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.

Spread Labels, the Mutant Algorithm

Spread Labels

‘How much detail do we have to include?’
The teacher glanced at his half-finished gouache picture. ‘Just put down what you see – or enough of it to allow the viewer to imagine what you are seeing now.’

Marcus stared at the objects in front of him; a wine bottle, a ceramic mug holding three pens, and half a red cabbage.
‘But the label’, he began, ‘it’s so elegant, I don’t want to just put down a dark block. And I don’t know how to capture that texture.’

Miss Carter casually picked up the bottle and inspected the label, aware that this would annoy her students. ‘Yes, I see.’ She held the bottle up and asked if anybody in the class could suggest a means of capturing the odd appearance. ‘Look, you’ve got a matt black ground with elongated club shapes picked out in a gloss finish. Do you just paint highlights or can you think of another way?’

Not bothering to wait for an answer, she carefully placed the bottle down in the same spot and wandered over to help one of the other lads in the class.

The art studio had the usual collection of old textbooks and glossy magazines; leafing through one of these, Marcus found a car advert which consisted of a small red square on a page filled with dark blue. He tore the page out, then proceeded to cut a rectangular section from it, planning to add this to his still-life instead of trying to depict the label. But the piece was too large; and just as he was about to trim the edges, one of his friends came up to admire the painting.

‘Is this going to stick out, like a real 3-D bottle?’
‘Nice one’ said Marcus; ‘It is now!’

The teacher was unimpressed. ‘It looks like a mistake’ she said, looking at the protruding arch of glossy black paper. ‘And it will be damaged in storage. Keeping it flat might have been better.’

With a sullen gaze, he turned away. ‘Better just dump it in the bin, then’ he said. But the next day he returned to the studio, reluctant to throw away this piece that contained so many hours of work. The picture was nowhere to be seen; anxiously he looked under piles of half-finished works by his classmates, and then remembered his flippant remark of the previous day. There in the bin, he saw his picture – torn carefully into four pieces, the black glossy square flapping loose at a ragged edge.

Stunned, he gathered the sheets together and wandered down the corridor to the common room, ready to burst in and deliver an angry tirade against the teacher. But the only other students there were people he hardly knew, so he contented himself with laying the pieces on a table and trying to work out some way to repair the picture.

One of the others got up and made to leave the room; glancing at Marcus, he offered a careless ‘Hi’ and held out the latest ‘New Scientist’ which carried a lead story about a chemical called Novichok. After reading this article – or the little of it he was able to understand – he then started browsing through some of the chemistry textbooks on the common room shelf.

A week later he was back in the art studio, starting all over again with his still life. The teacher was scornful, saying that he would never have enough time to complete the piece for the end-of-year exam show. ‘Can I submit the picture I was working on last week instead, then?’ he asked, moving the drawing to reveal the amended still life that she had destroyed.

He held up the work; the four quarters had been neatly trimmed to form uniform rectangles and stuck together, each image having been rotated so that the picture had an abstract, architectural quality. Along the edges of the piece he had drawn a set of scales, linear and logarithmic; and spreading across the whole picture were seven curved white lines forming a set of boundaries, like a map. Along the top of the piece, a series of letters cut from magazines spelled out ‘phase diagram novichok’.

Behold, the Mutant Algorithm

Gradually, the components of the mutant algorithm
Converge and intersect; the student’s hand is given
To demonstrate how Francis Bacon slashed the canvas
That night, we dined on steak and mashed potato

And later, drifting along the quiet avenue
Where huge swathes of Himalayan balsam
Manage to confuse the darting bees, whose dainty
Map of ultraviolet roads recall somebody’s name, and
Persuade each one to stay another languid night.

There’s just too much at stake; a flash of understanding
Cuts through the catalogue of lies
 Whose framework makes us wonder how the latent
Energy reveals the staggered biorhythms
Of all my personalities. One day soon, we’ll rendezvous

To sip the liquid happiness that occupies
The flower’s distant throat. Somewhere inside
The hollow antiprism we find the gleaming spines
That wait in vain to vaccinate us all against the truth.

The Awkward Customeuse

Journal Entry, Sat 6 Mar 2003: Last night the Twisted Wheel Soul Club was at Wells Fargo so MSC went to meet at the Legends Piano Bar. Not most suitable.
B- suggested that we approach one of the pub landlords in town – they are normally closed at weekends cos of their links to office workers.

Have just heard on the news that Adam Faith has died at age 62. But wasn’t it he who told everybody to start pension plans at the age of 12?
Last night went back to Deans Road on the 2 a.m. bus, which was awful; some dreadful girl sat behind us kept squawking that she was an accountant and owned her own house.

