Farewell, Odeon


This is the Manchester Odeon, a lovely and possibly listed building where I went to spend many happy hours watching mainstream Hollywood movies.

Journal Entries, June 1996:
Sat 15: Last night went to Metro Cinema to see ‘Richard III’. Today – eye test at 10.30. Wrote to Di and Ade.
Mon 17: Yesterday went to Darley Park, got sunburnt. Tonight went to Duncan in Nott’m.
In years to come, every time I read ‘The Secret History’ it will remind me of this shabby house and my big room, and the kitchen with drawers that don’t fit, and my alcoholic landlord who believes that eating grapefruit will fend off cancer, and the kleptomaniac lodger Iona who always acts stoned but isn’t. 

Tue 18: Typed out car receipt for Peter (in the end he decided not to buy my car from me). At work they’ve recruited some dizzy bitch who says ‘Surely with a PhD you can easily get a job anywhere.’
Wed 19: Guess what? I’m drunk! Wheee! On Sunday went jogging for 20 mins, last night 25 mins, tonight the same. Tonight I ran round Darley Park and then went to the Queen’s Centre for karate lesson. Then I came home and shaved everything off with my electric trimmer.
Thu 20: Spent today looking frail. Everyone noticed that the beard had gone except for Barry Windsor, who said ‘Couldn’t you bother shaving this morning then?’

Wed 26: So far have spent every morning in my room drinking Bovril or Earl Grey. The alcoholic landlord John is always boasting about the cheap tat he has managed to pick up at car-boot sales.
Tonight is the England-Germany UEFA semi-final, and John has been wandering, pissed, around the house blowing his bugle and singing ‘two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah-day.’ Excruciating. I ended up driving to Nott’m where I watched the match in the Duncan, including dramatic penalty shoot-out. When I got back it turned out John had collapsed unconscious on the sofa in front of the TV and missed the whole thing.

July 1996, Tues 2: Last week John gave us all an extra key and said that sometime soon the front door lock was going to be changed to stop Iona the klepto from getting in. So I left the key in my room, expecting to be given a day’s warning when the when the great changeover took place.
Last night went to the flix to see ‘The Rock’ (James Bond meets Delta force meets Indiana Jones) and when I got back the door wouldn’t accept my key.  Rang John on his mobile, arranged to meet, went to wrong pub, ended up sleeping in my car.

Tue 9: Went to view a microscopic one-bed flat on the Drewry Court complex. Went to see a bedsit in Harrison Rd. Talk about rough – barbed wire and broken glass on top of walls. Went to pics to see ‘Mission Amposseeeeble’. V dull and v exciting.
Fri 19: Last night went to see ‘The Cable Guy’, a Jim Carrey film. Awkward but entertaining – a lurid meditation on themes of loneliness, identity, and trust.
Sun 21: Went to see ‘Beautiful Thing’.
Sun 28: Last Wednesday went up Duffield Road and saw the perfect bedsit. Paid deposit.

Last night went to Freddie’s and saw the lovely Steven again, but never spoke. Came home early.
Some yobs were wandering round and smashed the windows next door at 3.45 this morning. Today called into CSM Nott’m and left my address. (CSM was a nation-wide chain of bike training schools. The B’ham branch was hopeless, but the Nott’m one had some great tutors).

Richard and Cheryl have moved out, Mitch is moving out soon, Laura goes in two weeks, I’m off in four weeks. Our beloved landlord has found a good way to save money – he’s dismantled the control panel and removed the ‘on’ button from the immersion heater. He’s also charged R and C money for electricity, which is strange cos they’ve been away on honeymoon for a week. Anyway, it’s his printing business on the ground floor which is using up all the electric.

Wed 31: Tonight got keys to new flat.  Last night put radio on and found myself in middle of ‘Mastersingers’ suite. Marvellous performance, agile, crisp, dynamic. Watched a flock of pigeons wheeling around the cathedral tower (or was it the library?) and every few seconds they all turned sideways so the entire flock seemed to vanish and reappear.

