I seem to have got off very lightly on the allergy front. I am not sure what I have done right in this or any other life. No drug causes me problems. I don’t get hay fever. No food causes me problems, at least not to the extent of my skin erupting or my having to take to my bed. My aunt was allergic to wasps, and was laid low by a sting. I had a friend at university who was in love with Branston Pickle, but one spoonful of it, and he was laid as low as you can go. There are foods which I regret eating – if I eat eggs, especially soft-boiled ones, which I like, a nagging head-ache sets in a couple of hours later. Maybe that’s a food allergy. Or maybe I just eat soft-boiled eggs whenever my body feels a headache coming on.
All the same, there is one thing which makes me feel very unwell, and I don’t have to ingest it, or touch it, or come into anything other than eye contact or ear contact with it. It is a substance with which I have a hate/hate relationship. It was invented by madmen and is produced by sadists. The whole world would be a better place without it. I would give you used money if you could guarantee that I never had to have a close, or even remote encounter with it again. It is polystyrene. Even typing the word sends a shiver down my spine (at which point the shiver does a left and a right and starts work on infusing the rest of my body).
I don’t know exactly when it started, because I think I may be able to remember a world before polystyrene. But certainly it was a loathing which was intact by the time I made my first visit to Comet, which would have been about 1974, at which point I bought an Akai 4000D tape-deck (reel-to-reel), which seemed to me to be the cutting edge of technology. In those days Comet was a very new company, a word-of-mouth success, the first place anyone had ever seen hi-fit equipment at low prices – they were the equivalent, in the ‘home entertainment’ (isn’t that an ugly phrase?) business of John Bloom in the 1960s, with his cheap washing-machines, the difference being that Comet persisted, and persists.
But the holy grail – the tape-recorder – came packed in polystyrene: not, I think, at that stage, the horrible, thick moulded stuff, but in thousands of little balls. The thing about polystyrene is this: it squeaks. There is also something gratuitously offensive about its touch: sticky without being sticky. And it has a faint, only just discernible odour, too. The sight, touch, and scent of it makes me feel as if someone has injected me with flu. Perhaps it is guilt, since I associate it with having spent just a little too much money on myself. Perhaps it is my conscience.
If I had been taken in by the Spanish Inquisition, I think I might have survived the first round of the rack and the thumbscrew. But it one of the cleverer Jesuits had obtained a block of polystyrene, and had squeaked it or tweaked it just a little, I would have been putty in their hands. One of the best developments in world trade has been the invention of polythene pillows to cushion electrical appliances. All the same, there is always that lingering fear.
Am I alone?