All posts by marnixr

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

I’m currently a member of the British Steel Steel Pensions Transfer group on Facebook, even though I was not in a position to take my money out of the British Steel Pension Scheme. It just happened that when the group was split between pensioners and transfers, I got a place in both group.

Anyhow, less than a year since BSPS2 was formed, and with the markets being not exactly thriving with Brexit, Trump and whatnot, a number of the tranferees are now starting to worry about how their pot is shrinking to an extent that was not envisaged less than a year ago. And I’m not even speaking about those who were miss-sold and had their fingers burnt by sharks who promised a lot and gave little in return. No, even the so-called respectable firms like the Prudential are not doing well and even conservative investments are making a loss.

On the other hand, there’s this podcast on BBC Money entitled Perfect Pensions Storm which – far too late in my opinion – highlights the plight of those who were overwhelmed by the size of their promised money pot and decided to jump rather than stick with the pension scheme they started to distrust because they thought the scheme was colluding with Tata.

I was not in a position to make the transfer choice myself, but feel pretty sure that I would have opted for BSPS2. After all, if the debacle of our endowment mortgage had taught us anything is that rates of return are not guaranteed to stay at the level they have historically been at. At least a mortgage is not the same as a retirement pot, and we were able to put it down to experience and move on. As I’ve stated in a different blog (see blog “BSPS2“), this may well develop into the next PPI mis-selling scandal.



A-wing of the now demolished Welsh Labs building was where I had my office for most of my time at British Steel’s Tinplate R&D department. It was a rather strange building in that it’s partitioning between offices consisted of metal panels that could be rearranged or taken away to make differently shaped office spaces. One of the advantages was that you only needed magnets instead of a pinboard to hang up calendars and other pieces of paperwork.

Our office also had a number of columns which presumably were part of the building’s support structure. As things turned out these columns were hollow, for reasons unknown to me. All offices also had a false ceiling consisting of tiles, so that all sorts of wiring could be made hidden away while at the same being easily accessible when required.

Now it so happened that a blackbird had managed to find its way into the building and had been flying around in the first floor corridor, when, feeling chased by people who walked around the corridor, it flew into our office, saw a panel missing in our false ceiling, and found safe (or so it thought) shelter from those pesky two-legged apes.

Before we could even contemplate what, if anything, could be done about this bird, we heard it shuffle around in what must have been a dark and confusing space. And then the event that made looking for it a totally moot point : it must have blundered near where the hollow pillars were, and then we heard it fall and flutter inside the pillar.

I can’t quite remember for how long the fluttering continued, but it can’t have been more than a few days. So for the remaining time Welsh Labs existed as a building this pillar must have contained a mummified blackbird. It must have been removed in an unceremonious way when the building was demolished, and probably no-one ever noticed its existence.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Steel Toe-capped Shoes

All through my time in the UK I’ve been issued with steel tie-capped shoes. Strangely enough (or not, as the case may be) i don’t remember ever wearing any in South Africa. Presumably people working on the shop floor were, but as far as I can remember I always was wearing my own standard shoes.

The importance of steel toe-capped shoes was highlighted one time when I was working at the Contistretch’s Test House. A forklift truck reversed over someone’s foot, and had it not been for the steel toe-caps,he would have lost his foot. As it was, after the initial time off work, this person came to work at the Test House for a year or so until he was sufficiently healed to resume his job on the shop floor.

On a lighter note, the steel tips of this type of shoes could easily be used for a type of practical joke that required the door in question to be sturdy as well : you hit the lower door with your shoe, while at the same pretending that you had hit it with your head. Mind you, it’s really only a “funny once” joke, no-one’s good night to fall for that one a second time.

Generally speaking, steel toe-capped shoes are such a sturdy and comfortable footwear that they often get used for outdoor activities. I remember using them on the Inca Trail and never once getting my feet wet while walking in the pouring rain with little streams running down the hill side. Mind you, they also caused a bit of a hold-up when make no a transit in Paris : I kept setting off the metal detector even after I had taken off my wallet, keys, belt and anything else that might conceivably set off the alarm. It was the only later, after the customs guy had given up and let me through, that I realised that the shoes were the real cause for the metal detector throwing a fit. Happily this was prior to 9/11, otherwise the shoes might have caused far more disruption.

Cape Town and the Sea

Having been born in Bruges, and having spent the first 28 years of my life there, the sea was a constant presence. Not that I lived AT the seaside, but it always was within easy reach, a leisurely 10 km bicycle ride following the canal between Bruges and Zeebrugge whenever the weather was pleasant enough to spend a Saturday afternoon in the dunes between Blankenberge and Zeebrugge. Or sometimes a short ride in the car to visit my granddad when he used to live in Uitkerke, not far from Blankenberge. An aunt of mine, who used to live north of Brussels, always said she could smell the sea when she approached Bruges on the motorway.

So imagine moving to Vanderbijlpark, as far removed from the sea as you possibly could be in South Africa. Not that the lack of a seaside nearby was openly obvious, but somehow it must have been in the back of my mind. Maybe the novelty of the Veldt was enough to temporarily displace the yearning for the seaside, and at the time I was not even aware that there was a gap waiting to be filled.

Then came the visit of the engineers-in-training to Cape Town in June 1985. No sooner had we checked in in our hotel in Cape Town, that I walked to the seafront and sniffed up the sea air, filling my lungs with the salty presence. Finally acknowledging the marine gap in my life. When we ultimately left South Africa and returned to Britain, the sea was never this far away again, and now, living in Cardiff with the sea no more than 5 miles away, the yearning has definitely been put to rest.

Chem Lab

As a metallurgist, my exposure to chemical labs has fortunately been rather limited. I say fortunately since I’m not that comfortable with chemicals – not a phobia, but just a realisation that they’re not exactly my thing.

It already started in my first two years at university where we had a weekly chem. lab practical. I clearly remember someone making a boo-boo (fortunately not me) by adding aluminium curls to nitric acid and creating a massive cloud of brown smoke in the process. He had forgotten to dilute his nitric acid before adding the aluminium curls, hence the rather unexpectedly violent reaction.
The second image I have is of our group having to identify metals dissolved in a liquid through a set of instructions involving the addition of H2S, the filtration of unpleasantly goo-y substances such as Fe(OH)3 and similar operations. It seems that the research assistants in charge were expecting us to visualise the chemical reactions involved, but to be honest, to me it was just a matter of following the recipe and hoping for the best. The one image that remains in my mind’s eye is that of seeing our group at work from a distance and observing the cloud of gaseous reaction products floating above our heads.

Mind you, it’s not always dull and dutiful. At one time I had completed a titration and had managed to match the colour of the comparison liquid to a tee. Job well done. I don’t know what made me do it, but I wondered what would happen if I added my liquid to the comparison liquid of the same colour. Turned out that the colour of the comparison liquid was achieved in a totally different fashion, because when I mixed the two liquids, I obtained something that looked like orange juice, definitely not the colour to aim for during the titration exercise.

Last but not least, when I was doing the practical work for my thesis, I had to prepare a weakly acidic solution of hydrochloric acid in water in preparation of my electro-galvanising experiments. At one point this resulted in a few drops of undiluted acid coming in contact with my trousers, and although it appeared at the time that no harm had been gone, these same trousers started to develop holes where it had been in contact with the acid. Maybe I should have washed the trousers after the incident, but by the time I realised this, the damage had been done.

I can’t remember having anything more to do with chemicals as a professional metallurgist, and my subsequent drift into IT made this type of exposure even less likely. Probably better for my health too.