Stephen Bayley

Accidental Poetry

There’s an interesting prejudice in our culture, at least in the official classes, that science and technology ” the study of material things – is in some way superior, at least, economically, to the life of the mind. Indeed, I have myself on occasions been persuaded that jet engines are more important than tragedy, but maybe I’m beginning to change my mind. Or, at least, disambiguate where I’m coming from.

Harold Wilson’s decade of The White Heat of Technology left Britain technologically bereft. It was also a decade when some really rather quite interesting things happened in music, art, film, architecture, design and literature. Melancholy and introspection, beauty and meaning, are surely rich sources of human intellectual wealth ?

I was put in mind to write that first paragraph by an extraordinary letter I recently received. It was unsolicited correspondence citing the writer’s technical credentials. A most bewildering catalogue of expertise was appended. I do not mean to mock; only to evoke the unintended poetry underlying even technological credentials. By reproducing the appendix here I merely want the reader to share my sense of wonder at the scope of human endeavour.

Process plant contracting in Europe

Centrifuges and mixers

Plant and port locations in Europe

Water and effluent treatment

Oil and petrochemical products

Price-elasticity of sodium metal

Acid-resistant bricks and tiles

Fused refractories

Pipeline transportation of minerals

Lightweight and dense aggregates

Building board from waste paper

Suspended ceilings

Contracting plant and plant hire

Vehicular diesel engines

Steel stockholding in East Anglia

Blowmoulding and thermoforming

Markets for thin rubber sheet

World markets for printing machinery

Photocopying materials

Coated materials in graphic arts

Radiator level warning devices

Educational electric motors

Scientific instruments in Italy

Cardiac catheritisation

Value of meteorological services

The malt industry in UK

Pressure relief devices

Metering pumps

Size reduction machinery

Organic octane improvers

Direct nitrogen fertilizers

Custom grinding of minerals

The pre-cast concrete industry

Building blocks

Double T beams

Bricks in Northern Ireland

Hydraulic ball motors

Heavy machine tools

Stainless steel tube

Shrinkwrapping and labelling

Iron castings

Paper converting machinery

Composite canisters

Metal bellows

Cats iron cooking pots

Egg drycleaning

Clay pigeon traps

Oscilloscopes

Ion implantation

The carpet industry

Fruit juices from Brazil

I find this list a thing of beauty. Superior in its strangeness even to the compellingly odd section on “Science and Miscellaneous” in The London Library (where you can find Flagellation and Bee-keeping). This is a list that Francis Picabia should have compiled and Max Ernst should have illustrated.

Tell me. Have you ever read anything more mysterious than “Market for thin rubber sheets” ? Anything more poignant than “radiator level warning devices” ? Another more horrific that “the carpet industry” ?

The real mysteries of life are not the invisible things, but the visible ones. It’s now more than fifty years since C.P. Snow declared there were two cultures. I’m still agonising about it, but contemplating a life spent in “hydraulic ball motors” may push me one way. In future I will use this list as a specific against doubt.

I have a favourite book in a tertiary loo. It’s subject is odd, but real, book titles. The one I like best is “Penetrating Wagner’s Ring”. But music and art are, I think I’m concluding, as nothing to the comedy and tragedy of “Steel stockholding in East Anglia”.