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.

Corona Citadel Gazette


Ambient Coronaphobia

And at this point the integral converged; a thousand flames
Had faded out, the darkness sweeping carefully
Towards the cells where we’d been told to hide. Give us

This day our daily bleach, the sun will echo off the rocks
And keep us in the quarry. I don’t believe the virus
Knew how much it hurt, how many lives destroyed

It took away the ones we loved, but left the bodies –
Too many men to burn or bury, with sleeping smiles
And frozen gestures lying on the walls of stone

Beneath the relics of a dying sun.

Pages from the Corona Citadel Gazette

4 April 2020: The official death toll in the UK from Covid-19 is now 4313, 31 days after the first death was reported. However, it is likely that this figure will be revised upwards as further details emerge of infected people who died outside the health system and thus went unrecorded.

Around the UK, a new telecoms system called 5G – which enables higher-quality data transmission – is being rolled out at various sites, but there are rumours circulating on t’internet that these mast antennae are actually causing the symptoms of Covid-19 infection. Accordingly, disgruntled citizens are setting fire to them.

Today was scheduled to be the Grand National at Aintree, the premier event in the UK racing calendar. Like all major sporting events, the race was cancelled; however, a ‘virtual race’ has been created using performance algorithms to predict the speed and endurance of a field of top-flight horses.

The Eurovision Song Contest has also been cancelled, although it might be worth proceeding with a ‘blind’ version of this event. Each country could be invited to submit their song entry anonymously. The judging panel would then be spared the embarrassing ritual of awarding twelve points to their political allies, and instead could rate each performance on its artistic merit.

In autumn 2019, a BBC thriller called The Capture, by Ben Chanan, depicted a corrupt police system where artificial video footage is created to link villains to their actual crimes. This was explained as being a correction – the persons involved did actually commit the crimes, but the evidence was obtained by unlawful means and so not admissible.

Now that the world seems to be reliant on remote technology, we might expect a host of fictitious encounters to be concocted and broadcast. We have already seen the Prime Minister at the Cenotaph, his clumsy behaviour replaced by archive footage showing him being distinguished and statesmanlike.

Emily. Sometimes at work I have a customer who declares her name to be ‘Emily’. I am always tempted to ask ‘Floyd or Zombies?’ but most people under the age of forty would struggle to understand.

5 April 2020: To deal with the huge numbers of expected casualties from the Covid-19 pandemic, a field hospital has been assembled in the Excel exhibition centre down in London. Like much of the capital, this massive trade fair space is owned by a Middle-Eastern organisation (in this case, Abu Dhabi exhibitions) and the NHS is paying millions of pounds each month in rent.

Back in 1988, I explored the characteristics of abraded polyprop. We had two grades available for study; a rubber-toughened black plastic, and a slightly harder ethylene-propylene copolymer. Each of these was abraded in a uniform manner using a range of silicon-carbide papers, ranging from 120 mesh to 1200 mesh. The micro-roughness of each surface was then measured using a ‘Talysurf’ motorised stylus. The roughness profile (average peak height) was plotted against 1/(mesh size), and we ended up with two gentle curves which crossed over.

Perhaps the intersection was a point of optimum roughness; we found that wet abrasion (through a layer of primer solution) always gave better adhesive bonds than dry abraded plastic, regardless of the roughness. Because of this, we concluded that some aspect of the process was completely overriding the physical roughness effect.

f'(y,t) = (x+ai)(y+bi) – (x^0.372+mi)(y^0.372+ni)

Where y is the average roughness profile, a and b are the hardness values of the polymers, and m and n are the solubility parameters of the two polymers.

The centre of Manchester has fallen quiet, as pubs and restaurants and cinemas are all closed by order of HM Government. In Canal Street, some of the venues have boarded up their windows to prevent opportunist thieves. I recall seeing a picture in Via which looked exquisitely clever, and which I would love to steal if I thought I could get away with it…

The picture shows a neatly stylised face, photographed in B-and-W, with elegant shadows. Parts of this face have been amended by including round stencils which carry sections of the same photo, with volume parameters governed by the equation:

f’(r,θ) = (g+ai)(h+bi) – (g^0.815+pi)(h^0.815+qi)

Where r is the average grey scale density, g and h are the horizontal and vertical coordinates, and p and q are the length of curved lines between regions of high contrast. The image has been constructed using overlapping regions of metallic pigment film, giving an illusion of depth and shifting texture,

Holy water is the supreme vaccine? Religion is vitally important nowadays: passing your exams will get you a well-paid job, but Holy Communion will get you entry to Paradise.

DUP councillor John Carson, from Ballymena, County Antrim claimed that the coronavirus outbreak is God’s punishment on the UK government for allowing gay marriage and abortion to be legalised.

Conservative Tennessee preacher Perry Stone made exactly the same arguments, as did Iraqi Shia political leader Muqtada al-Sadr. And in Russia, huge crowds of believers queued for hours to kiss the relics of St John at St Petersburg, firmly convinced that viral diseases are unable to harm anyone inside a consecrated building.
In another story from a few years back, we heard how a primary school headteacher has been mocked on Twitter after claiming that evolution was “a theory” and there was “more evidence that the Bible is true”.

Christina Wilkinson, of St Andrew’s Church of England school in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, made the remarks in a tweet responding to London headteacher Tom Sherrington, who urged teachers to stick to science when teaching the origins of life.

