Saturday, 19 April 2014

PH imbalance

A bluebell wood just outside South Wraxall yesterday. It's the long-distance haze which I like so much.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how much of my life is involved with the battle between acid and alkali. I was about to say that it is usually a silent battle, but then I was reminded about the slightly stressful opening of the hand-grenade in my search for one form of nitric acid inside it.

I was brought up in an acid area, but now I live in a very alkali one and I am not sure it really suits my nature.

The ancient heaths of Surrey nurture heather, gorse and silver birch, and adders slither out from their shade to warm themselves up into action. The fine sands around Frensham Ponds are pure white and possibly too acidic to be quarried for architectural purposes, even if you were allowed to.

Here in Bath, one is literally surrounded by alkali, and acid - in the form of coal smoke and car fumes - is its mortal enemy. I don't really understand the situation scientifically, so I generally treat the the whole thing as a classic battle of good against evil, which adequately suits my purposes.

Neutralising the enemy always means redressing the PH balance, and the forces of alkali have to be deployed in vast amounts to outnumber acid's little pockets of resistance.

The strange thing about concentrated alkalis and acids is that they both burn, and I have the scars to prove it. The burn from wet quicklime is every bit as bad as one you would get from a 50% solution of sulphuric acid, and hurts just as much.

If I use a non-ionic detergent to clean the grease stains from a piece of marble, I am reliably informed that the product is in absolute perfect balance between acidity and alkalinity - it is politically neutral, like the United Nations forces are supposed to be. It just goes in, does the job, then goes out again without having done any harm.

I have made two near-catastrophic mistakes with both acid and alkali - one was made when I took the lid off the top of a bottle of industrial-strength acid and decided to sniff the fumes which were steaming from the neck of the container. The other was made literally a stone's throw from where I am writing this, when I was cleaning the carvings on the side of Bath's Guildhall many years ago.

Part of one process to neutralise the acidic build-up against oolitic limestone is to give it a hot lime poultice. It goes as follows:

You take an ordinary metal dustbin up onto the scaffold and fill it about one third with water. You then pour in an equal quantity of chipped quick-lime and quickly put the lid on it. Then you stand well clear.

Within seconds, the dustbin begins to shake and rattle as steam begins to rise from the edges of the lid. Seconds after that, the water actually boils as if there were a fierce flame beneath the dustbin, and the lid rattles around as if there are fifty large rats trying to escape.

The Romans described this reaction as all the heat absorbed by the firing of the chalk to make lime, being released in the form of a battle between fire and its mortal enemy - water - the two being unable to peacefully coexist side by side. This may sound like a superstitious way of viewing it, but it is just as relevant as any other, more scientifically modern explanation. It all boils up to the same thing eventually.

After a few minutes the boiling subsides, and when it is all gone quiet you lift the lid to find that the dustbin is full almost to the top with a thick, very hot, white cream. You then take it out by the trowel-full and slap it against the stonework to a couple of inches thick, as if you were plastering the inside of a 1960s Italian restaurant. You cover the results with plastic, then leave it for a few days for the alkali to work its magic.

It was getting dark and I was on my own on the scaffold, but I needed to complete the job before leaving, so I was in a bit of a hurry as I threw the hot lime against the stone figures.

I slapped the last, heaped trowel full of boiling-hot lime against a hollow pocket of stone, and a lump of about two inches in diameter came flying back at me, straight into my open eye, completely covering it.

I cannot tell you how painful this is, other than saying that hot lime burns in two ways - through the actual heat, and also through the concentrated alkali. I had about two seconds to save my sight in that eye.

I remembered that there was a hose-pipe at the far end of the scaffold, and I blindly ran toward it. Fumbling for the tap, I turned on the water and held the end of it against my eyeball for about two minutes. I was completely soaked of course, but I was relieved to find that I could still see out of my reddened and stinging eye. The skin over my cornea grew back in a few days.

Yes, I know, I should have worn goggles, but like I said, it was getting dark. All in all, I have been a lucky geezer when it comes to industrial accidents - so far.

Friday, 18 April 2014

A rare photo of Stephenson

Here's a sad sight - this browned-off Christmas tree was put out for collection on the twelfth night morning, and is still there now, over half-way through April.

Maybe it is the plastic pot that they object to. The refuse collectors are very picky in this part of the world. They drive around in a huge crusher truck which has the message, 'Warning - Loaders at rear'. The first time I saw it, I misread it as 'Loafers' at rear, but that is because my mother trained me to look down upon the lower classes from an early age, so that now I have to fight the impulse, so naturally does it come to me.

I am often surprised when I learn from people who get to know me well enough to admit it, that I sometimes initially come over as an aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, but I put this down to misinterpreting the behaviour of someone who is unjustifiably self-assured, even when talking bollocks fifty percent of the time as I usually do.