Tropical Paradise, Deansgate


homeless poster


The seven-twelve to Manchester is always late. I stand among
The other passengers, some of whom I recognise. We board the train and
Sit in silence, reading Patrick White or Susan Hill. One of the carriage
Windows, shot through with defects, brings the passing scenery
Alive with seismic energy.
Meanwhile I arrive in town and make my way to work, passing
Underneath a bridge; an enormous poster advertising beer
Depicts a perfect Caribbean beach where turquoise waves
Deposit their reluctant foam while palm trees elegantly interrupt
The blue horizon. In bold white letters four feet high
The ad proclaims that “This is Living.” Beneath the poster
Lies a homeless man; we have to wonder how he ended up
With just a sleeping bag, a barrow
Full of random stuff
And a dog for company. Once he must have been
A boy, whose parents watched him grow and heard him laugh and
Dreamed about the path his life would take. But here
He lies beneath an endless artificial sky; perhaps his career
Included a number of small wrong turns, or maybe
Fell victim to a single bold mistake that cost him
All the happiness that lay in store.

Architecture, Manchester May 2017

It has been a grim week for Manchester. Music fans were the target of a suicide bomber who killed 22 and injured dozens more at the Arena concert hall. Meanwhile, large parts of the city’s architecture remind us of a far-off world of Victorian prosperity. We forget that England was a dangerous place in the 1870s; for the less well-off life was harsh, food was scarce, and the rule of law was weak. But none of this is apparent from the ornate structures which dominate the skyline of cottonopolis…

Meanwhile, on the corner of Princess and Whitworth, we have a huge building site which was earmarked back in 2005 for a luxury residential and leisure complex. Unfortunately the UK economy tanked three years later, so the funding dried up; and the building site is still just a concrete bowl of disappointment…

Drift against Hope

“Every schoolchild” writes Craig Brown in his review of Peter Ackroyd’s recent book about gay life and culture in London “has been taught the tale, first mentioned by the Venerable Bede, of the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great setting eyes on a group of fair-haired young English slaves in a market. On being told that they were Angles, Pope Gregory is said to have replied ‘Not Angles but angels’.”
And so it goes: the phrase ‘as every schoolboy knows’ is used to simultaneously imply that there is a vast body of common knowledge which aids social cohesion, while poking fun at those poor individuals who, through their own  negligence, failed to attend Grammar School and never mastered Greek or Latin.

Mark Liberman has tracked down a reference to particularly brilliant pupils: He quotes Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), vol. I, Lecture XVII, in which Blair writes:
I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: “Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere.” Not Cicero the pop singer, but Cicero the classical historian.

The poet Macaulay is also regularly cited for his 1840 essay on Clive: “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa”.

Alas, I didn’t study the classics at school; in fact we didn’t study much of anything for three years, since the local edukayshun authority had chosen us as guinea-pigs for a new system of teaching. Instead of English, History and Geography, we would be assigned a Topic, which the entire class would study for a year, and which would include the humanities and language skills as part of an organic whole, rather than being taught separately.
This system probably works very well if you have well-behaved pupils and lavish classroom facilities; but those were the far-off days before the arrival of computers or photocopiers. Indeed, I spent much of that period living with my grandmother in a terraced house with no fridge, telephone, washing machine or colour TV.

So we embarked on the grand topic – for example, Roads and Rail – for which we studied the development of the road network starting with the Romans and moving up to Thomas Telford and the motorway system. As part of this topic, we learned the Highway Code. Since my family didn’t own a car, I never managed to link the requirements of the Code to normal everyday transport, and it remained for many years an abstract set of rules and decorative road signs.
It was a severely patchy schooling, and left some formidable gaps: we never did Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Byron; we never studied the works of Plutarch or Cicero or Sophocles; and, constantly aware of these shortcomings, I find myself compelled to haunt charity shops where I buy second-hand paperbacks of Balzac and Gide and Rushdie and Zola and Christobel Kent and John Cowper Powys and Thomas Pynchon and Armistead Maupin and Matt Thorne, whose ‘Eight Minutes Idle’ I read in 2003, not knowing that fourteen years later I would end up in a call-centre myself.