“Evolution is not a fact. That’s why it’s called a theory! There’s more evidence that the Bible is true.” Christina Wilkinson, Headmistress of St Andrew’s C-of-E Primary School, Ostwaldwhistle.

Evidence? What evidence? Kids LOVE dinosaurs – and this woman wants to deprive them of the drama and excitement of the early archaeologists, and the fantasies of Jurassic Park, and the splendid treasures in the Natural History Museum…

Amid criticism and calls for her to resign on Twitter, Wilkinson issued a statement saying: “I’d like to make it clear that we teach the full national curriculum in school and that our pupils receive a fully rounded education.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, the warm weather has lured sun-worshippers to parks around the country, prompting the health secretary to threaten that outdoor exercise of any kind would be banned if people carried on flouting the rules.

‘Vanishing Lung Syndrome’ by Miroslav Holub

(Text copied from ‘poetic orphanage’ on the snarkattack-gracenotes blog: poem published by Faber and Faber, 1990)

Once in a while somebody fights for breath.
He stops, getting in everyone’s way.
The crowd flows around, muttering
about the flow of crowds,
but he just fights for breath.

Inside there may be growing
a sea monster within a sea monster,
a black, talking bird,
a raven Nevermore that
can’t find a bust of Athena
to perch on and so just grows
like a bullous emphysema with cyst development,
fibrous masses and lung hypertension.

Inside there may be growing
a huge muteness of fairy tales,
the wood-block baby that gobbles up everything,
father, mother, flock of sheep,
dead-end road among fields,
screeching wagon and horse,
I’ve eaten them all and now I’ll eat you,
while scintigraphy shows
a disappearance of perfusion, and angiography
shows remnants of arterial branches
without the capillary phase.

Inside there may be growing
an abandoned room,
bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopaedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place,

lost in the landscape
where only surgeons
write poems.

Translated from Czech by David Young and Dana Habova

5 April 2020: Today’s figures reveal that a further 621 people have died from coronavirus in the past 24 hours. And the Scottish chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, has been fiercely warning members of the public not to make any unnecessary journeys or go out in public without good reason.

Meanwhile, Calderwood decided to drive over to check on her second home in Fife, and has been warned by police against such conduct. Oddly enough, les gendarmes didn’t slap her with a sixty-quid fine like they would with anybody else caught doing the same thing.

Corona City Chronicles

Corona city Chronicles

An angry mob descends upon
The supermarket; it’s every woman for herself
Eager to collect
She pulls the packets and the tins
That represent security, until at last
The powder-coated shelf begins to yawn
With unaccustomed emptiness.

With elegant restraint, this parasite
Brings into play the polished enzyme fangs
That fill with dryness each infected cell
Until at last the shelves are bare
And membranes find there’s nothing left to sell.

The supermarket keeps a chart of
Throbbing coloured lines and numbered boxes
On the wall; the manager is quietly assured
That competition will not be allowed
To interfere. We must proceed, organic growth
And structured desecration of the host
Until the angry mob obeys the call.

Dennison Arkwell, ‘Unseen Words’

The three works by Arkwell which make up this show were created in 2016-17 for the Hamburg Science Festival, and take as their theme the aesthetic possibilities of microbiology.

Agar nutrient plates were prepared by depositing a pattern of selective preservative compounds before seeding them with dust collected from historical printed volumes. The books were picked at random from the repair catalogue at Rylands library, and a vacuum-brush with pleated polyester filter units to retain the particles of forgotten organic material.

In the piece ‘System Nine’ we find seven icons arranged about the three petri dishes – a portrait of the explorer, enlarged pictures of the cultivated microbes harvested from his books, a DNA sequence slide and some FTIR and NMR spectra for the biocidal preservatives.

‘Voices’ is a series of narratives created by schoolchildren. They were given pictures of the petri dish assemblies and invited to speculate on what the images might actually represent. Proposed identities ranged from remote planets and moons, to impact sites and the eggs of exotic insects.

‘Floating Sundials’ depicts an artificial lily-pond with petri dishes floating on the water; an extended spine juts from each one, its shadow giving a dishonest and untrustworthy measure of time.

Under the Counter Culture immersive art installation opens its doors

Corona City Chronicles
21 March 2020: It’s Saturday morning – normally I would be waking up in Andy’s spare room ready to walk across Manchester (we are required to carry out one Saturday shift from 8.00 to 4.00 every fourth week).
But today am at home, because the world is in the grip of Covid-19, a coronavirus first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The outbreak turned into an epidemic, Chinese authorities banned travel and shut down industry and leisure facilities.
Then cases began appearing in Europe and the UK, people started panic-buying groceries and leaving supermarket shelves completely bare.
This virus is severe towards anybody with underlying health problems – and since I was diagnosed five years ago with emphysema, following a chest x-ray, I have been allowed to work from home using a Surface Pro laptop to conduct webchat enquiries.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (!) has been relentlessly cheerful and optimistic but last night he caved in and ordered the closure of pubs, cinemas, nightclubs and restaurants in order to slow the spread of the virus.
Normally I would wake up at Andy’s, make us each a cup of tea and watch the news before going out to work. The city was always so peaceful in the early morning light. The news programme we watched would include a film review by Mark Kermode, which Andy hated (‘What gives him the right to tell us whether a film is good or not?’) so the nationwide closure of picture houses has one good effect, at least.

