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.

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.