Simple Simms taught me chemistry from age eleven to fifteen. He was keen, distracted, had a boyish face and somehow controlled the class by the gob smacking way he would ignore any semblance of health and safety. When Trillo, a somewhat dilettante young lad released a pipette of sulphuric acid over his thigh instead of the test tube he was holding and, perhaps understandably screamed that his uniform was dissolving, Simms’ ‘oh, for heaven’s sake, what now, boy?’, while admirably lacking panic also lacked any sort of plan B guidance for poor Trillo. And standing by, shaking his head as Trillo climbed onto the bench and stuck his melting limb under the gushing taps was the epitome of a certain British stiff-upper-lippery especially when coupled with the way he offered the mop so Trillo could clean up the ponding that ensued, rather than send him to ‘see nurse’.
I only saw Simple flustered once and that was when an experiment to create hydrogen sulphide got out of hand. As he admonished the class to ‘depart forthwith’, which we were happy to do, he took what were practical if rather unorthodox safety measures of his own – to whit, he switched on the extractors and climbed into the fume cupboard where he squatted until the deadly gases cleared, like some self exhibiting lemur.
One thing about chemistry that I do remember however is Simple’s insistence on a ‘control’ for every experiment we undertook. The need to have something with which to contrast whatever disaster we had instigated.
I was reminded of this today when reading a post by Rebecca Ruark of Rust Belt Girl fame, here.
I’ll let you read it, because it is excellent and the article she links to equally fine. And it reminded me about how we can all do things, selfish things, that have larger consequences than we both know at the time or later until, finally, either directly or by dint of our own experiences we realise the ‘What did I do?’ Question should, could have been answered differently and maybe the outcome would have been better.
My family moved from a rather grubby, albeit leafy north Surrey in 1969 to the fresher, even more leafy south Hampshire as a result of Dad’s job. He held out against the move for years but promotion, indeed maybe the job itself left him no choice. I was nearly a teen, the Archaeologist was one and we both hated the move, the loss friendships and familiarity. Two years later dad’s firm was at it again, this time pushing him towards Antwerp and thereafter Grangemouth (near Aberdeen in Scotland, further away both geographically and socially than Antwerp). It meant dad moving forward in his job; it ensured his employment.
He enjoyed the idea. He wasn’t unique in having both ambition and ego. Going would have meant a lot to him and, as a family to us in terms of a happy pappy and financial security.
But we didn’t. At the time I, and I expect the Archaeologist too, didn’t feel part of the decision making process but looking back our patent, and loudly expressed antipathy to the idea had its role to play. We had both carved out new friendships, new comfort zones but rather than giving us the confidence to believe we could do it again, and maybe again, it felt like we’d used up all the ‘making new friends’ luck that was going around and we weren’t happy about the idea that we experiment again. No control, you see.
Dad always said we made the right decision, that he loved living where we did in the New Forest and an apartment in a drear part of Antwerp wouldn’t be the same. He never spoke much of the Grangemouth idea expect to shudder whenever the name was mentioned. And in many ways that was true, that we enjoyed staying where we were. But also true was that moment marked the start of a process of disillusionment turning to downright disgust with his job and his employers that grew as the 1970s morphed into the 1980s. His job was constantly under threat – he fought off redundancy at least twice before he was finally forced to take early retirement in 1986. And in those later years his loathing of his workplace began to infect his relationships with everyone, including his family. He was, putting not to finer point on it a class A 1 arsehole at times and, had I not had my heart set on going to University in 1975 I doubt I could have stayed at home without going more than a little demented.
He took an age to get used to retirement – two years at least – but when suddenly it clicked he was a changed man. A joy to be around, to spend time with.
Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight I can see how that decision – or rather those decisions – to sacrifice corporate advancement weighted heavily on him. He took one for the team. Would things have been different had he gone and worked in Belgium? Of course but I wonder in what ways? I wonder what the control would have looked like against the experiment. Because, in a way we lived the control and not the experiment.
My mother’s lot would have been different too; in those grey grizzly years she had to put up with a bundle of balonney, just to keep the peace. She wouldn’t have had it any other way as it meant we stayed together and eventually mum and dad enjoyed their autumn in the place they loved best – her garden and his New Forest.
So the end justified the means? I still wonder…