I also spent a lot of time in the library. Normally I am highly organised, and will return my books on time; but on three occasions I ended up being fined for taking them back overdue. One of these was in 1979, when I was hastily transferred to a council-run care home. I had a copy of ‘The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse’ which was due to go back to the Blue Gates library in Smethwick; the journey there took over two hours, and on arriving I discovered that I didn’t have enough money with me to pay the fine (70 pence was an awful lot of money in those days) but they were kind enough to accept the meagre sum I had taken.
The second occasion was in about 2006, when I had borrowed a book about Time Management Techniques; it seemed faintly hilarious that this, of all books, was going to incur a small fine for late return. And the third time was when I was late returning Katie Roiphe’s book of essays, ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’. And what could be messier than forgetting to return one’s books on time?

The concept of ‘Every Schoolboy Knows’ can be gradually extended to the sweeping statements employed by grown-ups to impress their workmates or family members. Many British factories have a canteen, with grubby eau-de-nil walls and Formica tables where the lads will sit eating sandwiches, playing cards, and reading The Sun.
Occasionally, someone will comment aloud about a story they have just been reading: ‘Look at this, some woman teacher has been convicted of having sex with a couple of fifteen year old lads!’ And there will be a grumbled chorus of lucky bleeders and it’s what every young lad needs, which undergoes a neat segue into the tedious narrative about how it’s different when you’ve got a bloke messing around with young girls, I mean you can’t trust any bloke who would want to be a teacher, it’s not a real job for a man is it?

I sometimes wonder if my workmates had been coached in the sequence of these debates, since their comments were exact copies of the remarks I had heard previously and would hear again at different factories in the future.
Other remarks which formed the staple of canteen conversations were modern art: ‘Did-you-see-that-Lowry-picture-on-the-news-last-night-four-million-qiud-at-auction-pile-of-rubbish-my-five-year-old-could-do-better-than-that’
And drink-driving: ‘Well, everybody knows you drive better after a couple of pints, makes you more relaxed’
And higher education: ‘Honestly, these bloody students, useless the lot of ‘em. Haven’t got a clue, good at passing exams but no real experience of anything.’ When people look back at the nineties, they might realise that the Blair Government successfully changed the nature of higher education. Instead of being a glamorous rite-of-passage for a small handful of wealthy teenagers, the University system was made available to anybody with enough brains who wanted to join the worlds of business or science. 

I derived great benefit from attending Polytechnic back in the eighties; it got me away from my home town and forced me to become independent. I even managed to learn a bit about Chemistry on the way, although I soon found that there was a significant gap between what we had been taught and what was considered useful by the industrial sector. But now, thirty years later, I find myself working as a call-centre advisor, rather like the hero of ‘Eight Minutes Idle’, a bleak, funny novel about a phone centre in Bristol.

Some people view higher education as a Bad Thing, claiming that it takes talented youngsters away from home at just the time they should be working to cement their position in the local community, starting a family and building a career. And worse, it exposes them to new ideas and different types of people; ‘Oh mummy, it’s just so awful! Caroline’s house doesn’t have a tennis court or a piano!’

But life in the call-centre is a bit awkward. The weather is warm, so we need to open the windows, which means that we can hear the constant banging from the building site nearby. I don’t know what they’re constructing; a nuclear power station or car park or something. Half of the open-plan office is full of staff dealing with customers on the phone, so our instructor is unable to shout – instead, she wanders from desk to desk, trying to make sure that we are all at the same point in our training schedule.

And it was thirty years ago today…that I landed my first proper job, working as a Lab Technician, feeding bricks and concrete lumps into a crusher, after which they were milled to a fine dust and mixed with dilute acid.

