Newtown Synthelix

penryn ticket

I opened the book and the 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.

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?’

I had moved down to Penryn in November 2009 to start work at a firm called Newtown Synthetics, a small company which produced textiles. When not engaged on top-flight research, we spent most of our time correcting customers or journalists who had carelessly uttered the phrase ‘artificial leather’ to describe our product range.

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.’

Also asked me to have a look at a formulation for a new textile finish. I pointed out that the white spirit would not be able to properly dissolve the cellulose-butyrate resin and would cause stability problems. Replaced the WS with 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 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?’

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.

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.”

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!



O Billy Clarke



O Billy Clarke, where did you go;
Did your adventures carry you
To far-off lands where pagan statues
Towered over sun-baked plains?

O Billy Clarke, did you look good
In uniform, upon the Bridge,
And squinting at the undiscovered land?

I’m guessing you were twenty-six
When war broke out; by then, you
Would have made your mark. A
Pretty wife and two scruffy kids

You watched the cricket; played
Dominoes and cards down at the pub
With all your mates. Flat caps,
Moustaches and brown ale
Defined the span of what your life would be.

Did you return, O Billy Clarke
To find a land you didn’t recognise?
Where pagan idols sat in darkened rooms
And dreamed of going home to sun-baked plains.

Perhaps you never made it back. You might
Have stayed out there and made
The kind of future for yourself
That Britain wouldn’t even let you dream.

Somewhere in a box
Up in the dusty attic of a pub, perhaps
There are some things that once
Belonged to you. A pipe, a pack of cards,
A book about a sailor boy. We’ll never know
Just how your life unique turned out to be.

Random Journal

Journal Easter 2009

Easter Sunday, 12 April:
This morning was perfectly glorious – clear skies, bright sun – so I started writing letters to Elaine and Pam H, then went out for a spin down the A34 to the Waggon and Horses near Congleton.

Lots of discussion in the papers about global economic downturn. One article reports on Archbishop’s Easter Message, saying that it has exposed the futility of materialism and sexual freedom.
Another item on same page relates how Chancellor Darling is going to bribe car owners with £2,000 to scrap their old motors and buy new ones. Thus securing jobs for Korean car makers. Ha.

Monday 13 April: Went out on bike up towards Preston, later went to cinema to see ‘Bronson’ about our most famous psychopath. Horrible film – v brutal and nasty, but amazing soundtrack – PSB, Bruckner, Wagner, Strauss, Verdi.

Then walking back to the G-Mex tram stop I passed the Bridgewater Hall, where the Zombies are performing O and O on 24 Apr. aargh! Clash with Slappers Rally.

Tues 14 April: Phone call from Reed – they didn’t give the company name, but they want to put me forward for Bitrez in Wigan.

Applied to 2 posts on the Jobcentre Plus website. Reed in Warrington have just called – she didn’t realise I’d already signed a candidate info form.

Went to Farnworth and bought 3 CDs from a charity shop. Two were compilations (Uncut June 2006) but the third was something called ‘Spirit of Reiki and Chakra’ and turned out to the bland-blend lounge muzak. Not especially uplifting or spiritual.

In the movie ‘Bronson’ we don’t see Charlie undergoing any kind of development or growth. He becomes violent and ends up being beaten to a pulp. No sign of self-awareness or remorse.
Although he does look odd when trying to walk into his parents’ house, with furniture and carpets, an alien environment.

31 July: On Weds night went to see ‘Taking of Pelham 123’ a NY Subway thriller remake movie.

Last night with Andy and his mate from Church to Velvet for dinner.

Today at work was Dave Earnshaw’s last day – went to Midway pub for lunch, and I got called back for not paying.

Rejection letter from Keith M at Eastman – I’d written asking if they had any customers in the West Midlands area who would need my expertise for the composites cluster.

Sat 1 August: today I was tidying up my man-drawer and searching for the Pritt Stick. Sorted out all the ancient receipts and threw them away, and as I went to put the drawer back on its runners, a stray receipt (or was it a bus ticket?) fluttered to the ground. Anyway, it was dated 01 Aug 2008.

My downstairs neighbour – the lovely Baden – is back after a three-month absence. I wonder if he’s been staying with friends? After all, he knows plenty of people in the Northallerton YOI.
It sounds as if the lovely Baden is having a long, angry conversation on his cellular telephone downstairs – much banging and shouting.

Not like Iris Murdoch, whose characters (dithering buttoned-up intellectuals) have no mobiles or e-mails.

Tues 7 Apr 09: Don’t go out tonight – Man U playing Porto.
In the news: UK unemployment expected to hit 3.2 million sometime next year, just when old Gordon calls a Gen Election.

More grim urban squalor, as two feral lads (brothers) from a care home in Doncaster are in custody after two other young lads were beaten and tortured. According to the paper, the victims (aged 9 and 11) were nephew and uncle.

