Not built to last?

It’s finally happened. After a shuddering explosion that sounded as though someone had petrol-bombed the house, and with a similar accompanying burning smell, my washing machine has finally washed its last and gone out in a blaze of dripping-wet washing and a death-throe leap across the kitchen floor.

We’ve been through a lot, me and the washer. Most notably the two years after my son was born when in a fit of self flagellation I decided to go down the washable nappy route. But the last few months have seen it creaking and groaning in its old age, ready to join the great spin cycle in the sky.

It’s always the way isn’t it? I’d only been thinking last week that the washer had been standing in the corner of the kitchen (yes Kirsty Allsopp, please do throw your hands up in horror!) dutifully washing for 16 years and how that must be something of an achievement in today’s not-built-to-last culture, when my hubris obviously facilitated the washer’s end.

I quickly ordered another one made by the same company and it’s due for delivery tomorrow. So, today a chipper northern man rang me to discuss delivery and point out that I’d been rather remiss in not ordering some sort of cover for this new item. Had I not seen it at the checkout? I pointed out that as my last washer had given me 16 trouble-free years, apart from a couple of years ago when the brushes went and were replaced by a local repair man who also doubled up as a psychic, yes, a psychic, and no, he hadn’t predicted its failure. I told him I’d not be in need of any sort of insurance cover as I was confident in the longevity of washers in my service. To which he replied, ‘well, they don’t make them like they used to.’ The washer wasn’t old enough to drive or vote, how could it possibly have passed into the category of ‘they don’t make them like they used to’? Surely such a refrain is reserved for old oak tables, 1930s semis and televisions. And why don’t they make them like they used to? Because they want your washer to break apparently, according to the chipper chap on the phone. Well, not this washer, and not this house, come on then planned obsolescence I’m ready for you!

ANTIDOTE: Buy things that will last.

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In praise of simple technologies

Matchstick in hand, yesterday I was sitting on my driveway, fettling with my push bike. When I say fettling, before anyone runs away with idea that I was knee-deep in hex keys, I mean picking crud out of my chainset. And there was an awful lot of crud. Big lumps of it to prod out with a matchstick. The best tool, bar none, that I’ve found for doing this job.

I’d just come back from a 45-minute bike ride where one of my gears was running a bit clunky. Very Tour de France isn’t it this terminology – clunky, crud – and so I thought I’d take a look. And what occurred to me was, no wonder a couple of gears aren’t running very well, but how am I able to ride this bike as it’s clogged, yep, another one, to the point that I’m amazed any of my gears are working.

But that’s what I love about my bike. It’s a piece of relatively simple technology and so will continue to work even if it’s not at optimal cleanliness/servicedness. It just carries on with what it was designed to do. Nothing complicated. Most problems I can fix myself and best of all it runs on pure pedal power. Modern life is full of too many over complicated technologies that stop working at the drop of a hat or need a certified engineer to come out and fix. They rob us of some fundamental part of what it is to be human; to make and fettle our own environments. Let’s keep things simple instead.

A test of principles

20160407_065938-1This afternoon I took a bike ride through my local woods. The trees were zinging with fresh life, clouds of cow parsley were nodding in the breeze and my brain was clearing of its accumulated junk. Until, that is, I cycled up to the swings in the middle of the woods. Four teenagers seemed intent on wrecking them. On the opposite path was a male dog-walker and we both launched an attack on them pointing out that the swings were there for children, and not for them to vandalise. Eventually after we threatened them with the police they cycled off, waiting until they thought they were safely out of earshot and then shouting obscenities at us.

My serene mood had vanished in an instant to be replaced with blood-boiling rage. My son plays on those swings. But what made it worse was that these were quite clearly kids on exam leave from doing their GCSEs. Judging from their attire and general demeanour they were from the nearby aspirational housing estate, rather than the, also nearby, council estate.

The one upside was that when I said that the ‘swings were for small children and not morons with small brains’ (I know, hardly Shakespeare, but I was cross) one replied saying: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t have a brain’. Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.

I cycled off, incensed. I’ve taught enough teenagers and read enough social analysis to know that what they were doing was motivated by boredom and self-esteem. I also know that everyone always has a reason for doing things, and that you have to try to see both sides of the story. In their minds they were probably kicking back against ‘authority’, in this instance, manifest in council-provided swings, as a way to rebel in a small way against the school and exam system that had kept them cooped up on a lovely sunny day as they had to write an English essay.

By giving them a flea in their ear, myself and the dog-walker had punctured their aspirations to self-esteem, hence their attempts to regain it by shouting after they’d cycled off. What made me feel uncomfortable was the gulf that can appear between what in theory you know you should do and what your gut instinct tells you to do. My gut instinct was to round on the kids. What would have been more advisable would have been to challenge them calmly while allowing them to retain some element of their self-esteem. Either that or video it on the quiet and share it on Facebook, safe in the knowledge that at some stage, in this small town, their mums would have seen it eventually.

It’s easier in principle to approach a subject from an intellectual distance than it is to actually apply it in practice.

Decline and fall

I live in an area, in Guardianista speak, of ‘post-industrial’ decline. An interesting catch-all phrase meaning an area that was once incredibly useful to the economy but which is now seen as a drain on it. A blip. A polyps. A carbuncle. Something the government wishes would disappear back under the rag rug from which it came.

