Covid Memories

It was different back in those days; if you wanted to buy groceries in a supermarket you had to pay by cash or cheque. Before starting your trip round the shop, you would be required to queue up at the customer service kiosk and let the assistant stamp the back of your cheque to enable it to be used for payment at the till. And yet, just a year later, I saw my first-ever barcode scanner at the Presto supermarket in Harrow.

On Wednesday nights I would join my two housemates for a couple of pints in the Red Lion. We shared a house on the outskirts of Leicester; two chemistry students, one computer scientist, and our landlady. The journey into town was too far, taking us past the cattle market and the prison, so we just went to our local and sat at (usually) the only free table, near the door.

‘Are you coming, then?’ asked Dave.

‘Yeah, hang on, just setting this up.’ I had a portable cassette radio on which I would record concerts broadcast on Radio Three, and this evening the last item was Beethoven Three. The leader and conductor made their way onto the platform; I waited for the applause to die down, then pressed the record and play buttons and dashed out.

We sat in the pub drinking lager-and-lime, arguing about the merits of various academic pursuits, and listening to Culture Club (who I mistakenly thought were UB40) on the jukebox. Then, at about ten o’clock we would leave to walk home. Back in those days all pubs had to close at ten-thirty, and it would be too late to get a snack from the local chippy.

The landlady would still be up when we got back in, watching TV or knitting. John offered to make us a coffee, and I went upstairs to check if my tape had captured the entire symphony.

I scanned back, and back a bit further until I heard the furious closing pages of the finale, and applause. After the concert we had a news summary, during which the announcer said that police in London were investigating the discovery of human remains at a house in Muswell Hill.

I turned the machine off and went downstairs to chat to the others before turning in for the night.

I was reminded of this when I saw the trailer for a new TV drama called ‘Des’ starring David Tennant  as Dennis Nilsen, the lonely serial killer who butchered young men and who was caught after their body parts blocked the drains at his rented house. Tennant gives a horribly convincing portrayal of this callous misfit, a nondescript civil servant with limp, side-parted hair and harmless-looking spectacles.

Two years later, in 1985, I found myself in London. I enjoyed going to pubs and meeting other men. One of them lived in Muswell Hill, and when we went back to his house one night he pointed out a nearby bus stop. ‘That’s where Dennis Nilsen would get off the bus with his victims.’ he said.

I enjoyed London; cinemas, theatres, etc. I went to see lots of chamber music and orchestral concerts, including a performance of aggressively modern work played by the LSO under Pierre Boulez. The Royal Festival Hall was busy, but not full; and I wondered how many people would listen to this piece if it was shown on BBC One as part of a Prom Season. (Diary note: ‘Went to see Boulez, he conducts like a policeman directing traffic’)

It has recently been announced that the members of the LSO are to be given access to a new Covid-19 diagnostic tool, the DNA-Nudge box. This magical device takes a cotton-bud swab of saliva, whirls it round for half-an-hour, and then delivers a verdict to let you know if you are infected with Covid or not.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has been lauding the virtues of this device for months now, and the government has given 160 million pounds to the developers, a research team based at Imperial College; however, scientific appraisal is thin on the ground, and the units are still hard to find, despite us being promised that a nationwide roll-out was scheduled for September 2020.

I suspect that Hancock and his comrades are so easily dazzled by anything remotely technical that they willingly handed over the money, keen to find a solution to the UK epidemic of this new virus. One is reminded of the infamous ‘Bomb Detector’, a cheap plastic item carrying an aerial and a printed circuit-board. This object had originally been marketed as a novelty joke device for finding lost golf balls, but a shrewd entrepreneur had spotted that the UK government was totally ignorant when it came to anything scientific. He organised some fancy packaging, a series of ‘demonstrations’ to prove that the aerial would respond to the presence of concealed explosive materials, and promptly made a small fortune on the back of a worthless product.

Tower Block Virus

Last night I watched a television programme called ‘Manctopia’, part of a series following the recent eruption of building work which has transformed the skyline of Manchester, creating a forest of luxury apartments.

Over the years I have seen tower blocks taking shape in various bits of the city; old car parks or small industrial units have been taken over by epic constructions. Each day, when travelling to work I would see a sturdy lift-shaft appear in the middle of a concrete field. This would then be gradually engulfed by a sturdy nest of metal girders and a swelling coat of cement board walls.