Fri 17 Oct 2003:   Discreetly summoned to SP’s office for a ticking-off about my memo re: warehouse stocks. ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ he asked wearily, ‘Has someone put you up to this?’

I had noticed that we had 7 or 8 pallets, each holding about 125 kg of material which had passed its ‘Use By’ date. When I checked the retain sample, it appeared that the coating had settled out during storage to give a thick sludge, so it cold not be applied by brush or spray. So I sent a memo round saying that this material needs to be removed from the warehouse and quarantined.

What I should have said was ‘We are due to have the British Standards Quality inspection next week, and if they decide to examine these materials they will find them to be out of date. And it’s my signature on the Certificate of Conformity, so I don’t want to be blamed for a load of redundant stock.’

Fri 31 May 2003:   At work, typed up Lucchini meeting notes.

Asked Gill W to do DSC testing of vinyl resin tower paint and Becker’s tower paint – both gave similar exotherms.
Gill H asked if I was planning to go to Surfex, and then asked if I had been told about the impending reshuffle of the QC dept, uniting the SCD and EPD parts of the firm.

Last night had a Brie-and-pork-pie salad, went to bed early, had a long and convincing dream about meeting Steve Rhead; apparently, we were living not far from each other and ended up shopping in Manchester.

Jubilee and World Cup weekend.
US and UK nationals living in India and Pakistan are being advised to leave those countries.

Senegal beat France in opening world cup match.

The Awkward Customer

She had a prim little mouth
And a tight little hole
Rejoicing in the dry frustration
Of promises she’ll never try to make
From the empty basket of her desiccated soul

She wears resentment like mascara
Peering through tight little eyes
So as not to squander precious sight
On a sinful, undeserving world
Where satellites of evil rule the night

She likes to think that we believed
That she was bored with wickedness and vice;
Debauchery was such a drag,
And anyway, she’s seen it all before. But now
Behold her, fuming with distaste.

And I don’t suppose she’ll ever die, for
That would mean surrendering
To self-indulgent idleness. Without her
Would the cold grey world
Have any greater burden of distress?

Covid Mask Fiasco

01 August 2020 – It’s Saturday morning and I’m watching the Horror Channel on TV, which is showing previews of this week’s menu: marauding psychopaths, mutant zombies, witchcraft, aliens, severed limbs and demonic possession.

However, this catalogue of nightmares is wholesome and reassuring compared to the real stories which have dominated the TV news schedules over the past week or so.

We have the ongoing Covid-19 saga, which has killed about 46,000 people in the UK and 156,000 in the US. Boris Johnson was recently telling us that we could carry on socialising in pubs and restaurants, with a government subsidy offered to persuade people to dine out; but on Thursday night it was announced that restrictions would be imposed on residents in Greater Manchester and nearby districts, prohibiting visits between households.
About 4 million citizen-units are affected, many of them Muslims who were gearing up for a weekend celebration of Eid, with large family gatherings planned. And since the weather has been glorious, huge crowds have appeared on the beaches at Brighton and Bournemouth.

Three teenagers have been convicted of manslaughter following the death of a police officer who ended up tangled in a tow-rope attached to their getaway car. The three youngsters are career criminals from a traveller family, who went to great lengths to obstruct the police enquiry and intimidate jury members at the trial. The appalling details of this case, and the resulting sentences (less than 20 years) are described as being an insult to the memory of a public servant.

Meanwhile, the government has nominated several distinguished people for elevation to the house of Lords, among them Jo Johnson (former Minister for Science and brother of Boris) and Evgeny Lebedev, media mogul and socialite. We have to wonder how these assorted characters will improve the lives of UK citizens, and if they will insist on being paid their daily attendance fee.

02 August 2020 – It’s Sunday morning, and the news is full of speculation that new travel restrictions will be imposed on London to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The cabinet is also considering telling over-fifties to stay at home instead of socialising or going to work. And science adviser Graham Medley has provoked widespread alarm by suggesting that in order to reopen schools in September, it may be necessary to close all the pubs again.

03 August 2020 – A ‘major incident’ has been declared in Manchester, just days after residents were ordered to refrain from gathering in each other’s houses and gardens. We are being assured that this is simply a legal mechanism to enable local agencies to work together to coordinate their public health activities.

A Conservative MP has been arrested following allegations of rape, but his identity is being kept secret and he has not been suspended by the party. The chief whips have failed to take any action on behalf of the alleged victim, so she went to the police. Furious online debate ensued, with some people saying that he should be named and suspended (as would be the case with someone in any other profession) while others point out that this step would risk disclosing the identity of his accuser and putting her at risk.

