Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The re-imagined wheel


Loligo Marypoppinus by Pants



Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly said, 'if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a pathway to your door.' It isn't in any of his written papers. Apparently he ad-libbed it at a lecture and it was noted down by a journalist. The phrase is firmly cemented into our collective consciousness now. Should we thank this anonymous scribe? Probably not. The context of this proclamation is lost in the intellectual ether. For all we know, Emerson might have prefaced that remark with, 'wouldn't the world be a terrible place if everyone thought...'


All human ingenuity now seems directed to mousetrap improvement programmes, whether it's warranted or not. Anyone who has ever been tempted to try a new-fangled tin opener or jaunty vegetable peeler will know that some things are perfect just as they are. Ma Pants still uses the olive green vegetable peeler and wooden handled egg beater we grew up with and one or two kitchen items she inherited from her own mother. Of course she still has the canteen of cutlery she received as a wedding present. Even a drifter like Pants has a 70s Bamix and a collection of jumble find Le Creuset. I'll be buried with those.

At one time, the word 'durable' was applied to any product that wasn't a 'perishable'. Kitchen utensils were expected to last the length of an adult life. Perhaps now they're being manufactured to last the length of the average marriage, or possibly the duration of a kitchen refurb. I'm guessing you'd want your mouli julienne to match your benchtops if you were the type of person who walked into your kitchen in the morning and thought, 'I'm just not happy with the way this room looks.' 

There are so many household items whose basic design hasn't changed since antiquity. The shape of combs, hair fasteners, hand tools and most feasting paraphernalia is unaltered and often the materials are the same. Combs and buttons are no longer made from animal bones but glasses are still made of glass and crockery of clay. Every so often a renegade designer decides that a square bowl or cup seems like a good idea but people soon work out that hot liquids doing a Niagara down their chin and unextractable chunks of gooseberry fool are not the ideal finale for a dinner party and to the back of the cupboard they go.

I once had lunch at The Grosvenor and they had leaning tumblers that looked like miniature towers of Pisa. They were difficult to pick up, impossible to fill, uncomfortable to hold and, unless you concentrated much harder than a diner ought to be expected to, they fell over when you tried to put them down. It was like lunching on the set of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Hard to imagine the artistic motivation behind this miserable misère and it certainly reaped a string of unintended consequences. Everyone complained about the tumblers and asked that they be taken away and replaced with glasses that could stand up straight. It's the only thing I can recall about The Grosvenor. A negative impact like that can last a long time. 

The Museum of London was one of my favourite rainy afternoon places. It has a huge collection of Roman household items. When you realise that a device like the bathroom tweezer is thousands of years old - the Egyptians had them - you wonder how it's possible to make tweezers than don't actually work. Yet, in my experience, you need to buy fairly good tweezers if you expect them to triumph over your monobrow. How is it possible to make dysfunctional tweezers? 

Never mind building a better mousetrap, our combined intelligence would be better spent on streamlining ways to guarantee mousetrap quality. Enterprise is all very well but how much customer time and goodwill is lost to the pettiness of faulty products? Every time you buy a simple device, like a vegetable peeler, that you know should strip potatoes beautifully and last a goodly long while into the bargain and it falls apart the first time it comes up against a King Edward, you get cross and you express your crossness to a quivering, self-harming fifteen-year-old in a supermarket because there is no one else to vent to.

Recently I bought a lawnmower. It was cheap and I didn't expect it to John Deere its way into the middle of the century but neither was I expecting its plastic blade guard to explode spectacularly hitting me in the leg the third time I used it. When I took the shattered piece of plastic back to the shop, the salesperson casually remarked that he'd had lots back like this but unfortunately he couldn't get me a replacement because the company had gone bust and the mower was sold without a warranty. What! Is this legal? Well, apparently. After some mutual grumpiness was expressed on both sides, I agreed to pay a nominal amount for a custom metal guard to be made. It was a fair enough solution but I won't go to that shop again and every time I look at that mower, I stick a pin into a mental picture of that man. That's red ink on the karmic bottom line.

Is anyone measuring the cost to society of the broken trust and expended anxiety that accompanies almost every human transaction? I hardly ever believe anything anyone says to me unless I know them well. I obsessively grill people who presume to give me information and then usually seek a second source for verification. Every administrative task is like a Woodward & Bernstein investigation. I just can't afford to get caught out by small print, bodylined by a selling agent's ignorance, complacency or contempt. I buy as little as possible. I don't want to spend my time arguing with people about objects whose job it is to assist in food preparation or home maintenance, or protect my feet from shattered beer bottles.

What if the journalist who stenographed Emerson's soundbite missed the next sentence. Maybe Emerson qualified his appealing trope with a disclaimer like this, 'and that would just show how foolish the world is because everyone knows there are more important things in life than concerning ourselves with mousetraps.'