Synthetic Heritage

Off to the Gallery today; I’ve never seen it so busy, there were swarms of Japanese schoolgirls, middle-aged couples, and a few hardcore music fans (also the wrong side of fifty) who had called in to look at the glass case containing a handwritten song by Ian Curtis. Instead of a visitors’ book, the gallery offers people a section of wall on which to post sticky notes; the contributions often run to one or two words with a battalion of exclamation marks – ‘Fascinating!!!!’ One of the small square notes had an ornamental border surrounding a four-line poem:

“There’s something wrong with the canal today; the
Water has forgotten how to breathe
And waves arrive at random intervals, created
By a barge that wandered past two years ago.”

Another exhibition at the gallery consists of photographs of Salford taken in the seventies. We see cobbled streets, women in headscarves, scruffy children sitting on walls and playing with gas-masks. There are ruined houses with exposed wallpaper; very few cars apart from a wreck that children used for playing. How many of these urchins are now working as hedge fund managers, or in prison for murder, or carefully inspecting aviation test panels for SCD (sickness, corrosion and despair)?



Britain, 2017

As usual: I work long hours to pay the childminder
Who looks after my kids so I can go out to work
To earn the money
To pay the childminder who….
I work lots of overtime to pay off my Credit Cards;
My kitchen is filled with gleaming electrical toys
A bread maker which is sometimes very good
I have food processors, a device for vacuum-sealing leftovers
And left to my own devices I probably would. I have

A juicer to get the juice from fruits which I then discard
Of course it’s always late when I get home from work

Too tired to start cooking, so I
Pass the time by flicking through my volumes of Nigella and Jamie
And Gino and Delia and Mary and Keith
While I wait for the guy from Deliveroo to bring
My supper. I’ll sit beneath the rack of pots and pans and skillets
Picking at my lonely meal of seahorse and hummingbird fillets
And wondering what colour tie to wear to work.

I love watching tennis on TV; my room is filled
With saturated green from the epic bouts on centre court
And I have a garage filled with expensive fitness gear;
Carbon-fibre racquets, designer shorts
And the latest exfoliating shower gel for men. But

When I stagger home from work
The feeble shot of short-term energy from
My isotonic protein drink allows me to grab the remote
And watch recorded highlights from each game.
If I’m lucky, my kids will ring me
Twice a month; is that too much to ask?


Fallen Before Pride


Journal Entry, 20 Nov 97: Today at work we were issued with payslips together with an ‘Employee Satisfaction Questionnaire’ on which to register how blissfully happy we were at work.
Also a memo (rumoured) saying that the factory was to open on Fri 2 Jan, and that people were required to turn up in scruffy clothes and carry out cleaning duties.
Questionnaire survey: our attitude to company, products, rates of pay, management and quality improvement.

In the news: Gary Glitter (evergreen seventies pop star) has been arrested and shedfuls of child porn recovered from his house. Allegedly.
23 Nov 97: Quiz Nite and ‘70s Disco. And what music did they play? ‘Silver Machine’ and ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me There?’

3 Jan 98: Another lifetime over and a new one just begun. Got down to Cornwall on Xmas Eve. Went to Penzance, bought Xmas pressies for Manda, visited General Clothing store, went to Truro. Weather – appalling, floods, gales.
Saw ‘Perfect Day’ video for the first time; went to flicks to see new Bond movie, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’.

For a week or so, papers have been full of story about a Cabinet Minister’s son caught selling dope. Yesterday it was revealed that the Dad in question was Home Secretary Jack Straw.

