almost there’ about the impending completion of B-of-the-Bang. Tom Russell, Chief Executive of New East Manchester, was quoted as saying it was  ‘…a monumental piece of public art to provide a sense of identity and place to represent the physical, economic and social changes underway in the area.’

24 Oct 2007: Council Chiefs are suing the makers of B-of-the-Bang cos it’s unsafe. Four years after it was due to be completed, the controversial sculpture remains fenced off after losing a spike in Jan 2005.
1 Sep 2009: All spikes removed from sculpture and only the central tower and knuckle remain.

2 Sep 2010: Today at work had a visitor – Italian guy – to witness our procedures and check that we were using properly calibrated test equipment.

Tomorrow: Get safety glasses from Specsavers, remove spec sample from SS cabinet, take photographs of Flowserve units in the SS cabinet, start immersin tests on panels.

In the news: William Hague (one-time leader of Tory party, teenage audience star at party conference, and current foreign secretary) is in trouble after sharing an hotel room with his male assistant. Nothing untoward happened….so why has this aide already resigned?

Fri 3 Sep 2010: In Eccles, not far from my workplace, is an industrial building which includes four enormous – truly colossal – concrete towers, uniform grey cylinders like something off the cover of a Kraftwerk LP.
Today I was walking home and noticed that they are being demolished, and the ragged edge is revealing the glorious metal pipework that now forms a new horizon.

11 Sep: It was nine years ago today that the Twin Towers were destroyed. Today woke up with a headache, which is odd since I didn’t go out last night. Instead I stayed in and had a pizza, home-topped with onions, olives, mushrooms, Spanish ham and truffle oil.

13 Sep 2010¨ Well, I’ve been at work for five months now but I still have not been issued with a new laptop – repeatedly promised, no telephone on the desk, and no key entry fob for the door.

Tomorrow: Man U at home to Glasgow Rangers, there’s Cricket at Old Trafford, and the TUC general conference at G-Mex. At work, we may have decided to abandon the mercaptan test for Jotun. (Note: this was an idiotic requirement for us to immerse painted panels in neat mercaptan, just in case the odorant spills into the gas pipeline. Endless e-mail discussions, trying to establish whether this test had ever been carried out in the past.)



Alternative Lies

Journal Entry, 23 Jan 2017: If you want to believe several impossible things before breakfast, then you simply need to have breakfast late enough in the day to accommodate these bewildering facts. And here are some bewildering facts. One: the newly-appointed President of the US is Donald Trump – yes, the Donald Trump, the arrogant, swaggering billionaire turned reality TV host who was put on this earth merely to prove that God shows His contempt for money by the people that he gives it to – anyway, this person is now in charge of the free world. And when his inauguration took place three days ago, the press took great pleasure in printing aerial photographs of the assembled crowds, comparing these with similar pictures taken in 2009 when Barack Obama became POTUS.

The pictures ‘appear to show’ that the crowds for Trump were much smaller than those for Obama, with a huge expanse of white ground cover visible on the National Mall and numerous empty viewing stands along the route of the parade.

When the US media published these pictures, Trump and his officials were quick to condemn: press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that ‘this is the biggest ever’, while Trump gave a broadcast interview where he announced that he could see ‘a million, maybe a million and a half people’ stretching away to the vague horizon. Kellyanne Conway from the White House cheerfully defended Spicer’s announcements as being ‘Alternative Facts’ rather than falsehoods.
All this seems remarkably petty from somebody with such a vast personal fortune, and leads me to think that Trump is the only person who could win an election and then behave like a bad loser.

Back in 2009, I had no TV set; instead I used to ride my motorbike to rallies, or listen to LP records on my EB-101 turntable, or read library books. And we had recently been faced with redundancy at work following the devastating fire at EC Pigments, so I had offered to spend a week down at our factory in Woolwich to see whether it was feasible for me to relocate to the south.
And in my hotel room (a faintly scruffy bed-and-breakfast) there was a television set, so I would put this thing on and gaze fascinated at the flickering images. And it so happened that, while I was staying in London, the Presidential inauguration was taking place, and the TV showed Obama and his family, with Aretha Franklin singing behind them, while before them a vast crowd of supporters filled the Mall.

Journal Entry, 28 Mar 2009: Yesterday we were given our letters of notice from work. My finish date is 27 March. We all went to the pub at lunchtime to bid John Croft farewell, and Andrew Foster turned up to say hi.
Then after work I went to town to meet John and Alan at the Hilton Hotel. We had white wine and white wine and then champagne in the room then off to Gio for food and more white wine.
Came back by taxi, woke with splitting headache, went to town and collected black coat from hotel reception. And in the pocket of this coat – my legendary black coat – I found a cashpoint receipt dated 28 Feb 2008. Then tonight met Andy for drinks at Taurus and Via.