Outside, it’s a dull grey morning – the daffodils came up in the garden about three weeks ago, but only two of them have flowered. Very odd. Usually we have four bunches, each with five or six blooms. Last year I photographed them, and noticed that the flowers had appeared four weeks earlier than the same plants the previous year.
Back in July 2018, I went with Paul down to South Wales to visit Malcolm, who I hadn’t seen for about sixteen years. We spent a very enjoyable weekend visiting the beach, St David’s, and the Dylan Thomas boathouse in Laugharne.
But nowadays, to cheer us all up in this state of quarantine, the BBC ended the news broadcast with a clip of Cerys Matthews reading from ‘Under Milk Wood’.
Malcolm passed away in May 2019, so this audio clip brought bittersweet memories.
And today is World Poetry Day, an event that has been pushed into the background by the unfolding global drama. On his wordpress blog, Peter Coles posted Byron’s verse about Solitude.

22 March 2020: Mothering Sunday – normally you would treat your mum to a meal out at a restaurant and buy her some flowers and a big box of chocolates.
However, since the UK is now in a state of virus lockdown, socialising is prohibited. Pubs are closed and some restaurants are trying to survive on take-away business. And a real gesture of affection would be to give your mother some toilet rolls and liquid soap, since these items have been stripped from the shelves during the panic.
Yesterday I spent about eight hours working from home. Around me were a few small shelves, loaded with the books I have collected over the years and not touched for a long time…Women in Love, Nancy Cunard, Howard’s End, Iron John, Paradise Lost, The Secret History etc.

Two weeks ago, everything in the UK was fairly relaxed. So what if other countries in Europe were closing schools and cancelling sporting fixtures? We don’t need to panic – Johnny Foreigner might overreact when a few elderly folk succumb to the flu, but we are made of sterner stuff.
So Boris decided to announce that schools and universities would remain open, and major sporting occasions would go ahead as planned. The Cheltenham Racing Festival attracted huge crowds, and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Manchester was allowed to take place, despite nearly every other city in the world agreeing to suspend celebrations.
But now, everything is quiet.
During the past thirty years I’ve had several spells of unemployment when I have been forced to remain indoors, unable to socialise due to lack of funds.
And I wonder if that experience has prepared me to cope with this programme of isolation that we’re all having to endure?
The latest advice from the government is now that people should avoid socialising – don’t go out, don’t go to the park, don’t go shopping.
I very rarely make use of my Spiriva inhaler, but now that we are all in lockdown I have requested some capsules – the active ingredient, tiotropium bromide, is 86p per dose in the UK but 13 dollars in the US.

23 March 2020: Yesterday, we tidied the spare bedroom for me to use as an office when working from home. I moved the bookcase and noticed a 10p piece, so I picked it up, then carried on vacuuming.
Later on I went out for a walk, keeping a safe two metres between me and the couple who were out walking their dogs. Lovely sunny evening, birdsong, vast open fields of the Chat Moss where the local council is planning to permit the building of 1600 new homes.
I took the coin from my pocket and found it was actually Icelandic kroner, left over from Paul’s trip to Canada four years ago.
Thirty-five years ago on March 23 I went to a concert in London; walking up the hill towards the tube station I bumped into my housemate Richard. ‘Here’ he said, offering me his one-day travelcard.
At the QEH I saw the Orpheus Chamber Choir performing Schubert 5 and the Szymanowski Stabat Mater. And then I went for a drink and bumped into Ray at the King’s Arms.

24 March 2020: Yesterday I was on a webchat with an irate customer. Throughout the UK people are being hospitalised, there are businesses closing down and workers losing their jobs. But my irate customer was annoyed because his pensions were being wrongly taxed – he had an income of fifty-three thousand pounds a year from pensions.
Meanwhile my boss rang me to ask if everything was okay. ‘Are you living with your elderly mother?’ he asked.
No, I said: my mother died many years ago. I wonder if my personnel file at work contains any other outlandish rumours?

26 March 2020: Hurrah! I’m on holiday! When I booked this time off a few months ago I was planning to go to Cornwall. But now the UK is in lockdown – Boris has ordered people to remain indoors at all times except when shopping for essentials, or exercising or travelling to work in the care industries.
While tidying the spare bedroom I came across some long-forgotten items, including my tape cassette of Strauss.
Back in 1990 I travelled to a technical meeting at an institute in Melton, and I listened to the Rosenkavalier Suite about five times during the three train journeys.
The journey home didn’t look too promising – according to the timetable, I was facing a wait of forty minutes at one station and one hour at the other. However, it turned out that most of the trains were running late, so in the end I had to wait only five minutes at each.

“I’ve danced with a boy, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
But not too recently, one hopes – for it was announced on the news that Prince Charles has been diagnosed with Coronavirus. This nanoscopic organism has wrought havoc across the world.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year; Glastonbury has been cancelled; decisions are awaited on the Proms and Wimbledon.
Huge numbers of people have been hospitalised due to the virus, and many if them need to be hooked up to a ventilator to support breathing. Because there is now a nationwide shortage of these units, Boris has announced that Dyson (celebrated designer of vacuum-cleaners and hairdryers) will be awarded a contract to supply thousands of ventilators.
However, the government has snubbed offers from existing manufacturers of the units, who could increase production to help save lives.