9 Feb 98: Dave rang – he’s into karate, badminton, snooker and cinema. Am just about to post my advert to AWOL, arranged to go to Duncan on Thurs night. Last night went to see ‘Crash’ at Metro, then to Curzon’s.
[Note: ‘Duncan’ is the Admiral Duncan pub in Nott’m. ‘Crash’ is a David Cronenberg film based on the J G Ballard novel. Several local authorities had refused to allow the film to be screened due to the sex and violence]

27 Jun 98: Pride march and festival postponed cos only 30 percent of tickets have been sold.

8 Jul 17: London Pride march attracted support from Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the Lord Mayor of Westminster. About 26000 marchers took part. Corporate floats from major retailers, Armed forces, Met Police etc. Peter Tatchell says – with some justification – that the entire event has become sanitised and commercial, with no real ethos of protest against inequality.

8 Sep 98: Baxenden interview yesterday: I was completely hungover and staggered round drinking orange and lemonade and paracetamol. Pair of rams’ horns over me in restaurant. Questions: what can I contribute, personality clashes, supervisory experience.

27 Oct 98: Last night went with Heather, Paul and Liz to see ‘Velvet Goldmine’, the new Glam Rock film at the Broadway cinema in Nott’m –   or should that be ‘Glam Cock’ since Ewan McGregor whips out his knob during proceedings.
At work prepared conversion chart for B4 and Din 4 viscosity cups.
In the news – Welsh Secretary Ron Davies had his car stolen last night by a stranger on Clapham Common and has now resigned.

Pain Without Words

Tonight the trees are angry; the wind
Has blown away the stars, and
The sky a violet darker than any black.
Not fulfilled, not consumed, my life still hangs
In a dark window. Beyond, a landscape
Shows complex desolation.


Odeon Ruins


The 2001 Pevsner Guide to Manchester, edited by Claire Hartwell, includes the following brief reference to the Odeon Cinema on Oxford Street:
“Opposite the inter-war Odeon by F T Verity and S Beverly, with flattened pilasters and stylised capitals above garish tiles.”

How many people have arranged to meet outside that picture-house on rainy Saturday nights? How many viewers went into the building to see Jaws or Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz or The Amazing Mister Blunden? Of course, back in those days it was perfectly acceptable to smoke cigarettes in the auditorium, so the on-screen action would be heralded by flickering cones of light. The choice of flattened pilasters might have been a nod to the Art Deco movement which had overtaken much of European architecture between the wars; in the Edwardian splendour of the town centre, this must have been a daring choice.
The centre of Manchester has been transformed in recent years; the ‘ponderous Portland stone Peter House’ with a gently curved front is still present on Oxford Street; but ‘the unattractive Elisabeth House of 1971’ (a masterpiece of post-ironic neo-brutalism) is no more, having been replaced by a soaring featureless office block called One St Peter’s Square.

This epic arrival has tall, narrow windows deeply recessed in a grid of white concrete (tall and narrow are relative terms; each immense pane of glass cost a fortune to manufacture and test and transport and install) which is also gently curved to match the building opposite. I tried to capture this intriguing topology in a photograph. The picture shows the curve of the building; however, I included – by chance – a piece of the most intensely blue blue sky (probably imported from Italy along with the windows) and a small corner of the Odeon cinema, which just a few weeks later would undergo demolition, ready for the building of another grand corporate edifice.

Journal Entry, 3 Aug ’98: Last night went to Freddie’s, saw my hunky straight guy. We chatted about horror fiction, Monster Club, careers etc. The Alan S turned up, we chatted away, I got drunk and came home.
Today at work we had a meeting – 8 of us from different departments, about process engineering and toll manufacture. We each have to create a skeleton account of the function of our dept.

To E M Forster

You suffered, and built a garden
Of strange delights that do confuse but
Not offend; I am not charmed
By your vanishing livestock, or dark
Blooms. Why not publish? Your
Loss of nerve cost a generation dear.

Some other country, perhaps; another name
Is all it takes to change
This temporal fabric that we call
The world, and like a smile
Your memory will endure beyond
The distant growl of an uncaring sea.

Journal Entry, 7 Dec ’97: Yesterday morning took the ‘L’ plates off my bike and shot away to Nott’m for the Lord Mayor’s Toy Run. Weather good. Got there early; about a dozen bikes there, then more turned up including a big bearded guy called Tim who parked his trike next to me, despite there being space elsewhere.

Over next hour or so, hundreds of bikes appeared; riders in fancy dress with stuffed toys on saddles, fairy lights, and a Harley done up as a sleigh. Ian arrived on his Drag Star – ‘What an ego chariot!’ I said.
Did the run in convoy; police escort, roads closed, pavements lined with cheering crowds, then off to County Hall for an address by the Mayor (who’s a biker himself).
After speeches and raffle, Tim came up & asked me if I was going to the Redliners Party at Bramcote Manor. WE chatted briefly; then he asked if I knew about the Bears group.

Me (much taken aback): ‘In what context?’
So we ended up going round Nott’m, buying AWOL, lunch at the Art Café, drinks at Newmarket Inn. It was a perfect day; I’m glad I spent it with you…

Membrane Cadenza

Look how wicked and sinful we are being today: these tortilla wraps said ‘Once opened, eat within 1 day’ but I’ve had them a week now. And I’m eating sausages (terribly high in fat) made from pork (forbidden in the OT) and topped with cheese (also prohibited by religious taboo). So I shall probably die a hideous painful death. Or perhaps the biblical strictures and food safety warnings are complete rubbish, and I shall remain healthy and active for the next 30 years.

According to Simon van Booy, writing is essential for mental well-being. People keep diaries, or post snippets on Facebook, or hide abstract sonnets inside obscure library books that nobody will ever read again. We are all driven to compose a narrative of our lives, trying to integrate our own experience with the prevailing customs and laws of nature.
Writing brings wisdom; if we translate the day-to-day jumble of encounters and omissions to a matrix of neatly balanced phrases, it puts us in control of reality.

This morning I went swimming, then called in to my local supermarket to buy bacon and eggs. On the way I bumped into my old mate John. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked, ‘Were you working last night?’
No, said he, explaining that he had been away on holiday for a week.
We had a cheerful, rambling five-minute conversation during which it gradually emerged that the holiday cottage he had rented was actually owned by a friend of mine – who he had never met – and we both laughed in amazement at this turn of events.

False fingernails are very popular at the moment, and my boss at work wears a set of huge acrylic talons in a glass-like material flecked with glitter. When pointing out a mistake in my work she will prod the computer screen causing the liquid crystals to writhe in torment, blushing like a skewered octopus.
In fact, life is just a poem waiting to be set to music. ‘The Celebrant’ by Evelyn Dunbar – even her name conjures up the 1930s.

Journal Entry, 2017:
It’s May the eighth today; began without occasion,
No warning of the coming storm, a copperplate equation
It’s May the First on Magdalen Bridge; while
We were sleeping a flock of unseen birds
Assembled, cold and grey above the town
And waited for the light to strike
The music wrapped round ancient golden words.

Holes and spaces are necessary for ideas to function; many years ago I worked in a factory where the toilets had been fitted with expensive fire doors. Since the canteen was along the same corridor, health and safety dictated that there should be two doors between any toilets and the workspace. These fire doors were designed to fit snugly into their frames, in order to prevent draughts; for this reason, no air could actually circulate within the toilets and the extractor units were unable to remove the rancid vapours of humanity.

For several years I lived without a TV set (apparently it’s a kind of haunted fishtank, a box that sits in the corner of the room, full of little people going about their daily lives so that we can watch them and spend hours during work the next day telling our friends how dreadful it was) so I never watched things like Pop Idol or Big Brother. However, I did get hold of a TV in time for Gogglebox, which is a kind of Readers’ Digest for the modern generation.
In this programme, we watch assorted people in family groups, watching TV at home and commenting on the programmes. So far, I haven’t seen an episode of this show where the viewing families actually end up watching themselves providing the commentary on other shows; but if they do, I think Clive James might have got there first. Here he is, in ‘Postcard from Los Angeles’ (The Observer, 1979):

“I didn’t really want to get off. The in-flight movie had been California Suite, in which there is a scene in which Maggie Smith, playing an English actress flying to LA for the Academy Award ceremonies in which she will find out whether she has won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, watches an in-flight movie about herself flying in an aircraft through a raging storm.”
Although I spent many long years without a TV set, I did have the scripts of Fawlty Towers as well as Clive James’s reviews in paperback – which in some ways was better than the real thing.