05 August 2020 – For three weeks I have been suffering from lower back pain, one week bad enough to keep me off work and largely in bed. Before getting up, I raise my knees and rock gently from side-to-side to restore some mobility to my back. Then I use Voltarol cream (diclofenac 1.16%) and Naproxen tablets (250mg) to bring me to life before I can start work.

Yesterday a massive explosion destroyed the port area in Beirut, killing over 100 and injuring thousands of people. Video footage showed a series of small blasts before a huge blast occurred, creating a mushroom cloud and shock waves. The explosion was blamed on a warehouse containing over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and destroyed most of the wheat supply for Lebanon which was being stored nearby.

06 August 2020 – The anniversary of Hiroshima, where the first atomic bomb was used in 1945 to bring the second World War to an end. Immediate casualties numbered about 140,000; a similar number of people suffered ongoing health problems due to radiation poisoning.

The UK government has announced a shake-up of planning law to enable construction of more housing. This has generated lots of debate about the merits of building projects. However, the entire UK economy is built on one basic idea, that housing is an asset which will always increase in value. Therefore, the supply of property must always be kept significantly below demand, to guarantee upwards pressure on house prices; and so there will certainly be lots of meetings and reports, but very little in the way of actual building work.

08 August 2020 – The recent news stories are about healthcare: the UK government recently ordered 50 million protective face masks for NHS workers, but when these eventually arrived they were found to be unsatisfactory because they had ear-loops instead of head-bands.

And by an amazing coincidence, the company supplying these items of PPE turned out to be Ayanda Capital, an obscure firm based in a tax haven, whose shareholders include some staunch brexiteers and close friends of our glorious leader Boris Johnson.

We also had the entertaining spectacle of 750,000 unused Covid-19 testing kits being recalled due to safety concerns. The kits were supplied by  a firm called Randox, who are advised by Tory MP Owen Paterson. Randox must be a terrific firm, since they were awarded the contract for these kits without needing to submit a tender!
Randox was also the firm used by UK police forces to test blood samples in criminal cases, and it was found that the laboratories had been engaged in ‘data manipulation’…several prosecutions have been overturned and it is suspected that there may be thousands of unreliable test results waiting to be uncovered.

Heading North

16 July 2020: Chris Grayling, MP has managed to avoid being sacked from his Cabinet posts, despite a number of spectacular cock-ups (awarding a huge contract for post-Brexit cross-channel freight to a company which didn’t actually own any ferries) and was recently appointed to the Chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Or, at least, that was the plan; but one of the other c’ttee members decided to stand against him for the post.

The c’ttee was stacked with Conservatives, and all the members were contacted to make sure that they would comply with the wishes of the Prime Minister and elect the hapless Grayling to the post.

Then Julian Lewis, an MP with considerably more experience in the field of intelligence and security than everybody else in the room, announced that he was willing to stand for election. His appointment caused furious embarrassment to the Prime Minister, and shortly afterwards it was announced that Lewis had been expelled from the Tory party.

18 July 2020: The UK government has recently decided to abandon the daily reports of virus cases and fatalities, because it was noticed that the ‘deaths’ figure will include anybody who dies, even if they were diagnosed four months ago with Covid. Our most recent confirmed statistics are:

US: 3,782,00 cases, 142,000 deaths
UK: 294,000 cases, 45,318 deaths

21 July 2020: Severe back pain – I am trapped in bed, forced to lie flat, listening to Radio 4; the pain is a constant dull ache except when I try to shift my weight, which causes a sudden jolt of agony.

22 July 2020: Requested some Naproxen online, need to wait 48 hours before collection.

23 July 2020: Nineteen years (exactly one-third of my life) ago I started my new job at Sterling Technology. A few weeks previously I had attended two interviews. These meetings started well; I had lots of relevant experience and chatted confidently about my skills in testing samples of polymer coating systems.

‘The trouble is’ said the interviewer, ‘We really need somebody with first-rate computer skills, and you don’t appear to have that much knowledge in that field.’
I replied that I was currently engaged on the European Computer Driving Licence training course, and would be happy to attend further tutorials if the company felt these were necessary.

‘No, no’ he continued, ‘It is vitally important that the person who is taken on for this post has plenty of previous experience, a first-class track record in programming skills, and you don’t seem to have those qualifications.’
‘Well, the agency who notified me about this post didn’t mention anything to me about IT skills being so important; if they had done so, then I would have declined the offer of an interview.’

He sighed wearily, and I made my way home feeling confused about whether I had made a good impression. Two days later, the agency rang me to say that the firm had been quite pleased with me and would I be willing to accept the post if it was offered?
‘Absolutely!’ I yelled, and proceeded to skip around my flat singing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, and trying to work out how best to transport my belongings to a new city.