Journal Entries, 26 May 1987: Phone Manpower – arrange interview, see Joyce Jones and tell her can’t come tomorrow, go Dole Office and change signing-on time, buy Baby Bio for spider plant.
Posted my weird letter to John F and my even weirder letter to Steve R. A bee just got into my bedroom, obviously thinking that the Shostakovich trio was a fellow insect in distress. He went all round the room looking for something.
27 May 87: Industrial Research Lab, Curzon St, Digbeth. Went to lab to be interviewed, then went to sign on, then went to Day Care Centre. While there, had phone call from Manpower saying ‘Success’. ‘Don’t know’ I said, and he replied ‘No, I’m calling to tell you that they want to offer you the job!’
He told me I would be starting next Monday, so I went to the jobcentre and handed in my signing-on card. Then later I had a phone call from Manpower telling me they now want me to start tomorrow.
30 May 87: In the post had a dole giro for two days’ money, so I put it in an envelope and posted it back through DHSS letterbox.

Uncertain Surfactant


The Adventures of 2001: A Camp Odyssey
Journal Entry, 2 May 2001: God, what a hideous cosmodemonic day, a psycho tag filled with bukrah-fil-mish-mish and inverse collapsed nus-nus.
Got up early, walked to town, got the 7.29 to Peterborough, tried to buy a BT phonecard and almost got a Cellnet card instead.
Got train to Huntingdon. Some little old lady asked me to look after her bag while she went to spend a penny. I was panic-stricken, thinking of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Ministry of Fear. Anyway, she came back and I heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Thank God she’s not a Russian spy.’
And from her bag she pulled a glossy programme for a Bolshoi Ballet concert. Argh!

Then got train to Huntingdon (didn’t see John Major) and got cab to Linx.
Technical questionnaire: chemical formula, project management, stainless steel, and ‘what do you know about Buckminsterfullerene?’
To which I replied C-60 or C-70, balls or tubes, metal complexes, conductivity, mechanical strength, and Leonardo’s dodecahedron sketch in the Ambrosian museum in Milan.
Showing off as usual.  They didn’t offer to pay any of my travel expenses. Nor did they ask anything about why I was made redundant.
Rang Harco in Grimsby, cancelled interview tomorrow – transport problems.

Got back to Tamworth, went to the Jazz Club – it was Terry’s birthday, so they played a bossa nova version of ‘Happy Birthday to You’.
And Tuesday night was the AGM for Derby MAG. I arrived early, chatted to Kate, then Liz turned up at 25 past 8. She looked stunned, gesturing at the empty room: ‘Is this it?’
Anyway, within the next 10 mins everyone turned up including Tony S (whose business is thriving) and a new couple – Andy and Angie.
We had loads of discussion about rally. AGM itself was short and sweet; unanimous appointment of committee.

3 May 2001: Mail – letter from Sci-Temps about my forthcoming interview at Acordis including idiotic advice for interviewees.
Rang Perry at Listgrove: thrashed out a list of 15 companies to whom he wants to send my details on-spec.
Rang David Keen: Vantico have decided to focus on experienced epoxy synthetic chemists so I’m out of the running. Gave me some highly encouraging advice – sell myself more at interviews.

Fri 9 Mar 01:
Rang Austin M: he asked if I was still interested in a job with Spencer in Aberdeen, I said yeah, so he said they would arrange a flight for me.
Wed 21 Mar 01: Snowing fairly hard outside.
Mail: letter from Britannia about interest rates, rejection letter from BIP, and a note about my Nat Savings Certs.
A few weeks ago a couple of brothers who own (‘mismanage’) a pig farm decided to save money by not boiling the leftover swill they fed to their animals. This saved a bit of money and time, but also possibly led to the current epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease.

On train to Sheffield, some girl had a mobile ringtone of the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme. Of course her conversation wasn’t as thrilling or riddled with espionage as it should have been.
British Telecom – not so long ago, they attracted hostile comment because their profits were measured in pounds per second. Now they’re in debt, share price slumped over past year.
Rang Austin M: any news on my possible interview in Aberdeen? He said he’d call back next Weds with arrangements.
26 Mar 01: This morning on way to town I saw a heron standing in the river eating a big silver fish. Then near Ramsbury saw a lorry painted with “Mister Blair Just Be Glad Livestock Can’t Vote” on a farm whose stock of healthy pigs had been slaughtered cos their neighbour had F-and-M.

