The Periodic Table

I began the day as a traffic director. There had very recently been an accident along the A337 further along the road to Lymington. I wandered out to see what was causing the tailback past our house, and the number of vehicles turning round and going back the way they had come. Very soon drivers, one after the other, were asking me questions such as ‘How can I get out of this?’. Especially those booked onto the ferry desperately needing an alternative route. I surprised myself by realising that I knew one. One woman carried a tray of home-made jam tarts on her passenger seat. They looked rather inviting.

Soon a recovery vehicle appeared with one damaged car on board, and all reverted to normal. We have always wondered why there are not more accidents on this winding road on which many people drive far too fast.

Afterwards I dug out a wide trench, and lined it with a weed suppressant membrane and sand, for the brick platform for the bench purchased yesterday. Rain set in at lunchtime so I had to stop. Later, during a brief lull, I placed the bricks. Further rain delayed trimming the edges of the membrane.Paving for benchElizabeth's rose

Elizabeth’s unidentified rose is now in bloom. It is coral pink, and has a good scent.

XWDCryptic crossword setters are a devious breed. One of the devices used for clueing is the use of abbreviations. During my Mordred decades, Chambers XWD, a Dictionary of Crossword Abbreviations, is one of the books I co-wrote with Michael Kindred.  I won’t bore readers with an explanation of how and why we adopted a two way approach, but during the the process we had recourse to a list of chemical elements, where we could check that the abbreviation for potassium is K, not P as one might think.

The Periodic Table is a list of chemical elements arranged in order of their atomic number. Major dictionaries present a supplement of these in alphabetical order according to their abbreviations Silver, being abbreviated as Ag, is therefore second on a dictionary list, even though its atomic number is 47. That exhausts my knowledge of the scientist’s Periodic Table which I wouldn’t have the first idea how to apply.

Silver is one of the chapter headings to Primo Levi’s autobiographical work, The Periodic Table which I finished reading today. The chapters are not numbered. Each one bears the title of a chemical element. In the last, Carbon, the author states that his book is neither a chemical treatise nor an autobiography, but ‘in some fashion a history’. Most are interesting autobiographical stories featuring a particular element and following a chronological sequence. A couple, in italics in my Folio Society edition, concern other individuals from long ago.

The book is well written and holds the interest of this reader who has no interest in chemistry. I was able to understand Levi’s explanations until that final chapter where he rather lost me. I was struck by the humanity the writer showed in the Vanadium chapter towards a German scientist who he had met in Auschwitz.

The Periodic Table illustration

My copy is translated by Raymond Rosenthal, introduced by Ian Thompson, and imaginatively illustrated by Mark Smith.

This evening we dined on Jackie’s succulent sausage casserole and new potatoes, followed by fruit salad, strawberries, and Swiss roll. The Cook drank Hoegaarden, and I drank Marques de Carano gran reserva 2008.


  1. I think I was half way through the book; it’s probably lying opened and face down somewhere in one of my messy piles of paperwork. I remember thinking ‘what sort of mind can construct such a book?’ but other than a general impression of trauma I can’t remember much detail.

  2. By your excellent photograph it appears that not only a rose by any other name, but even a rose by no name at all, may be just as beautiful and sweet….

  3. I read Primo Levi back in the early- middle 90’s I think . I found the translator made a huge difference as to whether I enjoyed the book or not – and now I don’t remember the who of them.
    Your knowledge of the Periodic Table matches mine almost exactly 🙂

  4. Thank you for making me realise I can still recite the first 16 elements of the periodic table that I memorised in my final year of high school 22 years ago. Brains are so weird.

  5. Didn’t he also write Christ Stopped at Eboli? Need to wander out to the bookshelf. I found his writing absorbing, even though sometimes it took a while to process it–So you may ultimately understand Vanadium…

  6. In a “Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’engle, the heroine of the story, Meg, recites the periodic table to keep her sanity when she is captured by the forces of evil. As a child, this impressed me. I wonder how many other writers have used the periodic table in their work?

  7. I really like the art work on that book – which is about as far as I can go with the periodic table… My mind somehow switches off in a science lesson – but I like the idea of the chapters being broken down into the chemical elements…somehow, bizarrely, that makes sense to me!

  8. Your life is certainly a full one. Book publisher, information man, traffic director, gardener, foodie, historian. Each time I read a post I am delighted by all the things that capture your interest.

  9. Great to see the progress with your brick platform and learn that a little rain doesn’t keep you from it’s completion. That dinner and wine seem to have been the perfect reward for a full day if work well done!

    1. Unfortunately, after 20 years in print, the publishers were taken over by a firm only interested in e-books, so ours are out of print, though they turn up on e-bay and dealers’ websites

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