28 March 2002: On Thursday evening it was announced that PM Boris has tested positive for Covid-19 and is now self-isolating in Downing Street. Bojo is famous for his enthusiastic support for Brexit.
Meanwhile the hated EU has apparently sent an e-mail message to all member states – including the UK – inviting them to join a procurement scheme for medical supplies including the ventilator units.
‘I see no ships.’
The UK claimed that we had never received this message, although the EU said that UK officials had been present at many of the planning meetings where this scheme was discussed.
This morning I shall exercise by trying a few kata (wonder if I can remember the moves?) and listening to Prokoviev Quartet no.2, filled with Baltic folk tunes and middle-Eastern atmosphere.
Outside I can see the two lonely daffodil blooms among their green shoots, which have now been out for five weeks. Very strange. But these are strange times, with the world being overrun by an exotic virus which may (or may not) have originated in a snake which swallowed an infected bat (or the other way round) before ending up in a tasty street-food casserole somewhere in a market in Wuhan.
Chinese authorities responded by blaming the doctors and accusing them of spreading false news, before eventually placing everybody under house arrest and closing down factories (great for air quality readings).
Meanwhile in the UK we have been ‘advised’ to avoid unnecessary travel , but the Brits have never enjoyed being told what to do, and we find people still having parties, playing football and going out for a family barbecue on the moors. A huge moorland blaze near Belmont led to Lancashire and Manchester fire crews being called out. So much for following advice…

29 March 2020: This morning on the Andrew Marr show we had Matt Lucas telling us about a project to supply food directly to NHS key workers, since nurses find the supermarket shelves empty when they finish their shifts. I recall seeing Matt L onstage in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ at the Lowry several years ago.
And on Russian TV a studio journalist interviewed the Coronavirus itself – a person wearing a huge Residents-type fake head. Which I thought at first was their Eurovision Song Contest entry.
And when it was announced that Boris had been tested positive for Covid, we saw news footage of Dominic Cummings – mad scientist and ruthless political puppeteer – scurrying clumsily away from Downing Street. A few weeks ago Cummings gave a policy briefing and explained the ‘herd immunity’ theory that he claimed would safeguard the UK economy.
Shocked attendees reported later that his speech carried the message that ‘…if some pensioners die, too bad.’
Although the UK is still paralysed by the Coronavirus, we are still viewing and hearing media output based on a world where everybody is still free to travel, meet and mingle without any restrictions.
Popular TV serials like Corrie and Emmerdale routinely feature scenes in pubs and cafes with close gatherings. And talent show programmes have become a bit grim and lifeless now that they no longer have a studio audience to provide hysterical applause to the performers; so they have started broadcasting old episodes under the guise of ‘best of’ compilations.
One show where solitude is perfectly normal is ‘Desert Island Discs’ which today featured Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist). When he introduced one of his choices as being by ‘the original rock chick’ I was expecting him to play Suzi Quatro, but it turned out to be Chrissie Hynde, performing ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’.
And I remembered when I lived in a children’s home, and on my little transistor radio we heard Kid Jensen telling us about an amazing new band called the Pretenders and their hit single ‘Brass in Pocket’.
If I could have turned to my housemates and told them that forty years from now, this group’s music will be on Radio Four they would have howled with laughter.

Hawarden, December

And when at last he learned to fly
The ideas in his brain became a fixed array
Of structured principles and abstract calculus;
Strict rules marked out on intersecting planes,
No spaces left between the blocks to be contaminated. 

On a concrete altar cracked with weeds, a fighter jet
Stands guard. The tragic ruins of technology, old man
Ready to throw a punch or two, forgetting
That his glory days are long behind. We

Watch the Beluga cargo plane, a floating warehouse
Bearing gifts and raising hopes. If you stare too long
At this colossal beast so far away,
It makes the rest of the world look vaguely wrong
With proportions and perspective out of joint;

The matrix is infected, unable to support
The magic ruins of psychology. Meanwhile inside the hold
car-sized bags of graphene dust
(Total weight; a kilogram or two) are on their way
Like scales from the skin of a cosmic whale, a

Honeycomb that would be black if only
There was some form of light that it could drink. Today,
As on so many other days, we
Take the boundaries and leave behind the grains.


Media Storage Garments

Fabric and structure convey meaning and texture.
In 2010, I was dismissed from my job after three months. The agency found me another post, so I bought a new shirt from BHS, which I wore to meet Andy at the fountain outside the Trafford Centre. This might be viscosity…

In 2008, I went to my father’s funeral and while travelling back to Manchester I called in at a charity shop and bought another shirt in dark Italian stripes. Here we see the density…

In 2004 I went to the Cropredy Folk festival and found myself burning in the sun; my bike luggage had room only for a few garments, so I had taken tee-shirts. To protect my marble limbs I went to a charity shop in Banbury and purchased a long-sleeved shirt in a deafening shade of blue. Serene, like conductivity…

In 2016 I attended a seminar organised by, and for, the UK community of LGBT scientists and engineers. To ensure I looked perfectly delicious I wore a cotton-and-silk shirt with double cuffs, purchased a year earlier from a charity shop in Leeds. The stripes diffract the zeta potential of pigment grains…

In 1994, two years before I had ever ridden a motorbike, I decided to buy a leather jacket (from Oasis, the hippy emporium) and turn myself into a fragment of Thom Gunn’s slow-grained narrative.
And in 1998 I bleached my black denim jacket; the badges remind me of a forgotten time. My wardrobe is a library of dreams, a past I struggle to describe…

Make the Quartet – identify three companion pieces which are similar to the item; allow the presence of these extra items to highlight the individual characteristics of the first piece.
Write the Quartet – assemble the four ideas and identify the impact that they will have.
Find the Quartet – explore the individual item and identify four aspects of its construction or performance.
Play the Quartet – enact the performance and observe the outcome of the performance.
Each idea can be broken down into four conflicting aspects.
The environment within which these ideas operate will consist of four conflicting themes or potential influences, a shell which permits or restricts or activates the functions of the idea.