My mother always insisted on the biggest Christmas tree  - cut or uprooted from out own private woodland - that my father could struggle into the house with, so I also look down on this little, withered rejection which even the rubbish men ignore.

The ceilings in our house were quite high, and one year our tree was so tall that the top twelve inches had to be bent over to accommodate it. The poor fairy had a hell of a time. It was in a pot with roots, and at the end of the festivities it was re-planted. By next year it was about twenty-five feet high, so was put out to grass.

Anyway, what am I doing talking about Christmas when it is an Easter bank-holiday with unusually fine weather going on outside?

I must have drifted off, like you will have if you have got this far. As a special treat and reward, I am going to show you a rare picture of me aged 21, which gives you an idea of how my bored disinterest in everything around me is so often misunderstood. I almost thought I would have made a good Mad Boy for the Hattatts, but it's the wrong sort of madness.

Note the Brian May haircut, but at least I don't still wear it like this:

This is who Jack@ thinks I look like.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Boy's Own

All's well that ends well (more Shakespeare) and I couldn't let you darlings go to bed tonight without letting you know I am safe and still - almost - in one piece.

I waited for my friend to leave his well-equipped metal workshop to take the dog for a walk, then I put it in a vice and exerted some mighty pressure on the stubborn thread, and it opened.

It is empty, but I only know that now. My stupid fucking camera has focussed on the car roof reflection rather than the fucking bomb, but you can see how empty it is.

So I took it into Waitrose tonight, and placed it on the scales when checking myself out on the self-service scanner. The alarm went off because they thought I was trying to steal a pound and a quarter of whatever, and a supervisor came over to check my bag.

"It's ok," I said, "It's a hand-grenade."

She just smiled and walked away, being too young to know that I was telling the horrifying truth.

When I was in my workshop looking for tools, I found this Arsenal dart.  I have no idea how it got there.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

What could possibly go wrong?

When I was a kid, I had a bit of a thing about old, WW2 military equipment, and my brother acquired an old Mills hand grenade for me.

I eventually swapped it for something worth about 0.5 pence in today's money, and I have been kicking myself ever since.

This is why I bought another old grenade today, when I saw it in a friend's shop. I don't really want one, it's just that I programmed myself to find them attractive when I was about 10 years old.

I saw it yesterday when I walked into the empty shop, quite close to some 17th century carved wood panels which I think I might also buy. It was sitting on a shelf in the half dark, but - like I said - I am programmed to find them attractive.

I picked it up and noticed that the spring-held handle and firing-pin were missing, so I gingerly unscrewed the base plug to see what I could see. It came away quite easily, and there was no fuse and detonator to worry about - I would have had 4 seconds to get rid of it if I had seen a wisp of smoke.

Over 70 million of these things were made between 1915 and 1972, so it is quite surprising that this was only one of a few intact ones I have come upon since the early 1960s.

I heard a noise in the back of the shop, so I put the bomb on the desk and walked to the end of a dim corridor to find a half-open door. I shouted, "COOEY!", and the woman who was in the small room let out an ear-splitting scream. She had not heard me come in five minutes previously, and so she frightened me as much as I frightened her.

When we had calmed down, I said I would leave a note for the antique dealer, then I took one last look at the grenade and left.

This morning I went back to the shop and took away the grenade. Once at my workshop, I thought I would take a little peek inside the explosive compartment, just in case.

When these bombes were made, the explosive was poured into a small hole in the top side and left to set. The fuses and detonators were always stored in a different box, for obvious reasons. The hole is filled with a small, threaded plug with a screw slot in it, but - try as I might - I could not shift it. Somebody has obviously tried to unscrew it in the past, and - ominously - they were also unsuccessful.

I unscrewed the base again and gave the inside a little sniff. The smell was very strange, and not what you would think a rusty bit of old cast-iron should smell like, so I was dutifully suspicious. I screwed the base plug back in and looked up the ingredients used to make a Mills Bomb on the net.

Well, it is basically TNT with some more volatile additives, plus wax to make it pour easily and set into a nice lump inside the shrapnel casing. Nowhere did it tell me how this mix is affected by age, nor did it tell me if it becomes unstable through sweating and liable to go off on impact, rather than with a detonator as it would have when new. Better get inside it, I thought, and if I find anything, I will harmlessly steam it out.

In any event, with all these question marks, I was not going to bring it home to our compact but adorable city apartment for H.I. to admire, without the questions being answered.

So I have left it in the workshop with the screw thread soaking in some WD 40, in the hope that it will be free enough to unscrew in the morning.

If this fails, I have ruled out heating the casing of the bomb with a flame to make it expand from the plug a little, and the only option I will have left is the use of an impact-screw-driver.

The way you use an impact screw-driver is to place the end in the slot, then hit it very hard with a steel hammer.

