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brought profits to the enterprise and established the practice of canning. I paused. Now why did Donkin sound so

familiar? Was this the same Donkin who made the gas valves which still bear his name? Yes. His firm didn’t do canning for very long – he was an engineer by nature, and having solved the problem of how to preserve food, he moved on. Multi-skilling was not an expression he knew, but this canning was a minor diversion he had indulged, in a corner of his paper making business. I had first heard of Donkin as a

pioneer in the early gas and electricity industry – he received the RSA medal for measuring accurately the velocity of rotating machinery (I first heard of him when I was being introduced to steam and water driven turbines at the CEGB, in the early 1980s). His portrait can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, an engraving of the men of science, along with Herschell (Uranus) Mylne (Blackfriars Bridge) Watt (steam engine) and Dalton (atoms). More pertinently for me, this is the man who was known in Calcutta for the double colour printing technology of the excise stamp, thereby preventing forgery, and maximising the Imperial tax revenue. His printing methods were used in the 1930s to print the very pamphlets, which advocated that the British should leave India. He also helped Brunel tunnel under the Thames. Today, in Rotherhithe, he is

remembered in the name of an accommodation block in the Rennie estate – these two blocks are called ‘Donkin House’. Is this how we remember such versatile and ‘engaged’ citizens? What legacy has this man left, whose invention has transformed the lives of so many women? More hours in the day, yes. I would argue that his product has taught us to value ‘usefulness’. I stood on my new balcony from

which I can see a small section of the same River Thames – I miss the geraniums on my Barbican balcony – despite the nice view I now enjoy. Inside that monument to Pugin’s genius are men and women we have elected and many more, unseen but influential (whose work MPs sometimes pass off as their own) –


trying to run our country. I wish that they had time to think, and respond to the real needs of today, as did our Mr Donkin. After his death the Royal Society, said that “His life was one uninterrupted course of usefulness and good purpose.” Hardly surprising really; he had helped the Empire collect revenues and his canned food had made the Army and Navy healthier for battle. He had responded to the needs of his day with imagination and curiosity – and as a businessman and inventor, was a practitioner of that increasingly rare activity - ‘joined-up thinking’. The Cambridge dictionary defines

this as ‘thinking about a complicated problem in an intelligent way that includes all the important facts.’ I remember Mr Baines saying that we should all learn to distinguish between what is interesting and what is important. To paraphrase him dangerously, interesting things go on in individual heads, but important things (sometimes also interesting) also actually matter. What matters today seems to be a distinction we make rarely – perhaps because we have loosened our hold on ideas about what shouldmatter. I turned away – the buses continued

to turn on a sunlit Lambeth Bridge - and went back to my emails. I was enjoined by my junk mail to have an affair, because life is short, (an agency would arrange introductions, for married people, discreetly). Emails offered me many forms of Viagra, discounted travel, insurance, another loan, and a new woman from Romania. I deleted them. An affair may be interesting but my family is important – your teaching turns out to have been useful, thank you Mr Baines. I dealt with the administration of some small things, (important, as they

matter to individuals, and constitute paid work), and thought again about cans, and what they contain – an interesting pastime, as I looked at my son’s room – a metaphor for universal chaos, whence undoubtedly only God might create order. Not feeling quite so omnipotent, I

sat down with a cup of coffee, and looked at the post, and an old newspaper. The business pages consisted of press-releases rehashed without skill or discretion into indifferent columns of print. None of it touches on what is useful; it all seems to be about the lives of celebrities. Somebody needs to tell the editors that women are changing. Their touchstone is increasingly, usefulness. Almost to confirm my prejudices, a

new contact emailed me. She had thought of a way around the problem Donkin House, Rotherhithe

Arthur Wellesley – 1st Duke of Wellington- Source Wikimedia Commons

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