Inner shell: Eyes, Horns, Flowers and Chains (alternative suits for Tarot)
Outer shell: Red, Blue, Purple, Green.

Consider the four reactor vessels; for many years they were hidden inside a concrete shed, but when the firm had been sold and the site was undergoing demolition, they were revealed. Each tank is constructed from steel with a protective epoxy coating.

There are pipes leading to these chambers; some pipes carry steam, to heat the contents, some convey white spirit or xylene or pentoxone. The access port at the top of each vessel is where the solid ingredients – iso-phthalic acid, trimellitic anhydride, maleic anhydride, trimethylol propane, and bisphenol-A – were tumbled in, ready to be transformed.

There are probes to monitor the temperature and pH, and traps to extract water and solvents. The lads on the factory floor will periodically take samples and check these to identify the level of unreacted products. No matter how carefully we make the resin, there will always remain a small amount of unreacted ingredients. Perhaps we must recognize that every process reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Of course, we rely on the thermocouples and porous electrodes to accurately register the physical properties of the reaction mixture, and we rely on the production personnel to correctly identify and weigh the basic materials. MEK (methyl ethyl ketone) is not the same as MEKO (methyl ethyl ketoxime) and a kilogram does not consist of one hundred grams.
We can consider the alkyd resin; the four properties of the quartet would be viscosity, acid value, drying time, and solids content. The four aspects of the environment would be ease of processing, hardness, flexibility and cost.

The alkyd would become part of one quartet consisting of different kinds of alkyd resin (each of which may or may not be able to serve as a replacement material) and also part of another quartet with three completely different organic polymer binders – epoxy ester, polyurethane, acrylic resin. During these explorations we may unearth economies of scope and economies of scale.

Vessel 1, codename: Jack Reid, resin system: unsaturated polyester
Vessel 2, codename: Casa Moda, resin system: vinyl chloride

Vessel 3, codename: Burton, resin system: styrenated alkyd
Vessel 4, codename: Autograph, resin system: cellulose acetate-butyrate

Viscosity and density can never occupy
A single point, we try to make them
Land within a tolerable field. And then I realise that
Good enough is good enough for me.

Events and principles fall neatly
Into quantum themes; opposing pairs
Surrender and prevail in turn, while
Awareness gathers pace to split
Whatever darkness yet remains – a train
Can never be on time.


Art Formation Status

In the darkened corridor with purple walls I tried to make some notes about the artworks on display; the shuddering electronic landscapes of ‘Desire’ and the laboratory-type atmosphere of ‘Deception’, the ideas of memory and the way it reminded me of the weird structures we see in the electron microscope where everything is jagged and luminous.


…as an artist you have to, in a sense, set a trap by which you hope to trap the living fact alive.”
(David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, rev 1987: Thames and Hudson)

This book consists of 208 pages and includes 146 illustrations. Back in ’75 it would have been an expensive undertaking to have colour plates in a textbook, which might explain the decision to use only B&W pictures. However, the illustrations are meant to hint at the pictures discussed in the text; the book is written for people who are already familiar with Bacon’s life and work, and there is no benefit in spending money on colour prints when these images can be viewed elsewhere.
The frontspiece does not even mention the fact that all the illustrations are monochrome.

Does the absence of colour diminish the pictures, or does it convert each image into something new – an alternative version of an established idea? If a young reader spent hours reading this book and exploring the illustrations, they would develop a certain kind of understanding of who Bacon was and how his pictures looked. When that youngster then finds themselves on a school trip to the Tate, and for the first time encounters the actual paintings, grand and colourful, their impressions will be a mixture of the familiar and the shocking.

The back cover of the book carries a brief summary of the project – the edited interviews and resulting profile of the artist. Printed in a subtle metallic pink-bronze colour, design attributed to Martin Andersen. Apart from this, no other trace of colour appears anywhere in the book, a defiantly dull monolith of explanation.

Quotes from the interviews:
And that early painting in the Tate Gallery of Eric Hall in which his suit looks immaculate is painted with dust. Actually there is no paint at all on the suit apart from a very thin grey wash on which I put dust from the floor.” (Interview 9)
I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning through our own existence. We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really.” (Interview 5)

Information management: information is the stuff about stuff, not the things or goods or services or ideas but the aspects which enable us to define the things and establish their significance and specify their location and catalogue their properties.
Information must be generated, stored, retrieved, transmitted, received, decoded and acted upon. Each of these processes can be impaired or corrupted, accidentally or by design. Too much information is as bad as not enough. A blizzard of facts and explanatory footnotes, each of them becoming more and more peripheral to the subject, will prevent us from taking the required action.

The reproduction of ‘Triptych 1986-7’ is a piece of information, and the fact that this is a B-&-W image is another piece of information, and the fact that there exists an original version in coloured oil-paint is yet another piece of information. Further elements of information exist in the identity of the sitter and the appearance of cricket-pads. As more facts are uncovered or included, we can establish the hierarchy of Data-Capta-Information-Awareness-Knowledge-Understanding-Wisdom.

Bacon’s work seems almost entirely concerned with the human form, and the avalanche of psychological torment that he perceived in the world at large. In contrast to this we have Lowry, whose paintings are populated by crowds of anonymous figures drifting in unison to a football match or a warehouse mill. Towering over the people are the stern factory chimneys, pinned against a dull white sky and terracotta streets. Francis Bacon slashed the painted sheet; he never made a sculpted heart that floated in a tank, forever being chased in circles by its own reflected self.

Lowry’s works are all pencil, charcoal or oils; his colour palette seems to be mainly black, white and red, and he could never imagine that one day a gallery and theatre complex in Salford would bear his name.
At the Lowry Arts Centre we had a recent exhibition called ‘The State of Us’ which included video installations, vintage editions of Marvel comic magazines, and sculptures where synthetic hearts or artificial limbs sleep in flasks of clear liquid. Other works include ‘Until I Die’, a set of chandeliers which make use of (originally real) human blood to generate electricity, and ‘The Tides Within Us’, a set of enigmatic images in black and grey, with infinitely fine strands of white creating depth and texture.


(This is the updated and corrected version of an article first printed in ‘Spectrum’) 

Things were different for a gay science student in the eighties. Firstly, we had the hangover from the previous thirty years, when the brand image of science was developed – the middle-aged white man in a white labcoat, with immaculate hair, supervising space missions or telling housewives which laundry powder they should use.

Then we had the developing AIDS crisis: thousands of gay men were being diagnosed with this alarming new disease for which no safe treatment existed. The spread of AIDS provoked acres of hostile newsprint, and forced mortgage and pension advisors to request detailed, intimate personal data from their customers.

And it was also common for research projects to be funded by defence contractors or the nuclear industry, who – it was generally assumed – barred gay employees for security reasons.

I recall our Careers Tutor, during our final year, giving us a run-down of what to expect from the world of work: “Remember, the chemical industry is a rather conservative place” he said. “It will not help your job prospects if you display any unconventional attitudes.”
This left me thinking that I should carefully avoid any disclosure of my personal life, which meant that I had some very elaborate and stilted conversations with my work colleagues over the next few years.

Of course, one of the most famous gay people in the scientific arena was Alan Turing, the eccentric mathematician who had helped establish the codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park. Convicted of gross indecency in 1952, he was sentenced to hormone treatment therapy and died of cyanide poisoning two years later.
In 2012, Britain hosted the Olympic Games; and the ceremonial torch was handed over in Sackville Park, above the bronze statue of Alan Turing, on the centenary of his birth.

Then, two years later in 2014, a report was published by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) entitled ‘Improving Diversity in STEM’. This report highlighted the shortage of skilled scientists in the UK, and the economic repercussions of failing to maintain our technical prowess. The report mentioned the standard perception of ‘science’ as being white and male; and set out projects to recruit more women, disabled candidates, and ethnic minority applicants.
But in this report, I was unable to spot a single reference to sexual orientation or LGBT issues. Perhaps the authors did not believe that LGBT employees were at any disadvantage in building a successful career in science.

The world is now a different place; and this became obvious when the first LGBT STEMinar was held at the University of Sheffield in 2016.
Organised and hosted by Beth Montague-Hellen, Professor David Smith and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, it featured a range of presentations covering environmental science, astrophysics, psychology, materials science and medical research, together with a poster session. We also had lunch and a drinks reception, where you could openly discuss professional and home life, without having to worry about committing career suicide by blurting out that yes, you live with a partner and no, they’re not of the opposite sex.

The seminar was expertly reviewed by Alex Bond:

Further events were held in 2017 (Sheffield), 2018 (York) and 2019 (London). And, to offer support and encouragement to aspiring young scientists, several professional bodies have come on board to promote the events, including the RSC, RAS, AWE, IoP, RSB, BES and NPL, together with the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society.

Hopefully now the old ideas are gradually being swept aside, and people will begin to recognise that LGBT people are able to make a valuable contribution to science and engineering. Signs are also emerging that employers consider diversity as an asset, not a weakness, in their workforce. However, it is worth noting that at CERN – a project with thousands of staff, all brilliant scientists – the on-site LGBT social group has seen their posters defaced with offensive graffiti. It appears that work still needs to be done to achieve acceptance…

General information about the issues of LGBT diversity in STEM employment can be found on Professor Dave’s Youtube channel:

There are also dedicated professional networking bodies:

Update: This report from the RSC (2018) represents a minor improvement on the earlier publication; however, it manages to mention ‘sexual orientation’ six times without any indication that LGBT individuals actually work in the chemical industry.

Yellow Bulldog Bondage


Of course, you must be aware that
Forty-six percent of crisp-bags
Are made from laminated polyprop.
And, because it was unusually mild
For February, the trains were full
Of young men wearing shorts; their
Firm and hairy strides consumed the street
Leaving me exuberant and dizzy and so very short of breath.

This is a miniature foldback clip; the standard versions are marketed under the name ‘Bulldog Clips’ and we jokingly referred to the smaller items as Puppy Clips. Back in the day they were available in black, black or black; but even if we had been able to procure them in a set of funky bright shades, it would have made little difference. This washed-out yellow makes me think of nickel titanate, the mineral used to extend the vivid and expensive organic pigments found in high-grade coatings.

We used the clips – dozens, hundreds of them – to secure adhesive joints between small strips of metal and plastic, holding everything in place while the adhesive layer set. Often, this setting process would be carried out in an oven (65 degrees for the plastics, 160 degrees for the metals) so the clips would have ended up being a dirty brown colour anyway.