I am writing this post tonight just in case I am unable to write it tomorrow. The worst scenario is that I may be forced to get a voice recognition system instead of the keyboard for want of hands.

The best scenario is that I may never blog again, for want of breath.

Wish me luck!

What can you get for one pound these days?

That brand-new, multi-bedroomed, Palladian-style mansion you can see on the horizon, was built by a very rich man, with no expense spared on detail.

It distantly dominates the skyline of the small village from where I took the photo yesterday, but it is difficult to tell that from this image. There were a few opponents to the location, but he managed to get it squeezed through the normally stringent planning procedures in this area somehow.

How did he make his money? Simples.

Bristol City Council sold him acres upon acres of old industrial wasteland near Avonmouth - for £1.

Without doing anything at all to the vast expanse of hard-standing, he quickly let it out to companies who import cars through the Avonmouth docks, and now the whole estate is covered in an ever-changing multitude of brand new cars awaiting delivery to various dealers around the country, each one clocking up a weekly rental fee of quite a bit more than £1.

I wish I had thought of that. I could even have afforded to buy the site if it was £10,000 and not just one.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Time Machine

I have been being attacked by Picassa recently, who I stupidly signed-up to because an idiot friend who has Parkinson's Disease told me I should.

I have been ignoring the regular reminders from Google/Picassa to download something which makes their job of ripping-off my photos all the more easy, and then I found - as I was downloading these pics above and below - that they were punishing me by making it next to impossible.

So I looked into how to delete Picassa altogether from this machine, and Google told me that if I really wanted to do this, then I had better watch out, because they might erase all my photos from years ago at the same time, and the fault would be entirely mine. Cunts.

Then I remembered that I have been backing-up absolutely everything on this computer with a Seagate external hard-drive, so I unplugged the modem and - hey presto - I could easily download photos again. Cunts.

So I downloaded a lot of photos in seconds, then plugged in the external hard-drive, just in case Picassa was going to punish me further.

Then I brought up 'Time Machine' which magically takes you through deep space (including shifting stars at warp-factor 15, or whatever protects you from sunburn out there) on a tour of every bloody image you have ever put on the photo section, and I knew it was now safe to tell Picassa to fuck off.

If anyone wipes my internal hard-drive now, I just plug in this little gadget, and hit 'restore', then everything is back to normal.

These phone-sized things start at £50, which is next to nothing for storing more GBs than this machine is capable of without extra memory, so it is money well worth spending.

Below is an amazing 17th century building in Bathampton which I took today (the photo, not the building).

Power to the people.


I have only visited Norfolk once, but I loved it. The rest of this post is going to be written for the 'benefit' of anyone who has never visited it - and that covers an awful lot of people - but bear in mind that I am no expert on the place, so treat it as you might read the first impressions of a foreigner in a foreign land.

The reason why so few people - relatively speaking - have been to Norfolk, is because there is no through-traffic to speak of. There is one (ok, one and a half) road in, and you have to use the same road to get out of it. You get to Cromer on the North coast, then you turn around and go back down again.

Norfolk (with a little help from Suffolk) forms the bootylicious arse of England - the bit which sticks out rudely into the North Sea, right the face of the Low Countries. It is - effectively - a larger equivalent of an ox-bow lake, with almost three sides of it surrounded by water.

Driving through its country lanes is like going back to 1950s England, with old, cast-iron, black and white signs at the sides of the roads, pointing to the next village. As soon as you get out of Norwich, you enter my Surrey childhood.

Because of the two cul-de-sacs of the A140 and the A148, Norfolk has the reputation for having more people who are directly related to each other than any other part of Britain of the same size.

On the other side of the Forest of Dean, the river Severn forms a very similar - but much smaller - shape to Norfolk, and the water-locked villagers around Arlingham usually have at least two relations living within a few miles of them, usually with a different surname to their own. Funnily enough, the Forest of Dean - a short ferry trip away if they had not done away with the ferry - has the same reputation, but that's more to do with the impenetrability of the woods than its shape.

Norfolk was the favourite retreat of the Queen Mother, but since she kicked the bucket the place has fallen out of favour with the younger generation, who like to be within easy reach of a motorway and have been solely responsible for the ludicrous price of property around the Tetbury area.

When I visited Norfolk it was Christmas time, and on Boxing Day I was invited for drinks at the houses of three elderly residents, each of whom had a photo of themselves standing in the same room next to the Queen Mother, usually on a baby-grand piano. I was actually invited to tea with the Queen Mother, who was going to visit my elderly host a week after I was due to leave the area.

Norfolk is so cosy. If I had nothing better to do, I would quite like to go and live there, but - as they say - you should never go back, and making a one-way trip up a cul-de-sac is one of the scariest things you can do.

I thought I would highlight the picture above of the next Queen, laughing her tits off at really bad, Australian art.