Robert Palmer’s Johnny & Mary has just come on the radio. I’ve not heard it for ages. It forever reminds me of Sunday afternoons when I lived in a tiny village in Germany (Perouse, to be precise, an old Huguenot settlement with one street, typical of Huguenot settlements), and listened to AFN’s charts on my trusty radio whilst either shaving in the windowless bathroom, or washing my clothes in the bath in the same bathroom, because the flat I rented in the house of a fellow teacher didn’t have a washing machine. The memory crystallizes some thoughts I keep having but have never articulated. How I seemed to be happiest when I had next to nothing, when I was happy to live far away from what some might have considered to be my home, when there was always time to do what I wanted and not to be guided by circumstance, when there were still wide open spaces in my mind rather than the clutter I’m experiencing now, in my sixties. Trained to materialism, I suppose, that’s what this is all about; how most of us, regardless of our outlook, are conditioned to want things, to want more, how we have grown to be comfortable and dull rather than uncomfortable and interesting and interested.
The main thought that has been circulating in my mind since before Christmas, and more strongly than usual, is this – how many things has humankind invented that are either completely unnecessary or that have been invented only to make life easier than it otherwise would be? And I’m talking about the small things, not the big obvious things like atom bombs, guns, plastic, and fighter jets (have I mentioned that the military low-flying over Norwich is seriously annoying me, and that it’s a danger to people?).
We always talk about small victories; these inventions are more like small defeats. I opened a standard lamp I needed for the office the other day, and there were little plastic placeholders in there to stop the separate parts of the light’s stem from rattling. Really? Complicated toilet cistern design and plumbing, and the specialist tools you need to fix the seat in place because of the convoluted way in which the cistern is constructed. Oh, yes. Paperclips. Staples. Dispensers for all sorts of sticky tape. Tile spacers. Digital watches. Lanyards, lanyards!!!! For God’s sake. Four-ring ring-binders. Legal size paper (I’m looking at you, US of A). Foolscap paper (English exceptionalism). Laminators. Self-service check-outs. Digital watches. Little gizmos that allow you to manipulate other little gizmos in a fraction of the time it takes you to realise that neither gizmo is needed. That corrugated thin piece of shiny paper with a logo on it inside the lid of boxes of chocolate. Boxes of chocolate, especially milk chocolate (I realise this is entirely subjective; it takes me a year to go through a standard-size toblerone). Different vans for different occupations. Soft-close drawers and the tools you need to put them together. Phones with non-replaceable batteries. Actually, batteries; what’s wrong with inventing decent clockwork mechanisms for anything mechanical? Digital watches. The repetition’s deliberate, by the way; it’s called writing. All kinds of special dispensers for all kinds of things above and below counters. Escalators. Moving walkways in airports. Carousel shelves in fitted kitchens. Actually, fitted kitchens. Ice dispensers on fridges. Anything made by Apple. Shoes with Velcro. Velcro. Neck ties. Jumpers with a quarter of a shirt in them so you can pretend you’re wearing a shirt under your jumper. Machines that automate making things rather than people making things (and without giving those replaced people the much-hyped and then forgotten about leisure time of science fiction thinking and a universal salary).
I could go on, but I need to distract myself from being a grumpy old man by doing some serious writing. Maybe I’m just “lacking a real sense of proportion.”