Journal Entry, 6 Mar 2009: Consternation at work when it was announced that the company didn’t have enough money to pay redundancy to supervisory staff – so we are all going to have to apply for statutory government payment.

Mike, Ted and Wilf all left today – v sad.

Had phone call from the Flat Agency if their maintenance guy had permission to enter my flat without me there in order to repair boiler. (Note: I was without hot water for five months, and the agency claimed that I hadn’t given them the keys to get in. When my hot water came back on, my laptop computer mysteriously disappeared)

Journal Entry, 11 Mar 2009: Last night David from Hot City came round to fix my boiler. Bathroom tap and shower are now okay, but kitchen hot tap is dead.
Today at work spoke to CK Science – Liam and Russell – who want to put me for jobs in the North-West. Posted CV to Adshead Ratclffe in Belper.

Got photocopies of RDI and OU certificates.

Made appointment to go in and see Kelly on Weds 18 – they e-mailed me and said bring in your Passport, NI number, certificates and references.

Journal Entry, 14 Mar 2009: Apparently today’s date (14/3) represents the fraction closest to π, so in America they’ve nominated today as ‘pi-day’.
The large bare trees are swinging outside – it’s v windy. My life is a drama, with a beginning, a middle and no end. It’s 7.20 am and I’m listening to Bartok Quartet 2.

15 Mar 2009: Yesterday B and I went round Altrincham. I bought two HPL paperbacks (reissues of Dagon and Haunter) and a very nice M and S shirt, just the right colour for my OCCA tie and a copy of Eyes Open by Snow Patrol. And some cans of Merrydown Cider: ‘Practicing for when you end up on the dole?’ said B.

23 Mar 2009: Today sent Rob L a copy of my memo to Manchester Section regarding the lack of an official procedure for issuing ATSC certificates to newly-promoted members.

Brought my Open Uni folders back from work.

This afternoon Poggy came into the lab and snorted with derision as he told us about the newly-launched Tata Mini (cheapest car in the world). “It’s held together with glue!” he said.
I was outraged: ‘Do you mind? Adhesive bonding is the supreme joining method! Audi aluminium car bodies are glued, and helicopter rotor blades are glued on.’

26 Mar 2009: Rang Indestructible Paints and had a 20-minute phone interview with Brian Norton. Mentioned that his colleague had been to Manchester OCCA and that I had been down there for an interview back in 94 (actually it was Sep 95).

E-mail from Whitehall: job ref 7262/3. They sent my CV last year for this and I was rejected so can’t apply again.
And of course, when I had my phone chat with Indestructible, they asked how old I was, and if I was married, and if I had kids.


Every Picture Tells

Every Picture Tells a Story 

This phrase came to mind a few weeks ago when I was browsing through a box of assorted photographs in a charity shop near Bolton. All the photos were black-and-white: or should I say grey-and-grey, since the passing years had weakened the contrast in the images.

Some of the pictures had dates or names written on the back, but the majority were ruthlessly anonymous. Snapshots of landscapes, children holding hands, a horse in a field, two elderly women wearing large hats and clutching dainty handbags. I felt a twinge of melancholy at the idea that these people were now dead, and possibly forgotten.

I was about to catch the shopkeeper’s eye and ask about the price for some of the photographs, but he was busy on the phone, so I wandered down the shop. And I was suddenly struck by the phrase ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’; we cannot see a photograph, or the view from a car window, or a well-dressed businessman running towards the ticket barrier at a railway station without starting to construct a narrative to explain the situation before us.
And if it so happens that the people in the picture (or, as they would say in Germany, the people on the picture) have passed away and been forgotten, we should take the opportunity to create a story to let them live again in our imagination.

‘How much are these pictures?’ I asked, gesturing towards the box of photos. The guy behind the counter paused for a moment; perhaps I was an expert in local history or a secret antiques dealer who had spotted something of staggering value in his collection. But then he realised that this was too absurd, and merely said ‘Oh, fifty pence each. Or three for a pound.’

There were a few of the pictures I found interesting, but in the end I settled for just one: a photograph showing a young girl standing by a window. She is holding a book – hardback, it looks like, closed as if she had just taken it from, or was about to return it to the shelf.

Was this a book that she herself had written, or was it given her as a prize for some sporting or academic achievement?

 The image is very faintly softened, so it is impossible to determine the title of the book or the exact age of the girl; her hairstyle could place her anywhere between 1972 and 1986. Someone had creased the photo, putting it into a pocket perhaps, and a large white scar ran diagonally across the image. I decided that I might arrange to have this crack repaired at some point in the future.