My speciality was sticking polyprop, which, as every schoolboy knows, is impossible to bond using structural adhesives. So I carried out a set of experiments and stumbled upon a method using a commercial primer solution and a wet-abrasion stage to activate the plastic surface. A version of this work had been done before in the seventies by Lerchenthal; for some reason it was never exploited by industrial production managers. Perhaps the technical staff were too busy reciting the mantra ‘It is impossible to bond PP – it is impossible to bond PP…’ to bother checking the results of his research.

The results from my work indicated that if you abrade the polyprop while it is wet with a dilute primer solution, you end up with a transformed material which can form strong durable bonds to most standard adhesive materials. Most of the research was carried out using two-pack amine-cured epoxy, with the joints (firmly held together with cute little puppy clips) being placed in an oven at 65 degrees.

When the epoxy base and activator components react together, it is possible that they may generate a brief temperature rise, causing the plastic to melt. Or it may simply be the force of the spring steel clips is enough to drive the glass beads into the plastic. Either way, we found that after testing the joint strength and inspecting the failed polymer surface, there were numerous circular artefacts, corresponding to the 100-micron ballotini that we added to regulate the glue-line thickness.

nder a microscope, it was impossible to decide if these were glass beads embedded in the plastic surface, or if they were spherical voids left behind after removal of the beads. I would spend ten or fifteen minutes in a trance, gazing at these peculiar moonscapes and the constellation of gleaming discs.

Because the ballotini have sunk into the plastic surface we cannot be sure that the adhesive film is 100 microns thick.

The puppy clips with their charred crust of glue are probably sitting in a box somewhere underneath a dusty lab bench, waiting for a young research chemist to embark on a project which needs things to be held in place. Meanwhile, I now have only one clip, a watery yellow item, which I use to close my half-eaten bag of crisps until the next tea-break session at work

Farewell, Universal Debit



When You are Old, by W B Yeats 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
                                                      William Butler Yeats

 Power Station Blues

This time last year, as I recall
I found myself intensely unemployed;
Jobless, worthless, a burden on the state

My coordinator issued me
With rancid lumps of regulated cash
Called Universal Credit – don’t worry,

She said; you’ll be allowed to pay it back
When you find work, at fifty pounds a week.

But now I have a job, a purpose, destiny;
I make my way with all the other citizen-units
To the power station where
Each of us has a dedicated lever to pull
And a set of dials to monitor. It keeps

Us busy throughout the day, but
Makes no difference to the world at large.
One day I will be fortunate enough
To own a small apartment; the walls will hang with
Sunflower and power station prints. The electricity will

Function perfectly from six ‘til ten.
And I shall count myself the happiest of men.


n Flagpoles outside the X-Y Hotel

The two of Wands, the three of Wands, the four of Wands, the five of Wands. Does the flag itself convey information? Do the length of the flagpole and the angle of elevation signify anything?
Consider the attributes or characteristics of the ‘object’: product, service or idea. How would these aspects be affected if the object was suddenly to become:

Significantly larger? Significantly smaller?
More numerous? Less readily available?
Durable? Fragile?
A different colour? A different shape?

Does the environment support the functions of the object, or does it challenge and inhibit those functions? Consider the spectrum of knowledge and information management:

Data – Capta – Knowledge – Information

Bits of information that are present – the Abraxas is the sum total of all things and ideas. It is not possible to process this mass of experience without performing a sequence of filter operations to render selected objects accessible and manageable.
The absence, the distorted, the corrupted, the unaware. The void which is not pure or innocent, but which has been erected for reasons which may be good or ill, to inhibit the retrieval or transmission of information.
This process may be motivated by a range of factors, which themselves can be based on flawed information, inaccurate data or conscious or subconscious bias.

Prevailing systemic assumptions:
Ideas which have been accepted for many years with no attempt made to understand their context or origins, or whether the objectives of the organisation are effectively served by preserving these cultural norms.

There are various forms of negative information flow:
Information which is held by the senior ranks of the organisation; the lower ranks are not allowed access to this information, nor are they expected to know that the information itself exists.

Information held by the senior ranks, but which cannot be disclosed to the lower ranks although they may become aware via unofficial channels that this (or similar) information can sometimes be obtained, stored, and used.

Information which is held by the senior ranks but which has been acquired by unethical or illegal means and so cannot be acted upon without damaging the firm’s reputation or incriminating the source.

Information which is held by the senior ranks and which is officially designated as confidential but which may be leaked to the lower ranks in order to foster mistrust and resentment.

Information which is held by the senior ranks and is deliberately withheld from the lower ranks in order to restrict their professional capacity.

Information which is held by the senior ranks and is officially meant to be made available to the lower ranks (in order to enable them to perform their duties correctly) but which is selectively withheld in order to foster political loyalty among favoured employees.

Information which is held by the lower ranks but which is concealed from the senior ranks for malicious reasons, in order to damage the commercial effectiveness of the organisation.

Information which is held by the lower ranks but which is concealed from the senior ranks for reasons of welfare, in order to protect some employees who might otherwise be victimised.

Information which is held by the lower ranks and is submitted for consideration as part of their job, but which is dismissed by the senior ranks as being irrelevant or worthless.

Information which is freely available and relevant to the organisation, but which has not yet been brought to the attention of the lower ranks or the senior ranks.

Information which is inaccurate or untrue but which is selectively broadcast in order to damage the reputation of particular individuals or agencies.

Information which is widely known and regarded as being true, but which is actually incorrect – urban myths in the grand scheme, company legend on the local scale. This information is difficult to challenge or displace because it has the tacit approval of the senior ranks.

There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns and true lies and untrue facts and fake news.