It seems that we are obsessed by work; when meeting a new acquaintance, we say ‘And what do you do?’ And, depending on their reply (“oh, I’m just a journalist/astronaut/teacher/lorry driver/brain surgeon/freelance resource coordinator”) we immediately decide whether or not to waste any more time speaking to them.
When people do start a new job, they often discover that the advertised post is not exactly what was advertised (and the employer learns that the new recruit is not nearly as accomplished as he made himself out to be during the interview). Oh dear.
I have found myself in a few jobs that, at first sight, appeared ideal; decent money and interesting work. But then one discovers that there are office politics at play, which means that strategic information is withheld from new employees (possibly by disgruntled workers who had been told that they were going to be promoted into the post) leaving them unable to fulfil their duties properly.
And to compensate for the misery of an unfriendly workplace, I would spend happy evenings down at Partners, getting drunk on lager and listening to current pop songs. Whenever I hear ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ by U2, it carries me instantly back to the early nineties.

Diagonal Tomatoes, Tormented Liquid


The Narrative: a Life Half-Captured
Journal Entry, Mon 17 Jul 2000: Wot a strange day…
Had phone call from Exel Timbalex who want me to go for an interview. I asked for the 27th since have already booked it as holiday. Went up to Stafford, got there at noon, had pub meal and went to Walton-on-the-Hill.
When I originally rang to arrange the interview, Mrs H asked if I would be coming up by car. ‘Er, no’ I said, ‘I usually ride a motorbike.’ There was a horrified silence on the other end of the line, and she eventually said ‘Perhaps you’d better get the train.’

And there the fun begins.

‘Holt, Walton and Hill’ (recruitment agency and talent resource management consultants) is actually John Holt and his missus, working out of an office in his lounge. When I arrived he talked for about 35 mins about himself and his background in research and consultancy.
Looked over my CV and asked how many ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels I had – what subject, what grade. Very routine questioning: “…and why did you decide to leave that job?” No explanation or discussion. At one point he said “But you do have a PhD?” Oh yes, I replied, not adding that’s why I do a school-leaver’s job.

Asked salary. When I told him he made no comment at all.
Tried to steer me towards quality control-type work, pointed out that R and D functions are being slashed and burnt during corporate restructuring. Told me that I appear to have R and D written through me like letters in a stick of rock.
During his half-hour diatribe he kept looking down at clipboard. Reciting from notes? Didn’t smile once. During interview, he told me that I was too old (or rather that a lot of companies would regard me as being so) and also ‘You want to move back into adhesives but you’ve been out of it for so long?’

Tue 26 Jun 2017: Went to pub with Peter from work, watched England-Germany U-21 match. As usual, it went to penalties after full-time, and Germany won.
At work: I look at the desks and imagine the UV-cured polyurethane varnish being applied. Then I look at my boss – she wears long false fingernails made from some indestructible polyester resin, a sort of clear lacquer filled with flakes of glitter, probably Merck pearlescent coated mica pigment.
At work: an office block is taking shape next to our building, hunky navvies in yellow hi-vis vests scurry back-and-forth assembling the concrete and rebar.

Mon 31 Mar 2008: Yesterday went to see ‘Untraceable’, a film about a guy who kidnaps people then kills them live on t’internet. The more people who log on to watch, the quicker the end is administered.
Meanwhile, last week in the US a man was given 25 years in prison for putting his baby daughter in a microwave oven.

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.