I decided that the girl’s name was Melissa, and that she was 24 years old. And the book was a birthday present from her uncle; it had been given to him several years earlier, and he had never bothered reading it. He wanted to give her a ten-pound note (which was a remarkably generous sum in the mid-seventies) so he decided that, instead of merely putting the note with her card in an envelope, it would be more impressive if she were to discover this money as an unexpected bonus when reading the book.

I imagined the conversation in Melissa’s household that morning:
‘Mel, there’s a parcel just arrived for you. Quite heavy – were you expecting anything?’
‘Of course, Mother; it IS my birthday you know, but it seems a bit careless of whoever-it-is to send me a gold bar through the post!’

They laughed gently, hoping that the neighbours would glance though the window and see how carefree and happy they both were. Melissa unwrapped the parcel; ‘Oh God, it’s another book!’

Her mother frowned; ‘Don’t tell me, Uncle Trevor again?’ Melissa held the book end-on so that her mother could read the title printed on the spine. ‘The Odyssey of Homer’ she announced wearily. ‘I suppose I’d better call him on the telephone to say thank you for a delightful present.’ It was a standing joke that Uncle Trevor refused to have a phone installed in his house. He proclaimed that speech was frivolous, and that only when people put pen to paper were they being honest.

‘Now, now, young missy’ retorted her mother. ‘It’s very good of him to remember your birthday. Write him a note and I’ll post it for you when I go to work.’ And as Melissa bounded up the stairs to write her thank-you letter, her brother Peter came in through the kitchen and gave his usual greeting:

‘Hi Mom, what’s for tea?’
His mother scowled faintly. ‘How did it go?’ she asked.

‘Oh, great. We managed to get pictures of it in a country lane and in a derelict warehouse.’ Peter and his friend Mark had recently purchased a Triumph Herald which they were gradually bringing back to life, and had spent the morning taking photographs of the car. He glanced down at the frame counter on his camera; ‘Oh, I think I’ve got four or five shots left. Shall I get one of you?

Just then, Melissa came downstairs holding the letter. ‘Can you put his address on please, Mom? I’ve lost it again. Oh, hi Pete’ she said, ‘Are you gonna take some pictures of me then?’

‘Tell you what’ said her mother, ‘Let Peter take a photo of you holding that book. Clive will be really pleased, we can send the snap in his birthday card next month…’ She emphasised the ‘next month’ just enough to remind the children that they had forgotten his birthday the previous year.

So Melissa grabbed the book and went to stand by the window, while her brother made a great fuss about exposures and f-stops, until he was satisfied that the three pictures he had taken would probably be okay. ‘Should take about two weeks to come back from the chemist when they’re printed’ he said.

And I never learned what happened to Melissa, or Peter, or their mother; the photo ended up in a carrier bag with assorted letters and Christmas cards. Three years later, I was preparing to move house, and came across this collection of letters. I was leafing through them, trying to decide which items were important enough to keep and which could be thrown out.

And then without warning I found myself looking at Melissa and her book again. For a moment I couldn’t remember why I had the picture, or who she was; but then it all came flooding back, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t got round to having the photo repaired. So I rang a friend who worked in a college studio, and asked his advice on what to do about the crack in the picture.

‘Oh, we get those all the time’ he said. ‘Just send it in, and I can get it fixed.’ So I posted him the picture with a note explaining that it wasn’t an important family picture but just a personal curiosity.

Two weeks later, I went to the studio to visit my mate Graham. ‘That photo with the white crack’ he said ‘exactly where did you find it?’
I explained the background to the picture – the story I had concocted about the unknown individual and her family. He invited me to look at a series of digital prints he had made, where he had copied the grey colour from either side of the white crack and used it to fill in the defect.

‘Oh, that’s great!’ I said, impressed by how smoothly he had erased the white scar.

But look at this. He called up a set of images on the computer screen. ‘This is your original photo; I was trying to get a better control on the grey scale either side of that crack. So I turned up the magnifier, like so…’
And as he clicked through the series of pictures, the white crack became larger and larger, then suddenly it filled the screen, with individual fibres visible like thick white ropes.
‘And when you blow the picture up this big, the grains of silver become visible, so it doesn’t actually help you to match the colour on the actual picture. But there was something odd about your photo.’

He clicked a button and the screen filled with a hexagonal grid, like a honeycomb. Some of the cells were filled with small black circles, others were predominantly white.
‘So these are grains of silver?’ I asked.

‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’ he said, ‘normally you would expect to see a random scattering of dark patches on a pale background. But this kind of organised structure…’ his voice tailed off in bewilderment.