Unstable Power Blues

This time next year, with any luck
We’ll find each other waiting in the rain
Reflected trees, coordinates of half-remembered lines
And the shadow of Radium Street caught on an X-Ray slide. 

A frenzied chart of things to do and smiles to fake
Will occupy the northern wall; beneath the bridge
A stranger dreams of food and drink, but
Not too much. The rain still falls, each drop 

Directed at the centre of the triple ring
That breaks the tree and shakes the sun’s
Quicksilver glare that radiates inside, while a page
orn from a street-map tells us where we need to be.




LGBT Engineers – Website discussion

In May 2014 the Engineer Website carried an article entitled ‘Why engineering must start addressing its sexuality issue’ by Stephen Harris, in which he discussed the lack of information about LGBT employees in the industry.
The article included reference to the fact that happy, secure employees will deliver a better performance in the workplace, and said that if the engineering sector is not seen as explicitly supportive, then firms stand to miss out on talented graduate recruits.
A series of responses were posted, some anonymous, by members of the association. One correspondent, called ‘Jacob’ submitted a wonderful reply in a sort of incoherent chav-speak; indeed, his narrative was so clumsy that I suspected it may have been a spoof. I have added questioning notes (in italic) to various sections of his diatribe…

Jacob 16th May 2014 at 3:35 pm

“This smacks of trendy tokenism, forcing the LGBT agenda in to every corner of our lives.
“Firstly, the how I’ll be treated argument weighs very little. It does NOT matter what your sexuality is, what matters is your work output.
[Note: if your work output was the only important factor, then workplace nepotism wouldn’t be a problem. There are numerous instances of incompetent staff being supported by family members on their rise through the company’s ranks. Likewise, it is possible that personal hostility by senior members of staff could hamper the career progress of gay employees, even if their performance at work was outstanding]

“I’ve worked with many strange people whom can only be described as ‘creatures’. They would probably not be tolerated in other industries, let alone accepted, but have found a ‘home’ in engineering because they were so good at their jobs.
“Think back to the geeky school kid, with heavy rimmed glasses, who was bullied by all at school. That guy is as likely as not a respected engineer now.
[Note: how many respected engineers would admit to having been bullied at school, and was Jacob one of them? And again, it is assumed that engineers are exclusively male]

“This brings me to the second point. The recruitment pool argument weighs very little. Just as the school nerds tend towards engineering, those of the LBGT community tend towards the arts.
[Any evidence? This is the type of comment you might expect to see in the Sunday People in 1978, as part of a sensational expos
é called ‘The Twilight World of The Homosexual’]

“No disproportionate amount of group hugging will change that. And it amounts to an awful lot of effort for very few people just so a company can claim it is fluffy.
[Perhaps the diversity initiatives carried out by European and US firms have shown an impressive financial return that wouldn’t have otherwise been realised]

“If an effort has to be made, wouldn’t those resources be better spent addressing the social inadequacies of some existing employees? As good communication is the foundation of any business with serious aspirations.
“This might even help get more women into the sector by shedding the dull geek image.
[But he has just defended the dull geeks as being natural born engineers, and said that it doesn’t matter what you look like so long as you are good at your job]

“Lastly, the open sexuality argument weighs very little. A company’s primary responsibility is to seek a profit for the shareholders and secure employment for ALL its employees.
[No, a company’s primary responsibility is to maximise profit for shareholders by any and all legal means. The welfare and security of workers are tiresome burdens which can be overcome by increased use of advanced technology]

“And this isn’t about LBGT staff in a foreign branch feeling secure, where the likelihood of the laws of that country proscribes said sexuality. That company has to follow the laws of the land it operates in, or nobody will work there. Instructing engineers to accept LGBT colleagues is not going to change that.
“It provides the best workplace for all by not concerning itself with its employee’s personal lives, which is pretty creepy anyway.
[The birth of a child, or a major wedding anniversary, or a bereavement; these are aspects of employees’ private lives which have an impact on their performance at work, and need to be shared. If a company maintains a stolid indifference to pastoral welfare, then the workers may feel neglected and will start looking for jobs elsewhere]

“So what have we learnt?
“-Bullying bosses/colleagues are everywhere and at every level, pushing you to a result is their job. They tolerate/accept you on performance.
[I am not sure that any handbook of business studies would advocate bullying as a normal or productive means of getting results. Perhaps it is true that bullying bosses are everywhere; that wold help explain why there is such a high level of staff turnover in engineering]

“-A return from the recruitment pool is unlikely to justify the effort.
“-Private lives are called private for good reasons.
As for the right thing to do, that is the justification for saying tolerating is no longer enough, you must now accept (like).

[Note: The writer seems to find a clear distinction between the world of engineering and ‘the arts’. Surely part of good engineering practice involves component design, using fuel and materials in the most efficient manner possible. This strikes me as being an artistic endeavour – weaving together technical skill and imagination to obtain a superior result.

And when I read comments like these, I wonder if some people turn to careers in engineering because it offers a haven from the messy world of human relationships. People are irrational, uncoordinated, and prone to err; but machines are elegant and reliable.

Other comments made on the message board include remarks such as ‘We should appoint staff on the basis of technical ability, not because of sexuality or ethnic background. This ‘technical ability’ which they so revere does not appear by magic; youngsters are constantly exposed to a bewildering network of influences – parents, teachers, friends. If your dad is an engineer and helps you build model railways and gets you a holiday job in his company’s office, then you might end up having the natural abilities and skills desired by manufacturing firms]