Sometimes, all the signs are there, but we just don’t want to read them.
Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr gave us a perfect example. A widower played by Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains, he stands before his wife’s portrait on finding his perfect second wife. If marrying her is not the right thing, he tells the picture, just give me a sign. Any sign.
He stands there as the picture spins round, the wall behind cracks and a spectral voice wails “No, no, no!” After a while it subsides.
“Just any sign,” he says, “I’ll be on the lookout for it;” and he takes the portrait and puts it in a cupboard somewhere.
The signs are there: we can see them; we can hear them. But the payoff, if we ignore them, is just too great.
Which brings me to the story of the incredible exploding factory.
Rivers can be used for good things; and not so good things. The River Weaver, which runs through Cheshire and the town of Northwich, attracted an industrialist and a chemist in 1873 to build a chemical plant. By 1933, this was known as the ICI works.
There’s this very sensitive, extremely explosive yellow gas. It’s called diazomethane. One day, in the dying days of the 19th century, a gentleman names Hans Von Pechmann was busy heating it in a test tube when he realised there was white waxy stuff at the bottom.
He did not recognise its uses: it took two Englishmen at the Northwich ICI plant to realise this stuff, combined with benzaldehyde,could produce a substance which could cover submarine cables better than any existing compound.
Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson were pleased with their invention. Someone made a little polythene pill-box and presented it to one of the chemists. The insulating properties of polythene were considerable: the military rendered the whole business top secret and everything went quiet during World War Two: but at the end of the war ICI licensed Bakelite to start creating plastics using polythene , and the rest is household history.
Submarine manufacturers ordered 100 tonnes of polythene, back in those experimental days, making it possible for a production plant to be opened on the day Hitler invaded Poland.
But, the story goes, there proved to be a problem. The highly explosive nature of the production process meant that the factory must have a regular two-week shut down every two or three years, or it would explode.
They had a warning system: but one year the warning came too late and the factory exploded.
But the seductive qualities of the material being produced were too great. Explosion was a small price to pay for the money polythene was bringing in.
And so, it is claimed, ICI designed a prefabricated building, built over a concrete skeleton, which was specifically designed to explode with the minimum of fuss. It was reputedly allowed to explode, now and then, until an explosion-proof building was built in 1978.
Verifying this story is fiendishly difficult. It’s not something the tourist board or the local councils like to tell you. But talk to the locals and their recollections are there.
In a thread from the local paper, the Northwich Guardian’s website , locals discuss Northwich’s shiny new plaque identifying it as ‘Birthplace of Polythene”. “Old people” comments one contributor, “…will remember the plant exploding periodically and hard blobs of polythene being found in the fields.”
A sign. Just any sign.
Reversing the process of creating polythene is a thousand-year business. It is fortunate the globe has such a vast time scale, less fortunate that we live only a century at best.
We can choose to ignore even the most blatant signs, if there’s something in it for us. But our happiness – and our future -depends on turning to look them full in the face.
With thanks to John May’s Book of Curious Facts (Collins and Brown, 1993) for a cracking lead.
And thanks to RamblesWithACamera for the stunning mosaic picture!