Davy on the Brink…

Did Davy ever walk along the beach at night
Hearing the waves in Charlestown Bay?

As each one hits the shore
It splits apart and spills
The silver light that lets us dream again.

He did these things, and saw it for himself;
Waiting, watching from the cliff,

Although there isn’t much to see
Behind him in the tavern’s light and noise
His friends take refuge in their shared belief

That he has madness. A
Cousin of Lucifer, ‘The Man Who Captured Light’.

They’ve heard the tales, but none is really sure
What to believe. ‘He’s out
There now’, says one. ‘You’d think

He wants to find a way to
Prise apart the very dark itself.’ Another pipes up

‘One day, I hear it said, he
Took a dainty goblet full of powdered chalk
And with two wires teased it back and forth’

He paused, the others turned to look; ‘and

He described the silver bubbles coming forth
And bursting into flames. Who but the fiend
Would ever contemplate
Bewitchment such as this?’

They do not know that yesterday
Young Davy breathed an unseen gallon
Of the most delightful gas. At once his hands
Felt huge and weightless, many miles away; the

Gravestones were rushing deep into themselves, the
Sky a crumpled avalanche of iridescent silk. A stream
Of piss became an errant whip of golden sparks. It seemed

That all creation was alive
With urgent possibilities that none had seen
Until today. This, he thought, must be how God
Beholds the world and how He wanted it to be.

Waist Knot, Want Not


On only one occasion do I recall seeing our main Sensei give a demonstration of Karate. Most of the time he would run the classes, taking part in all the exercise routines, supervising the sparring, guiding the junior coaches.

But one day at the end of the lesson he was explaining how fighting technique was all about distance and timing. ‘You need to make sure you don’t waste any of your energy’ he said, ‘Don’t move any further than you need to avoid being hit, don’t try to deliver a strike too soon or too late. It will take you years to understand this, but if I have done my job properly, you will all end up better than me when I was your age.’ And he invited one of the best young students up to the front of the class.

‘Go on, then – imagine you’ve got steel-toe-capped boots on, and try to kick me in the stomach. Don’t worry, I promise you won’t get hurt. If you manage to land the kick I’ll award you an honorary black belt.’
So this young lad – agile, experienced and very fit – launched himself into a straightforward kick to the teacher’s belly.

We were all watching intently, but nobody saw what actually happened; just a split-second later, the teacher was calmly holding this lad by his ankle and saying ‘If I drop him now, it would break his neck.’ He gently lowered the lad, who was now gazing at sir with renewed admiration and respect. The two of them bowed to one another and shook hands.

The fundamental concepts of minimal waste crop up in all sorts of industrial processes.

During the manufacture of industrial paint, we see huge quantities of solvent used to clean out vessels between batches. This is discarded without thought, when it could be sold for fuel. Sometimes the actual product is deemed unsatisfactory when it reaches the client, who then returns it to the factory; forty tins of material have to be emptied out into a new mixing vessel. The paint has to be modified by adding more solvents or pigments or resin, and then it has to be tested again and then the material has to be decanted into new tins ready to be sent back to the customer who is now running two days late with their own production schedule. The old tins need to be disposed of as contaminated waste.

At large conferences or trade fairs, the delegates are often issued with free bags containing various glossy booklets. In order to assemble all these goody bags, the leaflets and other printed materials are delivered in cardboard boxes and lined up on long trestle tables. A team of workers will move steadily along the table, collecting one item from each pile until they have a hefty bundle of paperwork, which they then drop into a carrier bag held open and ready by one of the other workers.

And as this process continues, a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and plastic securing ribbons begins to grow around the table. Eventually these bits of waste packaging become an obstacle, so we bring in a wheeled carton to pile them all into. And so on, until at the end of the day the floor of the exhibition hall is scattered with waxed paper, scraps of corrugated beige card, damaged leaflets and empty rolls of masking tape.

The delegates arrive for the conference the following morning; each of them collects a filled bag from one of the smiling conference greeters and entertains a brief flicker of hope that a) the goody-bag will contain something valuable, such as a steel ballpoint pen, and b) one or more of these young ladies will be charmingly available at the hotel bar later that evening.

Likewise, in a supermarket, the goods arrive from the warehouse in large wire cages; the tins and packets are themselves contained within card-and-plastic trays to protect them during transport. At the end of an evening shift, when the store is closed and the customers have escaped, we find the wire cages densely packed with waste cardboard and polythene film. Customers generally have no idea of the energy required to keep the shelves fully stocked, or the technical detail involved in designing the packaging to look neat and attractive – packaging that will be discarded later without a second thought.