This town and its army of workers were called into being by the capitalist economy of the 19th century. They risked and lost their lives, like so many others across the northern industrial lands of England, to build, to mine, to catch, to create, and bring the industrial and technological leviathan to life. It breathed fire, it crumpled things underfoot, and centuries-old ways of life were brought to a shuddering halt to turn a once mostly rural economy into one based on urbanism. Millions came to live in places like this to work, raise families and pass their lives as the industrial juggernaut, like some dragon guarding its gold pacing the country leaving it smoking and utterly and irredeemably changed.

But the leviathan has moved elsewhere stalking for prey, it’s now just a puff of smoke in the distance, a faintly heard roar. Those workers, and millions like them, now based on the other side of the world, since we outsourced our labour, helped to create the modern lives we live now, those roads, bridges, railways lines, methods of communication, international travel and consumer goods.

But what happens to an army of workers that are no longer needed? Civic architecture that now looks surreally bombastic and out of place? Rows and rows of workers houses now no longer seen as being quite fitting for modern lifestyles?

Thousands of people whose ancestors had a purpose, whose lives were mapped out for them from birth end up as being a problem, in government speak, that should be managed in its decline. What’s the ultimate future of places like this? Do we end up as buildings buried under grass, like some deserted medieval village, slowly buried by the sands of time and years of irrelevance to the modern capitalist economy.

Surely anyone who gets an education or gets a job or gets a live should ship out and leave right? But that’s to forget about what makes up a life. I was born and brought up here, went away for four years to study but then came back. Why? Because sometimes the things that make a life go beyond that which can be quantified. Family, friends, neighbours, neighbourhoods, the sense that people here know you, familiarity, security, memories, knowing that in some small way you can make a difference to the lives of others. Not ideas that will work well on a spreadsheet but things, that to me, still count.

And those that are currently enjoying the upside of being the focus of the leviathan should remember that things are born and they die. Everything has its day and its season then passes. Life goes on.

How much is enough?

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky.

Although very dense in places on economic theory and philosophy it’s certainly worth a read for the contribution it makes to some of the general issues floating about in the zeitgeist, such as James Wallman’s Stuffocation and the relative worth of GDP and happiness indices.

One of the central themes of the book is the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and how capitalism has fundamentally shifted our relationship with money. Keynes had written in the 1930s that capitalism was a force for good to raise standards of living, but he (as it turns out incorrectly) anticipated that people would reach a level of satiety, or ‘enoughness’ after which capitalism will have done its job. However, uncontrolled levels of acquisitiveness have been unleashed instead on a very much more secular society than Keynes’ and one that is no longer held in check by religious ideals about the relative worth of money.

“Capitalism it is now clear, has no spontaneous tendency to evolve into something nobler. Left to itself, the machinery of want-generation will carry on churning, endlessly and pointlessly.”

It has been occurring to me for sometime that as well as contributing to increased levels of depression there is something morally reprehensible about being discouraged to be dissatisfied with what we already have when many of us have more than enough to live well on already, it smacks of gorging at the trough.

One of the reasons the book suggests that we don’t appreciate what we’ve got is that, “the standard of living which people measure their relative material well-being against is a national not a global one.” All those trite Facebook quotes about Westerners being among the richest 1% in the world it seems are true, but as we don’t look to sub-Saharan Africa for our comparisons, only the Joneses down the road in doing that we lose sight of what we actually have in pursuit of what we have not.

After much research and discussion of how we arrived at this state of affairs the book goes on to list seven elements of the good life:
Harmony with nature
Personality or autonomy
Security
Friendship
Leisure
Respect
Health
It was in particular the leisure aspect of the list that I found engaging, coming as it does from James Wallman’s angle of choosing experiences over buying things (if only because experiences are harder to compare as they’re harder to place a monetary value on). The authors’ definition of leisure doesn’t exactly mean sitting on the sofa and not working; the phrase can include working, as long as it’s not wage-slave working and it’s doing something you enjoy. It also encompasses the idea of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ or doing something for its own ends rather than specifically trying to achieve something.
There are overlaps with mindfulness here – getting into the ‘zone’ with an activity so much that you lose yourself in it and forget about goals and targets and just enjoy the thing for its own sake. This is one of the reasons that Facebook surfing is bad and why hobbies are good.It’s also one of the things I really struggle with, I have to do things for a purpose or an outcome, I have to feel busy and productive and I’ve latterly discovered that this isn’t good for peace of mind.

So, here are some of the activities I can do with my leisure time in order to engage in purposiveness without purpose:
Limit tv viewing. Ensure that anything watched are programmes that add value to my life or education in someway. TV encourages passive receptiveness.
Read more and make a greater attempt to assimilate the information. Talk about interesting topics learned with others. I had thought this might turn me into a dinner-table bore, but I’m discovering that’s it’s a great way to get people chatting about things that interest them and wider issues.
Keep up with my lifelong hobby and love of documenting the everyday. I’ve kept scrapbooks and diaries on and off since I was 12. This can continue to be done for its own enjoyment, as can my enjoyment of calligraphy. I don’t have to justify it to anyone.
Take up an engrossing hobby such as embroidery. I used to do cross stitch years ago and it is the closest I’ve ever come to being fully mindful.
Sit in the garden and enjoy the stillness without thinking that there are jobs to be done. There is time to sit and be still; it is these moments that are remembered not the list of jobs that need doing.
Write more, it doesn’t matter if no-one else reads it or it doesn’t get published. It’s the process that’s important.
Listen more to people and actively try to connect more with the people around me and the community in which I live.
This last one’s going to be tough, but find a job more fulfilling than the one I’ve got and more family-friendly. I’d like to have more time to do voluntary work and work in a less conventional office-based way.