Back in 2016, I spotted a tower block in Salford with glorious duotone pearlescent lilac-turquoise cladding; a few years previously I had worked on the standard testing of powder coated panels (Buchholz hardness, cross-hatch adhesion, impact resistance) but had never seen anything as dramatic as this. However, the vivid cladding has now been removed for safety reasons, and the residents will probably see their fuel bills rise as the flats no longer have the thermal insulation of this coating.

During August and September there was a space of a few weeks when tram passengers could watch the sun going down over Salford; everybody would turn to stare at the church spires and distant buildings in silhouette against a dramatic orange sky. But now this spectacle has been shut away by the new apartments which are gradually filling the space around Trafford Park.

Confused and forgetful; I was once proud of my clear thinking and sharp memory; but recently I find myself getting muddled. Over the years I have moved between jobs, and I could use these different employers to divide my life into neat three- or four-year chunks, being able to clearly identify events and people which belonged to a particular stage of my career.

I noticed that moving to a new post always gave me an insight into the job I had just left, since I could see for the first time that there were different methods and procedures available to me; but at the same time, there would be certain individuals whose personality or physical make-up strongly resembled workers from my previous job, and I would sometimes mistakenly discuss with one of my colleagues an incident of which he had no knowledge.

I recall attending a meeting which took place shortly after a nearby town was hit by extreme weather, with severe flooding and disruption; however, when I was looking through some of my journals I found that the meeting had taken place a few weeks before the flood occurred.

And I clearly remember discussing with my workmates in Derby the news story about a rock star who had died in harrowing circumstances; but watching a recent TV show about the music industry, I discovered that he had died about six months after I moved away from that city. Why am I having these fragmented episodes?

I was wondering about this when I attended an interview in Warrington, at the offices of a large recruitment agency. ‘Before we place you on our books, we have to carefully check what your background is, so that we don’t end up sending your details to jobs that aren’t exactly right for you.’

This sounded reassuring; so I turned up on a Tuesday morning, armed with my passport, diploma certificates, and the P45 from my last job. We chatted at length about my career, and at one point the agency rep excused herself to speak to a colleague who had been waiting outside the office. There were a few minutes of urgent, hushed conversation during which I managed to overhear the colleague say ‘But they said they’ve never heard of him’.

She came back into the office. ‘Sorry about that. Now, where were we?’ And I carried on explaining a bit about the technical equipment used in one of my former jobs.

‘And do you still keep in touch with your workmates from there?’

No, I said, adding that the firm had been sold off and the site demolished a few years ago. Everyone had moved to new locations and the firm’s identity had been erased by the company which had taken over their customer base.

‘It’s just that we’re having trouble getting hold of anybody who remembers working with you there. I mean’ she went on ‘we can’t find anybody who knows anything about this company, or what they produced. Did they have a website?’

‘Yes, of course’ I said. She looked puzzled. ‘We’ve done a load of searches, using different keywords, and nothing comes up with the details you have on your CV.

’Well, I don’t…’ I began, but she cut me short, cheerfully saying that there was no real problem. ‘Of course, we don’t have any suitable vacancies at present, but we thought it was important for you to come and see us; we need to make sure you didn’t have green hair, or a ring through your nose like some of these students.’

Annoyed and humiliated, I made my way back into town. There was an hour to spare before my train, so I had coffee in that trendy bar. There was a free newspaper on the table, and I began reading about a Hungarian artist who was exhibiting at the local gallery. Her new paintings included ‘Portrait of Paneetra Vildo’, which showed a woman in profile between two windows. The article mentioned that these works dated from last year.

But I was convinced that I had seen this particular picture about five years previously, when I was living in Stockport. The image, and the title of the work were so unusual that I remember being taken aback by them at the time. I might even have written to a friend asking if he had heard of them. I checked the paper again – it clearly gave the date of the work itself, 2017 and explained how the artist had used a series of diffraction gratings to create the illusion of depth in the picture, like those Pre-Raphaelite women who lunge out of their frames.

The picture was made up of zones, with the female figure, the windows and their discordant views – one rural, the other urban – and the walls and radiators. A geometric lattice of forms made up each zone, with metameric pigment blends creating a shifting, unstable image when the painting was viewed in a mixture of natural and artificial light. A faint rippling effect had been added to the painting by the selective use of high-gloss varnish.

Perhaps I was mistaken, and the painting really was just a year old; perhaps my brain had combined two or three episodes from the past to create a new synthetic memory.

The tower blocks in Manchester will continue to grow and multiply, gradually being absorbed into people’s awareness of the city; the car park, the BBC studio, and the disused car repair workshop, all of these will become lost memories beneath the stern square columns of abstract finance.