A bulky letter arrived the next day; a three-page contract of employment (two copies) and a set of instructions on when they wanted me to start, and how to go about getting a pre-employment medical examination.

My local GP was scornful; the waiting list for medicals was three weeks, by which time I would be starting work. The actual results would take a further two weeks to arrive. I rang the agency and explained that I might not be able to accept the job because I couldn’t get a works medical in time. The agency rang the company who rang my GP, and the agency rang me back and said that in view of the short timescale the firm would agree to take me on, provided that I arranged a medical with a local GP as soon as possible.

So I started work, and began testing production batches and dealing with customer complaints and preparing the occasional development sample.
After about six months I realised that I had not yet been issued with a company e-mail address (indeed, there wasn’t even a PC installed in my office) so I asked the boss whether they had made any arrangements to enter my details on the company network.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that’ he said, ‘There’s no need for you to correspond with customers, so you won’t require any e-mail access. And your job doesn’t involve any report-writing, so you don’t need a computer in the office.’

At the time, I was continuing my ECDL course, learning (at my own expense) how to use the standard software packages – but I wondered if all of this had been a waste of time.

A year later we were all issued with a company memo, reminding us that IT security was very important and that we should all be careful not to access any unauthorised websites or e-mail contacts. ‘Please sign below to confirm that you understand and agree to the terms and conditions outlined in this letter.’ I duly sent the memo back, pointing out that I had never actually made use of the firm’s computer system.

I carried on working there for four years, and then moved from job to job at different places round the UK, eventually landing here, where my salary is still slightly below what it was nineteen years ago.

An Evening Walk

Today I went out for an evening walk, to
Keep me busy on a desperately wet day in July
And give my mad-professor lockdown hair
A chance to take advantage of the rain. On my journey
I encountered gleaming pools of light
Where dancing rings began to swell and burst
Beneath the groaning pressure of the sky.

I spotted the abandoned wage-slips, discarded burger cartons
Like orange books of Styrofoam philosophy
And bushes thick with gleaming thorns bear fruit
Some berries green like mantis eyes of polished jade,
While one or two are bursting purple ripe.

Nineteen sturdy metal poles line up
To form the perfect cage; they threaten to diffract
The butterflies, the sparrows, wasps
And empty beer-cans thrown by angry lads on Friday night.

The harsh grey pylons hang below, humming
With the evanescent currency of dreams;
Reflected railings crumple in the rain, somewhere
A long equation describes with perfect clarity
How dancing circles interrupt
This stern parade of bars.

Mass Observation (We’re Being Watched!)

“My membership of the Society of Authors came through today! I’ve been accepted.” (Kenneth Williams, Diaries, ed. Russell Davies: entry dated Mon 12 May 1980)

Mass Observation Diary, 12 May 2020:

I’m 32 years old, from Brighton but now living up North. I spent years working as a trainee architect but now I am employed as an Account Manager. I was born male, and remain male, but apparently nowadays (according to the gossip on Twitter) it is not unknown for men to simply declare that they now ‘identify as female’, and, despite having all the characteristic physiology of mature male humans, demand the right to use women’s toilets and changing facilities.

Because of the lockdown, it is easier to think of the world in terms of the things we cannot do, rather than those which we can; simple things like travelling to work or going to a café.

Today is Thursday, when the bins get emptied by the council rubbish collectors. Many years ago, the binmen would come once a week, but that was changed to every other week in order to save money. Of course, ‘binmen’ is an archaic expression from the seventies when jobs and careers were strictly demarcated; refuse collectors were always male, nurses were always female.

My partner Simon claims that this is the highlight of my month. We live together – we have little to do with the neighbours, and some of them (so I understand) are under the impression that he is my son.
We live in a rented flat; many people in the UK own their homes (or will do so after paying a monthly mortgage for twenty-odd years) but we have to pay rent to a distant landlord. Technically we are in Salford, a deprived region of Greater Manchester, but our flat overlooks fields, so really we are on the edge of Cheshire.

I work for an electronics firm, and like many people in Britain I am being allowed to work from home. This policy was announced by the government to slow the spread of the coronavirus, by cutting down on travel. Lots of people are being ‘furloughed’ so they can remain at home, getting 80 percent of their wages from the government and being kept ready to resume work once the epidemic has died down.

Normally I would walk up to the local station and catch the 7.12 train to Oldham. The route is a busy one, and the trains are often delayed or cancelled. Sometimes the passengers have to stand for the entire journey in desperately crowded carriages called ‘Pacer Trains’.