Tue 10 Apr 01: Well well well; just as I’m about to start signing on, I get a phone call (9.30 a.m.) from Nick Dubbels at Spencer Coatings in Aberdeen saying they want to offer me a six-month contract.
[Note: as I recall, the conversation went like this:
Hello, is that Tim N? This is Nick D. I’m just calling to offer you a job.
Great! When would you like me to start?
Well, we would need to arrange an interview first…
Great! When would you like me to come up for the meeting?
Well, we’re not sure when the MD is available because he’ll need to be involved…
Great! Can I get in touch with the Jobcentre and tell them that I’ve been offered a job?
Well, it’s only going to be a temporary six month contract…
Great! When do you want me to start?
Well, we need to sort out an interview first, and you need to make sure that you would be happy working here….
Great! I spoke to Austin M a few weeks ago, and he told me that I had just the kind of technical skills you were looking for; he said he had interrogated my ex-colleagues who had assured him that I was a good worker who would have no difficulty fitting in with your team at Spencer’s. So when would you like me to start?
Well, we need to check when the MD gets back from an overseas meeting and we’ll arrange an interview….]

Thu 19 Apr 01: Rang Nick D at Spencer Coatings – he made some excuse about himself and Austin M arranging to recruit me without firstly getting approval from the MD who has been away and now reappeared.

Mon 23 Apr 01: Rang Steve Turvey at Crosbie Coatings – they’ve made no decision yet, following my interview on 9 Apr.

Thu 31 May 01: seven teenagers (between 13 and 16) from Tyneside are in hospital after taking amphetamines and cannabis and getting wildly drunk.  Meanwhile, two 19-year old girls in America have been charged with attempting to buy beer in a restaurant. Daughters of George W Bush.

Tue 5 Jun 01: Rejection letter from Spencer Coatings. ‘Dear Sir’ not ‘Dear Tim’ or ‘Dear Dr Norris’, signed by Phil Buck no less. This after Kevin Phelan said ‘You’ll be coming up to Scotland with us, then?’ back in March.

Document 46B – 219 – K77

Approved by the NOVA-848 Committee for Technical and Cultural Elevation of the Faithful: A Fictitious and Frivolous Account of Events, People and Places, Seeking to Preserve That Which Might Be Forgotten.
Edited transcript of meeting held at the Magnolia Chapel Children’s Home, Selly Oak.

Present: Simon Wilkins, Social Worker assigned to Child Y
 Ethel Cardewson, House Mother at Magnolia Chapel.
Father Trevor McKillip, Priest at St Joseph’s Church.

While waiting to be admitted to the Senior House Mother’s office, Simon began reading the list of rules pinned to the wall near the main door to the building. Beneath a splendidly engraved heading, which read “Conditional Indulgence and the Dimensions of Sin; Instructions to residents at the Magnolia Chapel Care Home”, he found the following strictures:

The staff members are responsible for all cooking and cleaning duties, but the children must do the washing up after each meal.
Smoking and drinking are not permitted on the premises.
No door keys are to be issued to anyone except approved members of staff.
Attendance at Sunday Mass is compulsory unless in cases of genuine illness.
Children must be advised to attend confession once a month. The total number of sins should be between four and eight; the required contrition should be at least five Ave Marias, but no more than three full Rosary sequences.
When using the bathroom, children must wash their own underwear and place on the drying rack. Each child shall be allowed to use four spoonfuls of detergent powder to do their washing.
When using the sink, always add the hot water after the sink is quarter-full of cold water to prevent burns.
Any homework must be inspected by the House Mother before being taken to school. No confidential information about the Home or the members of staff shall be disclosed.
Ashtrays must be washed in cold water only; the use of hot water imparts an unpleasant odour.
Taps must be turned on using the left hand, and turned off using the right hand. This prevents the accumulation of sin on the metal surface.
There are six orders of demons who govern the attack on the human senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste and thought.  At the start of every hour, we should become aware of any sinful temptations which approach from these various aspects.  