Other industrial waste: waste materials, such as the odd tins and bottles of raw materials ordered by development laboratories to craft new product ranges. These are tested, and often found to be either no better than the existing ingredients, or are much better but slightly more expensive. Even the tiniest increase in raw material costs will send the purchasing department into a whirlwind of panic.

Sometimes waste material is more than a small jar of stuff; we once had four tubs of sodium carbonate, twenty kilograms in total, left over from a test project.  I suggested that we could keep this material in reserve, so that it could be used to deal with any acid spills which occurred, but I was soundly rebuffed and told that we had to get rid of this material using the official (expensive) disposal procedure.

A few months later we noticed that the lock on one of our storage cabinets was becoming very stiff, and realised that the bottles of acid in this cabinet were releasing fumes, gradually corroding the bare steel mechanism. ‘Perhaps we could buy in some sodium carbonate’ I said, ‘and put a layer of it in the base of the cabinet to neutralise these vapours.’
Everybody thought this was a great idea, but of course it never came to anything, so that the corrosion problem reappeared with every new cabinet.

And at one workplace, I recall seeing a full pallet – minus one bag – of microdol, an ultra-fine mixed carbonate extender pigment. This 975-kg consignment sat there, gathering dust until the factory was eventually sold and demolished. We could easily had decanted this stuff into plastic tubs and given it away for use as an acid spill-kit.

The whole world is full of stuff we can see – goods, services, ideas – and just out of view is a tremendous mountain of ‘waste’, the time and energy and materials which have been used to construct and deliver and arrange the visible aspects of commerce. And any understanding of business needs to acknowledge the importance of this unseen environment.

 A waste-processing plant now occupies what was formerly the site of Sterling Technology in Trafford Park, a company originally set up just to supply insulating varnish to the giant Westinghouse Motor company. Along Westinghouse Road here used to be some very distinguished red-brick office blocks, Edwardian I think; these were demolished to make way for bleak, anonymous warehouse structures.

Half-a-dozen pictures remain, some showing the production tanks where resin was manufactured, others showing the warehouse with fractured walls where raw materials were kept ready to be transformed into electrical varnish.

It was a dull day in 2007, and I was using a cheap camera loaded with standard 100ASA colour print film. It’s difficult to make out what the pictures represent; I worked there for a few years, so I can remember the smell of chemicals and the clang of the metal stairs as I made my way up to the office and back down to the lab.

Nobody would remember the walls with bricked-up windows (to avoid paying a levy to the Ship Canal Company) since these would have been hidden behind smooth, powder-coated aluminium cladding.

Perhaps one day I will create a John Piper-ish painting using micaceous iron oxide and aluminium flake and cellulose-acrylic alkyd resin to paint the industrial landscape in its own language. Like a hologram, any tiny square cut from the picture would provide sufficient data for the entire factory to be reconstructed.

The alkyd resin contains small quantities of cobalt in order to harden fully in contact with air; the frantic electronic dance that allows this reaction to occur is the reason why cobalt is so poisonous. For years, researchers have been looking for an alternative catalyst, but every other candidate material gives inferior performance. Even lead, which is also toxic.

Perhaps one days they will set off a cobalt bomb, like the one that produced Miss Fray’s wild flower.  A languid flash, and the regulation mushroom cloud. And then, for a radius on 420 miles, we see casualties whose DNA has been perforated by the gamma-ray blizzard. This Mad Max world will be full of dead vehicles with dead people slumped at the steering wheels.  The murdered bacteria will no longer be able to launch their frenzy of putrefaction. Extremely sunburnt proteins will crosslink, making skin become an everlasting plastic membrane.

The gamma rays will weld the paintwork to cars and restructure the steel so that it no longer turns to rust when wet. And in twenty thousand years, when visitors arrive from a distant galaxy, they will wonder how this civilisation vanished despite having such advanced technology.




Single people are worthless
Married couples are useful
Married couples with children are valuable

Single men are dangerous
Married men are trustworthy
Fathers are valuable

Corrosion is the dance of air and water
Trapped in
a lonely metal cage
I don’t care what you say, the
Reckless pollution of literature
Is better than the empty page. A man

In possession of a fortune (big or small)
Needs a wife. A man who
Has no fortune by the age of twenty-five
Does not deserve to keep
The borrowed treasure that he calls his life.

It doesn’t end here…


Now fallen brown and silent, the trumpets know
Their fanfares echo in some other place
Corrosion does not signify corruption
The onset of decay is no disgrace
Time and tiredness watch entropy
Plant silver wires on the hunter’s face. 

At first I thought they looked like drops of blood
Scattered on the station floor
Instead, at close quarters we observe
Gleaming heart-shaped confetti
Like blossoms shaken to the ground
By a sudden gasp of teenage lust. 

The daffodils are bent and brown, but no regret;
They worked their magic on the passing bees
And now can rest in quiet contemplation
A ringing triumph no-one ever sees.