The train journey would carry me past the ‘station park’ – a miniature replica of Frodo Baggins’ cottage in Lord of The Rings – and then past the Bredbury Power Station, and on to Manchester where the skyline is a forest of cranes. Spaces that were formerly car parks or derelict shops are now being transformed into cities in the sky.
I would leave the train at Victoria station, then walk twenty minutes to the office where I work, passing the homeless people in sleeping bags under the bridge, passing the smart restaurants and bars, past the estate agents’ offices with expensive sports cars parked outside them, and past the Gothic fantasy frontage of the John Rylands library.

Usually I would buy a sandwich for lunch from a supermarket, and then make my way on towards work, passing the Oast House, a trendy bar assembled from weathered beams and rusted farm implements.
This bar has a large courtyard where drinkers can enjoy the warm evenings and watch live music or broadcast sport; a life-sized poster shows one player from each of the six nations rugby teams, with a vertical scale in the middle for lesser mortals to see how they measure up against these giants.

Like all sporting events, the Six Nations was suspended in March.

So, instead of this journey to work, I now walk from the bedroom to the spare room where I have a desk and computer set up to carry out my work. The miracle of technology allows tens of thousands of workers round the UK to remotely access their secure office networks and so carry on processing customer details.
My monthly season ticket for the train costs about £215, so the process of working from home brings financial benefits.

Breakfast: toast, cereal and coffee. I boil the water in a kettle on the gas stove rather than use an electric kettle. The handle is fixed to the kettle lid using a mild-steel screw which has started to rust. I was hoping to have avocado on toast, but the fruits themselves were hard. ‘Perfectly ripe’, it said on the wrapper, which I am guessing was Greek for golf balls.

We don’t have a dishwasher, so all the dirty plates and cups were waiting for me in the sink when I got up today; I set about washing-up, cleaning the crockery along with a couple of plastic ice-cream tubs. But we do have a washing-machine, so I no longer have to carefully decant laundry powder into old margarine tubs and take the half-hour walk to the washeteria.

Social: during the day I correspond with my work colleagues and ask them for advice using an online messaging service called ‘Microsoft Teams’.
I would sometimes go into Manchester on Tuesday nights to meet up with friends and play board games in the pub. Without the standard family network I (and many other gay men) rely on the pub scene for conversation, affirmation and company. But now we are still instructed to avoid unnecessary travel, and all the pubs and restaurants and cinemas and libraries and shopping centres are still shut, so I stay indoors and watch television.

For many years I had no television and would listen to records or read library books, but now I have no turntable or speakers so I can only listen to music online or by playing CDs through a DVD unit. Online entertainment is a miracle – you can simply tap into a keyboard and immediately listen to almost anything without having to pay a fee or search through library catalogues…

Weather: since I am not travelling to work, it doesn’t matter what today’s weather is going to be like. It’s glorious outside, bright and cold: I watch the neighbour’s cat go trotting daintily past the wheelie bins with a mouse.
Food: the arrival of the Coronavirus sent thousands of people rushing off to their local supermarkets to stock up on tinned beans, long-life milk and toilet rolls. I have several tins of soup and rice pudding and a large jar of olives. We bought a couple of bags of flour and have been making pancakes and shortbread. This is delicious, but I realized, after polishing off most of the batch, that I have eaten half a packet of butter in one day.

For lunch I turn back into a student and treat myself to beans on toast with grilled cheese. In the evening I decide to prepare an ornamental salad with tomatoes, eggs and leaves. ‘You don’t like olives, do you?’ I call from the kitchen. Simon says no, not really, and I point out that it is a line from Victoria Wood. ‘Or perhaps it’s from Abigail’s Party…’

Work: I sit at a small desk with a dainty laptop computer and take customer enquiries. On the bookshelf there is a picture of me with my older sister, taken 5 years ago at the Coliseum in Rome. At work, we are required to clear all personal belongings off the desk at the end of the day, so people rarely bother to put on display any personal items or photographs.
I sit at my desk taking phone calls and webchat messages; the great thing about working from home is that I don’t have to trudge from the office to the station, worrying about how late the train will be. Instead, I can saunter into the bedroom and have a brief power nap before getting dinner ready.

TV news: the news is all about Covid-19, and the recent announcement that people in the UK will be allowed to travel greater distances to get their unlimited daily exercise. However, after discarding their slogan ‘Stay Home’ the government went on to say that people should still avoid going out if possible. I log onto the internet to read the news headlines and see the latest grim statistics. We are advised to return to work but not to travel by public transport, a declaration that has prompted widespread scorn.

To cheer myself up I watch the jazz Rachmaninov scene from ‘Groundhog Day’ on the Youtube website.
Earlier today it turned grey and damp, the tarmac bruised with gleaming puddles. But now it is glorious again, late low sunshine bouncing off the trees and the power station chimneys.

