Little Town Blues – or why I became a science teacher.
Little Town, Essex. Real name – Stanford-le-Hope. Better named back then, Stanford-no-Hope. A just reminder that the ‘good old days,’ were actually, crap! The pictures of it look great, now! Put Stanford-le-Hope Fertilizers into your search engine and check out images. Not so pretty!
It felt like 400 souls (it’s actually much bigger) and an ammonia oxidation plant, with its own water tower, to defy the flatness of the North Thames mud. Little Town nestled on that mud, due south of Billericay and west of Foulness. Where was the swinging London, just 30 miles away? I think it was a figment of media imagination.
The ammonia was purchased from the Shell Haber Process, a few miles upriver, oxidised in Little Town, on a platinum catalyst to form nitrogen oxide, washed with water and sold as nitric acid to the fertiliser plant in Barking, just behind the Crooked Billet, which itself nestled under the towers of a Lead Chamber Sulphuric Acid plant. Presumably, the Crooked Billet had an alkaline front door, acidic back and the ridge tiles might have been neutral.
I had been promised, during O-level chemistry lessons, that the Lead Chamber Process was of historical interest only, and there was one, spuming sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and occasionally oxidising a molecule to sulphuric acid.
The nitric acid from Little Town sometimes managed to react with more ammonia to make ammonium nitrate – a first world war explosive – and when damp, a modern-day fertilizer. Some ammonia was reacted with sulphuric acid to get ammonium sulphate, which is used to keep the worms off putting greens. It was nice to know I was making a difference.
But Barking was in the future. Back to Ammonia Oxidation.
The reactor was the size of a small car, hexagonal, with a hood and a pipe in and one out. Several dozen stainless steel nuts held the hood in place and tried to prevent the high-pressure gasses from escaping through the flange. It sat above the compressor, which was the size of a bus, and squeezed the air/ammonia mixture to about 30 bar. The gas mixture was blown over a platinum gauze catalyst and the exothermic reaction soon heated the gauze to around 1000oC. The flange was no match for these forces, and leaked, almost as soon as it had been reassembled with a new gasket and much straining, with long-armed ring spanners. The rule is, to tighten in a sequence that prevents distortion. No one did.
The idea was to get the gauze to a fine cherry red. The colour could be studied through a small window in the side of the reactor. The temperature was controlled by altering the ammonia/air ratio, of the gases entering, with a wheel, attached to a valve.
Harry, was the master of redness. One can’t easily measure high temperatures, so the operator had to learn which redness gave the optimum conversion. Harry had the redness! During his shifts, the efficiency of the reaction peaked. He tweaked the mixing wheel to perfection. He knew the red he was looking for and how to get it. I never spoke to Harry. Occasionally, he would by chance, look at me when I came in with an evacuated flask and took a sample of exit gas, to see if Harry had the mixture right. We sent our hourly figures to Harry, but he never looked at them and certainly never turned his wheel on our account.
The compressor made conversation impossible and anyone working on the reactor had to wear ear-protectors. So, Harry spent an eight-hour shift, in silence, communing with a red gauze catalyst, through a tiny window.
His wife, Sharon, was a typist. They copied handwritten notes from bosses, and made them presentable, using a typewriter. She wasn’t on shift work, so they didn’t meet that often. She went home for lunch and he stayed with his platinum gauze.
Frank, the tanker driver, I was told, parked his tanker, every lunchtime, outside Harry’s house, and went in.
Everyone mocked Harry. If the other process workers bumped into Harry, when he didn’t have his ear-protectors on, they would say to him, ‘Frank’s got it in for you.’
It’s a joke that is barely funny once, but after several months, only amuses the teller. Harry ignored it. I wondered why, until Alf, my boss told me to cut across to the typing pool and give Sharon a report to type up. Thus, I met Sharon, and learned why Harry communed with his gauze, rather than go home for lunch, which left me with the Frank-conundrum. What sort of bloke would park his tanker up daily and spend his valuable lunchtime, with Sharon? There must be libido limits.
One day, I went into Little Town at lunchtime to run an errand. I saw the tanker stop, and Frank more wobbled than climbed down, and with difficulty. There could be no doubt, Sharon had to go on top. Smart move, Harry.
Alf was the chief chemist, a post everyone assumed I aspired for. I knew the truth. I couldn’t do dire boredom, so Alf spent much time repeating my analysis. They were rarely in spec. There were two reasons for my poor performance. Firstly, I wasn’t that committed to standing under a 10m scrubber, spewing not-so-dilute nitric acid over me, while a wrestled with the corroded valve on the sampler tap, or injecting high pressure gas mixture into a pre-weighed evacuated flask, in a din, way above the pain threshold. I could do the ammonium nitrate water content. If one took too much water out it exploded. I was finally motivated even though our oven couldn’t dry it sufficiently. And then there was the Keljar test. I was clueless until I read the word. The man’s name was Keldahl. That didn’t worry the independent state of Essex. Pronunciation was as random as doing the football pools.
Assuming I did get a decent sample, which was rare, I wasn’t very good at the analysis. Alf would pretend every day to repeat the test, but in fact entered the required value so the process didn’t have to be interrupted. Occasionally, Alf had a result so bad that he phoned across and warned the chief engineer that he would have to consider a shut down. That was a big deal and the process took several days to restart, so the chief engineer would tell Alf to keep repeating the analysis until he got it right. On such occasions, Harry wasn’t in the control room. Harry had the redness.
One day, as the Thames mist settled across the mudflats, obscuring the top of the water tower, I was told that Legionnaire’s is a bacterium that grows in warm stagnant water and it was some time since we tested.
