“You know that England is surrounded by water; and thus while we have good sailors and good ships, we shall never fear the invasion of any foreign enemy.” (William Martin, ‘The Adventures of a Sailor Boy’, Gall & Inglis c.1895)
I opened the book (Adventures of a Sailor Boy) and a train ticket fell out onto the floor. Until then, I had forgotten all about Penryn. There were a few scattered memories; catching the early-morning train to Truro, or wandering round the city and seeing buskers in black suits and bowler hats, playing old Beatles classics on a double-bass and six-string guitar. As the weeks rolled by, the mornings gradually became lighter. I remember one morning the train paused for a signal outside Truro; as it started up again, we rounded the curve and saw the city swathed in fog, with the three spires of the cathedral suspended in a formless blank arena.
I was very excited to be offered a second meeting, so I bought a new suit and had a very expensive haircut in preparation. When I arrived, however, I was greeted by the same two people who had interviewed me previously, and who asked me many of the same questions. I was disconcerted by this. At the end, they said that they wanted to offer me the job – if I was interested. Of course, I said, just let me know when you want me to start.
I ran through Truro and went to have a celebration lunch in The Globe pub; exceedingly good fish and chips, with home made tartare sauce. The jukebox was playing a selection of random hits; ‘Good Enough’ by Dodgy seemed to embody the radiant optimism of the day. I could imagine myself spending every evening here after work, drinking stout and eating pork scratchings and staggering home in the company of two young engineering students.
Sometimes I would find one of my workmates on the same early train; we chatted about random stuff, and a woman leaned across from the other side of the aisle and asked ‘are you talking about aphasia?’ So they embarked on a long eager discussion of stroke recovery programmes.
I had moved down to Penryn in November 2009 to start work at a firm called Newtown Synthelix, a small company which produced modified textiles. We spent most of our time (when not doing research or testing) correcting customers or journalists who had carelessly uttered the phrase ‘artificial leather’.
The boss asked me to check the viscosity of a sample using a DIN 4 flowcup. ‘What temperature?’ I asked. ‘Oh, just use room temperature, we never check that.’ I wanted to point out that I had made careful studies of the viscosity-temperature response in water-based coatings, and identified the peak at thirty-eight degrees.
Also asked me to have a look at a formulation for a new textile finish which had been causing stability problems. I pointed out that the white spirit would not be able to properly dissolve the cellulose-butyrate resin. Replaced the WS with 3:1 X2/MIBK, got beautiful glossy finish. When I presented the results he said, ‘Oh, that project’s been put on the back burner now…’
Towards the end of my second week there, when I was cleaning up some equipment and labelling the kegs of polymer suspension, one of the senior QC officers wandered into the workshop. ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ he asked.
‘Fine…just getting this stuff out of the way.’
He looked around nervously. ‘Erm…how long are you with us, then?’
‘Oh, about twenty years!’ I laughed at this odd question. He looked puzzled and went on; ‘But we were told that you were just here as a placement student.’
I shrugged. ‘Dunno…nobody has ever mentioned that to me.’
‘Thing is’ he went on, sounding more and more annoyed ‘We’re not sure what you’re actually doing here. I mean, you don’t have any friends or family in the company. We’ve all got cousins or nephews who are waiting for a job to come up, but you just walk in here out of nowhere.’
‘Well, I thought they needed someone with serious technical expertise.’
‘Yeah, but no-one knows anything about you…are you on a witness protection programme, or have you been given a new identity?’
I put down the scouring pad and started to pull off my latex gloves. ‘Look, I had two interviews before coming to work here. The managers have spoken to my former employers. They’ve done credit reference checks. I’m here to perform a job, which I think is going fairly well, so far…’
This encounter left me rattled, and I began to make random notes about what I thought were possible areas of improvement that I could mention at the next staff meeting. These included:
Office space – too small and crowded. No textbooks about relevant issues. Outdated company brochures from suppliers. Raw mats listing is completely random and includes just the SG and price details.
Colour standards file also completely random, no differentiation into colour or technology type. There is no easy way to track down a specific product.
Solvent dispensers – eight hosepipes all mounted next to one another, difficult to fill out two neighbouring solvents at the same time. Control panel has only one ‘OFF’ switch which kills all the pumps together.
No training available on the colour computer or the ordinary PC. The colour computer system uses only fullshade and one reduction, not five.
Contract says “You will not be entitled to any holiday during the first year of service.”
Journal Entry, 27 Feb 2000: Last night went to Jailhouse for the first time in ages and found it redecorated. Where there were black walls there is now Leonardo-sketch parchment wallpaper with faux-marble paintwork.
And the sturdy black steel bars through which drinks were served have been replaced by an elegant gold arch with token slender bars. No more post-industrial matt-black grunge in the toilets, either!