‘Look what I’ve found’ said my friend, offering me a black fabric bag. I peered in and saw a pair of headphones. When I didn’t show any excitement, he went on: ‘Look what else is in there.’ And deeper in the bag I found my Hitachi MP3 player, a flat rectangular capsule full to bursting with Prince, Doves, and Berlioz. I bought this player ten years ago in Truro, and spent hours listening to it. Then it went missing a few months ago and I was distraught, worried that I had lost it somewhere.

The evening is cool; behind our flat, the trees make ornate silhouettes against a soft grey sky that drifts from lilac into amber. On the news we have the Chancellor telling us that thousands of jobs have already been lost due to the Covid lockdown, but the treasury would carry on paying furlough wages to companies whose workers had been temporarily laid off.

The day is nearly over; we watch a TV drama serial called ‘The A Word’, all about the issues surrounding autism in children. I think about the funeral hymn, ‘The Day thou Gavest, Lord’, and wonder if it’s time for an alternative version, where the draughtsman puts the finishing touches to his utopian blueprint, or the technician at CERN initiates the voltage-ramping procedure that will lead to a staggering discovery.

This time last year everything was radiantly optimistic, with Boris suggesting that the threshold for higher-rate tax payers could be raised from fifty to eighty grand a year. This time next year we could be plunged into a recession, with a ban on air travel, interest rates at twelve percent and the Qatar FIFA world cup on the brink of cancellation. Only time will tell…

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Here Are The News

It’s Monday morning; the world outside is grey and damp. Strange how the large bush in the back garden flails in the wind, all the branches moving in different directions.

Half-fill the sink with cold water and add a squirt of washing-up liquid, a pleasant-smelling juice in a warm orange-red colour, supposedly flavoured with pomegranate and rosemary – not sure what the point of this is, since it’s not meant for consumption. Indeed, the label carries a hazard warning to alert people to the dangers of skin and eye contact.

I enjoy cleaning the crockery; a couple of these plates have travelled with me from Derby, where I lived in 1996.

Perhaps I’ll go to Lidl in a bit, to get some of those lovely Portuguese tarts. I wonder if they have to remain in quarantine for 14 days before we are allowed to eat them? The government has issued a series of scrambled announcements, telling people that they can travel abroad but they will be required to spend a couple of weeks in isolation upon arrival, and then a further two weeks when they return to the UK.

British holidaymakers can now go to several foreign destinations without having to self-isolate when they come back; but a curious exception is Portugal, one of the most popular travel spots. The reason for these quarantine rules is, of course, the pandemic of coronavirus which has killed thousands of people and forced the widespread closure of manufacturing and leisure facilities. In 24 years’ time we will have forgotten all about this.

Another country which is not allowing direct travel from the UK is Greece; however, Stanley Johnson managed to get over there by breaking his journey in Bulgaria. SJ is better known as the father of Boris, our Prime Minister, who has presided over a shambolic response to the pandemic. The next five years will see a huge number of books and research papers exploring the background to Covid-19 in the UK and the wayward antics of our senior politicians.

It appears that my smartphone is beginning to malfunction; the battery no longer holds its charge for an entire day, and the display enjoys going through its ornate display of coloured smoke for minutes at a stretch, instead of kicking neatly into the launch menu. These devices are usually reckoned to have a lifespan of about four years; so I’m living on borrowed time having purchased this item in 2013.

At least it helped us to find our way to the Youth Hostel in Brno, with just four percent charge left by the time we arrived, down from 19 percent as we left the train at Dolni station.

Here are the News

In just the right sedate and measured tones,
The radio announcer tells me that
The virus killed another thousand people yesterday
And the high street clatters towards annihilation
With big stores watching jobs evaporate

Without the faintest murmur of excitement
The wireless informs us that we are at war,
The city overrun with fever-stricken zombies
Bleeding from every orifice and refusing
To observe the social distance guidelines put in place

No hint of drama animates the voice
That brings to life the daily news; ‘Today’
It says, ‘A one-armed dentist carried out
Open-heart surgery on a wasp. Madonna will
Conduct the Last Night of the Proms. And a football player
Has had a haircut, but is expected
To make a full recovery. Thank God for that!’

The UK economy is starting to emerge from hibernation,
Thousands of people returning to their jobs; they
Sit in parlours and paint the nails of bored housewives,
Or cold-call nervous pensioners, trying to persuade
Them to switch their energy supply. There’s nothing quite
Like doing work that fills your soul with pride.

Forgotten at last…

It must have been difficult enough for those blokes back in 1874 when they were trying to set the type for Bohn’s Classical Library; not only did they have to cope with back-to-front letters, but nearly every page carries a footnote or three, often including Greek script. Did they receive special training in how to understand Greek, or was there an eager brigade of proof-readers ready to inspect the printed sheets and identify any mistakes?

