Wednesday 24 December 2014


The photograph I’m looking at, which has been reproduced as a postcard – on the back there are lines printed for an address and the word ‘Wellington’ in italic where the stamp should go, with the left side left blank for a message, though there is no message – shows fourteen men in a simple laboratory. Seven are wearing white lab coats. Two of the men appear to be older than the others – one standing on the right, with glasses and white hair, the other towards the back – and are perhaps the teachers, or supervisors, of the others, who are students. None is facing the camera; all have their heads down; the atmosphere couldn’t possibly be more studious. The students are sitting on stools and are working at benches equipped with those little nipples for attaching Bunsen burners; some are looking into microscopes; there is also some electrical equipment, and perhaps flasks, and the man at the very back may be observing or adjusting a kind of gauge. The room is lit through tall windows to the left, and there are also overhead electric lamps; the floor is bare wooden boards. They are studying what happens when you put this in contact with that; how gases and liquids and electric currents behave, how light behaves, how cells behave; what makes us tick. This is progress. I doubt their professors make many jokes in their lectures. There are no women in the room, and I believe that even if a woman did enter the room – in a long black skirt and white blouse, with her hair pinned up – it’s possible that none of the students would look up, so focused are they on their work. But a woman could do worse than find her husband among these men, because they are serious and conscientious and after their studies are completed many will acquire secure and well-paid jobs. They will wash their hands before meals, be moderate in their drinking and keep strict accounts. Some of the students will become village pharmacists but one will go on to make an important new discovery that will change how in the future a disease is treated or miners work more safely or murderers be put to death more humanely or babies born prematurely may have better chances of survival. A number of them will be killed in the next war. They may fight on different sides, according to circumstances or their beliefs, which need have little to do with the work they doing. Suicide and madness will also feature. Meanwhile, some will return in a few years’ time for their professor’s retirement dinner, at which speeches will be made and comic incidents will be remembered. All of this is already known in outline to the student at the back who looks to be the youngest in the room and who is standing up while one of the two teachers inspects his work and who I will call Jan, but this is an important time in his life and he cannot afford to let it distract him.

No comments: