I think the real problem was that I’d finished the gin a couple of nights before. Obviously gin wouldn’t be a good alternative to vodka, but if it had been there on the shelf it would have reminded me that there were alternatives to vodka, and then I might have thought of using brandy. Which probably wouldn’t have worked as well as vodka, but would certainly have been better than what I did use.
But let’s start at the beginning. I changed schools at the beginning of the third year (year 9 as it is now), with the consequence that I missed a year or eighteen months of Chemistry. By the time I joined, the teacher had got the basics sorted out and was onto the reactivity of the halogens. I remember that because of the way the lessons worked: for the first half of the lesson the teacher would dictate a couple of pages which we would all take down, after which he’d get us to do an experiment demonstrating some aspect of whatever it was. So my first introduction to Chemistry (and for that matter chemistry) consisted of the phrase ‘The Reactivity of the Halogens’. I made sure I spelled it right, if nothing else.
I gave up Chemistry at the end of the third year. By then I’d learnt about Hydrogen having one bond and… er… other elements having more; the building-block aspect of molecules quite appealed to me for a while. But I’d never really found my way around the periodic table – or, more importantly, got any sense of why I might want to. Frankly, I don’t think the reactivity of the halogens was a good place to start.
By the time I left school I was OK on solids and liquids (we’d done them in Physics); I knew about some things being radioactive and most things fortunately not; and I knew that the pH scale measured acidity (or possibly alkalinity) (or is it both?), although this was partly thanks to that Peter Hammill album. Other than that, what I knew about chemical substances was very, very limited. If you were to ask me to name a solvent and a lubricant, for example, and tell you the difference between those types of liquid, I would have been at a loss.
Not now, though; I’ve got it all worked out now. If you’ve got a bit of gunk clogging up a mechanism, a solvent and a lubricant will both get the mechanism working again, but in different ways. The solvent dissolves the bonds that make the dirt stick together and stick to the surface it’s stuck to, so you end up with bits of dirt distributed uncloggily through the solvent. The lubricant leaves the dirt in place, but introduces a low-friction medium between the dirt and the workings, which enables the workings to slide over the dirt without getting stuck. With a solvent, the dirt at worst gets broken down and spread out, at best gets wiped up along with any remaining solvent. With a lubricant, the dirt and the lubricant both stay there, but the mechanism doesn’t care any more.
(Incidentally, I read somewhere that water would be a good lubricant, as long as whatever it was lubricating was cool, water-tight and uncorroding. And water’s obviously a reasonable solvent, as in washing. Is there some sort of scale that goes off either way with water in the middle, like with acids and alkali? Come to think of it, why is it a ‘pH’ scale anyway? It’s not actually something to do with Peter Hammill, is it?)
Anyway, about the brandy. The first time I ever saw someone clean a really dirty LP – at what was then Lashmar’s in Croydon, possibly when I sold them my Saturnalia LP – it was with cotton wool and vodka. I was mightily impressed and started sneaking my parents’ vodka for the purpose. (Not enough for them to notice, unfortunately – it would have made a much better story.) Some time later I discovered that you could buy little red bottles of ethyl alcohol for just this purpose. But if you don’t often play LPs, you don’t often need to clean an LP. So yesterday, when I was mid-way through ripping one of my Talking Heads albums and discovered great patches of encrusted god-knows-what making big crunchy noises, I couldn’t lay hands on my little red bottle.
What to do? We keep vodka in the house, but at the moment it’s quite a nice vodka (it was a present). We’re out of gin (which would be a bit sticky anyway), and for some reason – possibly because of the absence of gin – brandy didn’t occur to me. So I used WD-40.
Much later – after wiping off the excess, wiping off the rest of the excess and wiping off as much of what was left as I could get at, waiting half an hour in the vain hope that it would evaporate, then starting again – I realised that WD-40 is a lubricant rather than a solvent. Consequently it’s been quite happy to sit in the grooves and not go anywhere. It hasn’t even had any effect on the big crunchy patches of encrusted god-knows-what; they are less noticeable, though, as the whole of side 2 now sounds like an archive recording of one of Edison’s earlier cylinders.
Fortunately I was able to get hold of MP3s of the album, so I’ve now got very nearly what I was trying to achieve in the first place (an LP on the shelf and an album on the Mac). And I know – or rather, I’m aware of – slightly more about chemistry than I was aware of knowing before. Or perhaps I should say, I’m slightly more aware of what I don’t know.