And even the bits that are not Greek seem vaguely foreign; I have forgotten nearly everything I learned at school, but I am absolutely certain that we never encountered the term ‘zeugma’.

Once I think it would have been a vivid green, but all the years have laid grey dust in close-up constellations of the unseen mystery. I bought the book back in 1980 from Treasure Trove, a ramshackle warehouse of old books and plates and ornaments. I recall there seemed to be a lot of hardback novels by Augusta Wilson and Philip Gibbs, along with physical chemistry textbooks.

But the book I decided to purchase was Bohn’s edition of Homer’s Odyssey; I knew nothing about this work other than it was a cornerstone of Western thought, and felt that my life would be improved in some vague manner if I were to own a copy.

When we got home I started browsing through the book, and immediately found it to be hard going – partly because it was a literal translation, designed expressly for scholars with a deep interest in Classics – and also because it had not been fully cut, and several of the pages were still joined together.
Not thinking of the possible damage to the historical value of this volume, I took our mild-steel carving knife and set about opening up the pages. Alas, after this I lost interest and put the book in a shelf where it remained, unread, for years.

I recently picked it up again and came across the brief section in book IX where the crew of Ulysses’ ship arrive at the island of the lotus-eaters and are seduced by the narcotic blooms.
How many layers of meaning lie hidden in this narrative, I wondered? And then I remembered that Tennyson had written a poem all about this episode, where the sailors give voice to their loneliness and fatigue, explaining the appeal of forgetfulness. As well as the hypnotic lotus flowers, Tennyson mentions amaranth and moly, two plants with legendary medicinal properties; the restorative herb moly appears in book X of the Odyssey.

Amaranth refers to a synthetic dyestuff, but the actual pigment contained in the petals of the amaranth flower is usually a betalain, consisting of a glucose unit bonded to a base then via an azo linkage to a betalamic acid derivative. The various different functional groups attached to this structure give rise to yellow, crimson, or violet pigments. These materials are currently being studied for their antioxidant properties.

Tennyson’s sailors end their narrative by resigning to a life of ease and happiness; but in Homer, we find the men dragged back to the ships where they gradually recover their senses and smite the hoary sea with their oars, ready to encounter the Cyclops and the glorious dwelling of Circe.
Curious, then to recall that many of the pages of this book were still sealed when I bought it; for, looking through the chapters I found some ancient handwritten notes. The book had also been owned by Jean Harris, at the University of Birmingham; I wondered if she had bothered reading the book and found the unopened sections, but did not wish to damage the structure.

Covid-19 update, 01 July 2020:
UK: 313 thousand cases, 43,900 deaths
US: 2.74 million cases, 130,000 deaths

Perhaps the vaccine, when it arrives, will allow us to forget the horrors of the past, the long-term respiratory damage and neurological disorders caused by the coronavirus, the induced coma state endured by patients on ventilators and the agony of being transformed into swine during their drug-flavoured nightmares…

Context and future context

Looking through the Bohn edition of Homer’s Odyssey, we find that nearly every page carries footnotes, often to explain the difficulties in translating the original text but sometimes to post a reference to later commentaries; a few of the footnotes compare sections of Paradise Lost with the body of Homer’s work. But this overlooks the fact that Milton would seem like an alien being to the ancient Greeks.

In the same way, perhaps the reported numbers of Covid-19 cases should always carry a contextual note to explain how many infections (and fatalities) have been measured per head of population.
Some people would say that, to aid simplicity, the infection rates should always be reported as numbers per thousand head of population so that we can compare different countries. However, extracting the raw data then becomes a problem and it is not easy to identify the source of any errors in the calculated numbers.

Many years ago, my research project involved measuring the bond strength of adhesive joints, and I reported the results as being failure loads in kN, having already described the joint configuration.

Some colleagues pointed out that this was not consistent with other published reports, since most researchers in this field would quote failure loads in MPa, dividing the failure load by the surface area. This appears to be a sensible idea, since it would allow the results from different project to be compared. However, the standard lap-joint undergoes eccentric loading and differential strain, which means that the stress is highly concentrated at the edges of the bonded area.

Perhaps every research paper should be revisited after five years, to see whether the results have been supported or dismissed by the work of later project teams; my own work would carry footnotes to advise that the primer systems I studied have now been replaced by eco-friendly versions using water-borne emulsions and chlorine-free polymers. And after a few years, other commercial organisations might be able to publish their own private results, demonstrating that they had already been engaged on similar research. This information could be added to the text of the original research paper in the form of a subsequent footnote.

So it is correct that the number of Covid-19 cases needs to be placed in context, by reporting the population from which they are taken; but merging the data would impair our ability to analyse the figures and formulate an effective response.

Intu The Abyss

I arrived in Manchester in July 2001; my first week was spent in a cheap hotel not far from work. After my first day, I headed into town and treated myself to dinner at an Italian restaurant. The starter was beautiful, the main course a disappointment. And they sat me beneath the air-con, so I ended up with a cold neck.

A week later I began moving my possessions – four trips in a Toyota Avensis estate, books and records and odd bits of small furniture.
I began to explore the nearby shops; the local mall closed early each night except Thursday, so I would stock up on food – it became routine to have a steak pie and a bottle of red on Thursday nights.
Then, one evening, I spotted the glowing blue dome a few miles distant, and asked my workmates what it was. ‘The Trafford Centre’, they said, ‘A temple to shopping.’

So I went one night to explore this place, and came away dizzy with excitement after seeing the palm trees and fountains and fake-Egyptian walls and murals and statues.

Over the following years I spent a great deal of time there, wandering round, buying magazines or records, sitting with a coffee, going to the cinema. It was always busy, always cheerful, with hordes of well-dressed shoppers carrying bags and enjoying lunch.
One end of the shopping centre had been given over to small independent market-stall type shops; joss-sticks, greetings cards, a community space used by the RNID. But a few years later, these traders were expelled and replaced by John Lewis.

My manager had sent me across to Vienna for a technical liaison meeting with one of our sister companies; the trip had gone well, and I had been treated with remarkable courtesy. I decided it might be appropriate to send my hosts a thank-you card, and went to Smith’s in the Trafford Centre to look for something elegant and artistic. But they had nothing remotely suitable – this enormous store, the shelves full of trite merchandise gearing up for Christmas.

One evening we went to see a film; to kill the time we sat in the food court, a mock-up of the deck of a cruise ship with a swimming pool and  blue-and-white painted sky in which there twinkled random stars. As we waited, a section of wall descended slowly to block the entrance to the retail areas; the design matched perfectly, giving no indication that there was a corridor of shops just behind.

In November each year the Salvation Army would organise a bike run – hundreds of motorbikes (Harleys, streetfighters, scooter mods, all sorts) would assemble at the Sally Army hostel and then ride in a huge convoy to the Trafford Centre to donate toys and money for the Christmas appeal. On one occasion the event took place on 11 November, and we all fell silent for two minutes – an eerie experience, with no sound except the distant traffic.

We would arrive at the centre where the Salvation Army band would be holding a carol service; despite the fact this event took place each year, horrified shoppers would ask ‘But what are all these bikes doing here?’

In 2020 the UK retail sector was paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic and all non-essential shops (although for some habitués of the TC, Omega watches and Jaeger jackets are completely vital) were forced to close; the Trafford centre suffered badly during lockdown, and it was announced in June that the owners, Intu group, were in discussion with KPMG about the possibility of going into administration.

As usual with these immense civil engineering projects, a time capsule lies buried in the foundations of the Trafford Centre, probably designed to be dug up in 2098; however, the future of the UK economy now looks so shaky that the centre itself may end up being demolished sometime in the next ten years to make room for emergency housing or a quarantine detention camp…

When your life story becomes long and complicated, it makes sense to rely on charming fragments of the tale instead of trying to deliver a comprehensive, orderly sequence of events. The Trafford Centre; I recall sitting in a café reading ‘Empire’ film review magazine and admiring my new purchase, a one-man tent which I was planning to use that weekend on a trip to Buxton.

I set off to the campsite and met up with a few friends. Instead of putting my tent up right away, I decided to join them for a drink, and by the time I went back to my pitch the evening had become dark. I unpacked the tent and tried to work out where all the various components were meant to go; eventually I managed to get the thing to stay approximately in place and settled down for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.

The following day, recovering with the aid of polystyrene coffee, I examined my camping equipment and discovered that one of the eyelets was missing, so that the lower tent pole had nowhere to go.
Still, I survived the weekend, and returned the tent to the supplier so that they could install the missing eyelet. Moral: never go camping without checking your equipment first.

Another fragment – an extension to the Trafford Centre was opened a few years back, called Barton Village; instead of clothes and consumer goods, this section was devoted to furniture. A long, elevated corridor connected the village to the main shopping centre, but no provision had been made for any climate control in this walkway, so you would be faced with a three-minute walk in the cold.
The corridor was decorated in keeping with the rest of the Trafford centre; fake marble nymphs and urns and archways, but the original sense of proportion had been abandoned, so that the new ornaments looked like a random pastiche of classical design.

And Christmas offers the Trafford Centre a chance to become even camper than usual, with sparkling reindeer suspended from the roof and perched on the traffic islands.