Artist tries chemistry, but the two don't mix

Somewhere in a small but mislaid bundle of letters I wrote from school, is one that includes a reminder to my parents. Its tone suggests, I am a little shamefaced to admit, a rather bossy side to my early teenage self. The message, in essence, was "make sure everything I will need is ready - trowel, shovel, sand, gravel, cement, potassium permanganate...."

Well, I may not in fact, have mentioned potassium permanganate. But I knew, all the same (having carefully studied a small book on the subject), that I would need some once I had finished building the new pond and was ready to fill it with water. It would help make the cement less lethal to plants and fish. Oddly, in a completely uncharacteristic way, I rather looked forward to using this chemical. I had met it before. For me it had a kind of magical property that tickled my fancy.

But chemistry was not really my thing. When I had arrived at this new school at the age of 14, it became very clear very quickly that chemistry was not going to be a salient part of my life's ambition. In the preparatory school there had been no "science" teaching. So biology, physics, chemistry, and even - though this was for rather more perverse reasons - botany, as taught at my new school, baffled me totally from the outset. It all seemed to start at a point miles above anything I had previously learned. Most of the other boys seemed already perfectly familiar with Bunsen burners and pipettes and sulfuric this and magnesium that. Not me. I didn't even find the smell that pervaded the chemistry lab attractive.

When it came to biology, this was taught by an amiable gentleman known as The Uncle. I fear that The Uncle was not really born to teaching. He was probably too gentle, a bit of a plodder. He knew his subject, no doubt, but simply read his notes to us and expected us to copy them down. He also found it impossible to control us, rabble that we were.

Physics was taught by a precisely spoken man with a double-barreled name and a certain embonpoint whom I remember now for two things, neither of them connected with physics. The first was a semi-jocular saying with which he would begin each class. "Before we commence, I wish you to space your desks so that a - ahem - man of moderate girth may pass between them." The second was that he was the very first person to buy one of my paintings. I am a touch embarrassed to think that he liked it so much, whilst I disliked his subject so intensely.

Botany - which I ought to have greatly enjoyed, having an early-formed love of plants - was not a success for me because of a not altogether unreasonable suspicion that the teacher would hang, draw, and quarter me if I moved a muscle.

The combination of these teachers and me seemed calculated to ensure that my future would be in the arts and humanities. The earliest opportunity afforded me to drop their subjects, however, from my curriculum and concentrate on such disciplines as literature and painting, would not be until after I had convinced the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board that I was beyond all reasonable hope in such areas of academic achievement.

This was not hard to do.

I remember one aspect of the physics paper. We were asked to draw a diagram of the behavior of iron filings when subjected to negative and positive magnets. While I loved drawing - passionately - my affection for iron filings was (and still is) somewhat underdeveloped. There I was, alone at a desk, faced with a question that seemed of minuscule significance in the world I wanted to inhabit - and anyway I didn't have the faintest recollection of ever having been taught the answer. I had time on my hands (since I didn't understand any of the other questions) so, using whatever draftsmanlike suavity I could muster, I spent a happy hour drawing fancifully patterned filings in delightful configurations I hoped might satisfy the examiner. You never know, you might be lucky!

I wasn't, of course; and not too much later physics and I parted company without regret, and so did biology, botany, chemistry.

But I still have rather a persistent liking for potassium permanganate.

Paradoxically, potassium permanganate was probably responsible for my purely and unrealistically romantic idea of what chemistry was all about. As a small boy, I had begged for a chemistry set. It appealed to me rather more as a promise than a fulfillment. I recall one or two fizzy bubbly things in it, and a glorious pong or two you could devise, but it was potassium permanganate that most grabbed me. If you dissolved it in water, the water turned a splendidly strong purple. Then if you added something else (and I haven't now a notion what it was) the water became perfectly clear again. Just like that!

I suppose this fascinating phenomenon from which I drew no useful conclusions except childish delight indicated that I was, in an evolutionary sense, at a primitive, naive stage of chemistry. The next stage (which never occurred) would have been for me to believe, like a medieval alchemist, that base metals could be turned into gold.

It was the decision to make a concrete pond at home that brought potassium permanganate into my life again. I read that I should fill the pond with water and then add some of the enchanting chemical. Later I should empty the pond, scrub it, fill it again, and wait some days.

I followed these instructions. The plants grew happily and the goldfish were comfortable enough to breed prolifically.

Today, many moons later, I am once again making a concrete pond. This time I have referred to a much larger, more elaborate, authoritative book, and its recommendation is to use unexciting "household vinegar." I admit to a small tinge of disappointment. I was rather looking forward to another encounter with those purple crystals. Vinegar doesn't seem to have quite the same aesthetic clout, somehow.

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