‘But the water in the tower is about 8 oC and not stagnant,’ I protested, but was told, that was the moment we needed a Legionnaire’s test on the holding tank. I wrapped up warm and began the 100 or so steps to the top of the tower. Already at the base I was aware of a strange noise from somewhere unidentifiable. I think I had reached around step number 70, when I connected the noise at the tower bottom with the awful wailing noise from above. Macbeth’s witches couldn’t have been more convincing, in the mist. Show no fear, is the Essex mantra, so it was onwards and upwards, but by then the penny had dropped and I had identified the noise. It was Jock on the top landing, struggling to get a scale out of a trombone. Jock and his trombone were legendary. He wasn’t expecting a visitor to come out the mist, any more than I was expecting a novice trombone player on the top landing. Jock jumped out of his skin and dropped his instrument, denting it and then called me all the daft effing Sassenach bastards, ever to crawl across the Essex mud flats.
Why are you up here, Jock?’ I asked when he had his heart rate under control.
‘I tried practicing at home, but the landlady threatened eviction. I tried practicing in the disabled trap at lunchtime, but the boss threatened the sack. Can you hear me at the bottom of the tower, Clive?’
‘Not really,’ I lied.
‘That’s good. Obviously, I’m not supposed to be up here at 3 in the afternoon. I should be licking the chief engineer’s arse, but it’s so boring. Clive, you have no idea!’
‘Oh, I have,’ I assured him. ‘Gruesome is more accurate than just boring. Why did you come down to Essex from Glasgow, Jock.’
‘I can’t tell you, Clive. You’d disrespect me for ever, and rightly so.’
‘You fell in love with an Essex Girl,’ I yelled with mocking delight. ‘You dozy pillock, Jock.’
I think I saw a tear in his eye so I took my water sample. No one wants to embarrass a bloke, who already has the ultimate cross to bear. He was suffering enough.
As I turned to descend, he stopped playing and asked, ‘How do you survive the evenings, Clive?’
‘I’m the only unmarried person on site and the only worker under 32 years of age,’ I told him. ‘This leaves me with two options. Adultery – there ought to be room for a toyboy among the typing pool, or celibacy. I chose the latter and solve my financial and human contact problems with an evening job in a pub in Southend.’
‘Wise move,’ he assured me, with envy in his voice and picked up his trombone. ‘I miss the Highlands of home.’
That was not the time to ask how Glasgow was suddenly in the Highlands. He had enough problems with nostalgia so left him to his scales.
I lay in bed one summer morning, window open, birds giving the dawn chorus beltissimo, when I heard the best noise ever. The hum of the distant compressor gave way to a long release of steam as the turbine wound down. Finally – shut down. Harry had failed to save the night shift.
There were people in Southend-on-Sea and the sea. No one would notice I skipped off, apart from Alf, who would tell me what story he had made up on my behalf, in case some busybody asked after me. So, as the steam hiss gave way to the birdsong, I leapt from bed, dressed and hit the A13. A prophetic number for the main road through South Essex.
Southend has one of the longest piers in the world, complete with its own railway. This was necessary, because without the pier one would only see the sea for about 30 minutes a tide. It races across the mudflats, turns and disappears. I hadn’t the price of entry to the pier and so have never seen the sea at Southend-on-Sea. I had just 2/6 in my pocket and invested that in a Joseph Conrad novel, to read on the mud. By 11.00 I regretted not having gone to work. I had no sunglasses so couldn’t read and for how long can you stare at mud?
I couldn’t go back to my digs because Digger’s wife was there and she would tell Digger, who loved sucking up to the boss. He would have grassed me up, sure as eggs are eggs. I hated Digger. Hate is not a word I lightly use, but I really hated Digger. He was the lowest form of lumpen proletariat and his type had been the natural fodder for Hitler, 35 years earlier. He was a natural born snitch, my landlord and the company health and safety officer. His main job was to make sure we wore the safety clothing the company refused to provide, but insisted we wore. One ordered through Digger, who had the cost deducted from our wage packet, and took a commission off the supplier. Alf Garnett’s script writer had Digger in mind when he created, Till Death do us Part. Digger taught me my first piece of Essex. ‘What you getting out yer pram for? You can get straight back in, wiv yer dummy in yer gob,’ he told his wife, when she mentioned a TV programme she would like to watch. I learned to love the radio in Digger’s house. His grandchildren went on to vote Brexit and hate Poles, but by then the ammonia didn’t need oxidising. Poland did it for half the price after the company was taken over and shut down by its new Swiss owners.
Alf went on to be a hater. He already disliked anything that didn’t begin in Essex, especially if it had a non-white skin. I was lucky. My South London accent adapted easily to Essex. There is no th in Essex. I sat in Essex meetings and made up imaginary th conversations, while everyone else denied its existence.
‘Firty free fousand fevvers on a frushe’s froats frottle, Keef,’ was my favourite.
And then there is the k-ending.
‘Ain’t nuffink der ma^er wiv ‘ow we speaks. We ain’t go^ anaccent, ‘ave we?’
Thus, the glottal stop is a moveable feast and can appear anywhere in a sentence. Beginning, middle and end!
‘Oi! Clive! Got dem anali^icals yet?’
Not quite in the same league as Beethoven beginning his Vth with a rest and then …- , but I admired the effort and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one says.
The pub in Southend where I worked is another story, as is Barking, which I nearly was, by then.
And there was worse to come. I went on to Kodak in Rickmansworth. 8 hour shifts in total darkness, staring at a luminous clock dial. But that had compensations, when Vasenti, the lovely Ugandan Asian woman, from upstairs, came down for a cuddle.