He was about to ask someone about these remarks when the door opened and he was ushered into the office. Minutes of the meeting are briefly recorded below:

SW: When did you first meet (Child Y)
TM: About two or three months ago. The house mother was concerned that his spiritual development was being neglected and that he might fall in with a bad crowd, so she invited me to give some after-school tuition.

SW: How often did you see (Child Y)? Did the meetings take place at the church?
TM: No, he did attend one of the youth club meetings at the church, but then I would call in to visit Magnolia. Usually once a week, but sometimes twice.

SW: And what form did the tuition take? Did you supply teaching materials, or did he just ask for help with normal schoolwork?
TM: Usually he would bring his school exercise book and I would go through some of the questions with him.

SW: And do you have any teaching qualifications related to any of the subjects that (Child Y) was then studying? Or any expert knowledge that would improve his chances of getting a good mark in an exam, for instance?
TM: Well, I can’t say I’m a teacher; but his welfare was being neglected and I was asked to provide guidance.
EC: Trevor is a very wise man, and this is what is lacking in (Child Y)’s education.

SW: Can you tell me about the aspects of human biology you discussed with (Child Y) during these lessons?
TM: No, not really. We just went over the stuff that his teacher had asked them to study using the standard handouts.
SW: Did you comment on the lack of moral guidance in these handouts?
TM:  Well, I might have said that the physical aspects of human relationships are only a part of the picture, and it might be worth considering the emotional and spiritual elements which the teacher seemed to completely ignore.

SW: We understand that you told (Child Y) that sex outside marriage is wrong.
TM: No, it is God’s instruction that sex outside marriage is wrong. I was just pointing out what the Church tell us is an acceptable model of behaviour.

SW: And did you comment that – quote – when two people get married, the sperm cells become strong and healthy and suitable for creating children, while unmarried men have badly deformed sperm which can lead to the production of handicapped children – unquote?
TM: I don’t think so, I may have said that in some deprived areas there is a high level of childhood disease caused by neglect, which is directly caused by the lack of a stable marital home.

SW: And did you tell (Child Y) that ‘Odd numbers are God numbers, but Even numbers are Evil numbers’? Why is he so anxious about writing any piece of schoolwork which runs to an even number of lines?
TM: The number of the beast. You must recognise that God’s authority prevails in all things. I simply encourage him to become aware of the unseen hazards of everyday life which may lead him to commit sins.

SW: We have also been told that you engaged (Child Y) in a discussion of the chemical structure of Holy Water. He claims that you told him that medical solutions prepared using Holy Water show a greater effectiveness in treating disease than identical solutions using water that has not been officially blessed. Is this correct?
TM: I was just outlining a few recent reports published by the church, when we sent some very ill children to a Catholic Hospital. They showed remarkably quick recovery, and the nurses said that this was entirely due to the use of Sanctified Saline Dispersion (SSD).

Eyes With Minds and Lies 

Well, you told the unseen audience
It doesn’t really matter if you win or if you lose
But you know that isn’t so today
Cos you’re waiting for the after-Dylan blues.

We chase the money and divide the space
To keep the wicked relatives at bay; we
Couldn’t choose a better time to live, my friend
As we listen to the after-Dylan blues.

Can you remember anything about that time?
When eyes with minds and lies oblivious
Became entangled, and you and I were free again
Discovered by the after-Dylan blues. 

Journal entry, Wed 17 Oct 2001: During our tea-breaks at work, the conversation always turns to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and this afternoon Sean M made a comment about anti-war protesters.
‘Bloody hippies’ he said, ‘they probably go home, and put on high heels and fishnet tights.’
Quite a hostile outburst – and this from someone who works in the lab and wears cufflinks.

Journal entry, 10 Apr 2017: It’s Monday morning, and I’m eating some leftover cucumber – it reminds me of that weekend in 1992 when Dave Flint called down from Oxford. Patrick was away for the weekend so I slept in his room and allowed David and Paul to have my bed. The following day I made myself a ham salad for breakfast, with ornate rings of cucumber and tomato and boiled eggs and dark rye crispbread.