Saturday, 26 May 2012

Things That Don't Do The One Thing They Were Designed To Do - Part One

Everybody wants to be famous.

In theory this is something we grow out of as we start to see the benefits of anonymity. The celebrity lifestyle is a terrible curse, what with the paparazzi always rifling your bins, telephoto lenses at the ready to catch you stumbling out of a nightclub, tumbling out of your taxi or falling out of your bikini, your friends hitting on you for money, your drug-dealers doubling their rates, crazed women forever asking you to sign their bosoms, all that jazz. A living nightmare.

Egocentric muso that I am, it took me a little longer to grow out of this desire for fame. In fact, I'm not sure I ever did. My initial plan for fame included performing the Sibelius violin concerto to a packed, cheering Royal Albert Hall on my 18th birthday, but I was forced to give up on that idea recently when I discovered that I'd missed the deadline by about seventeen years.*

You've read Karl Marx and you've taught yourself to dance, but you still can't play those
ascending D major semi-quaver scales in thirds in the last movement, so probably never.

But I had pretty lowly plans for my international super-stardom. I wasn't particularly interested in dating a model or having Arnold Schwarzenegger play me in the biopic of my life. I just wanted girls to throw their underwear at me, I wanted my own giant underground evil lair, and I wanted to be invited to appear on Room 101.

Room 101, in case anyone missed it, is the perfect British chat-show: famous people whingeing about the little things that are ticking them off. Just as everyone wants to be famous, everyone loves to complain. And I wanted to get famous so that I could go on Room 101 and talk about this:

Things That Don't Do The One Thing They Were Designed To Do.

I reckon that everyone has, at some point, come into contact with a Thing That Doesn't Do The One Thing It Was Designed To Do. Most likely it was a tin-opener.  Almost every cutlery drawer I've ever looked in contains two tin-openers. The one that works, and one which will, after twenty minutes of careful application, turn your tin into a lethal mass of twisted metal capable of slicing the fingers off anyone who so much as steps into the kitchen.
This is an actual photo of the actual rubbish tin-opener we have in our cutlery drawer.

Here are two other examples:

Delivery Companies

What is the one purpose of a delivery company?
I can not tell you how many times, after moving into an unfurnished house, I had the following conversation:

Delivery company: Hi, when would you like us to deliver this sofa/bookcase/washing machine/squirrel trampoline/whatever it is?
Me: Well, I live alone and I'm at work during the day, so could you please deliver it before 9am or after 6pm?
Delivery company: No, sorry, for your convenience we only deliver during office hours.
Me: Fine, well, I'll be out, could you just leave it round the back in the garden, or with my neighbour?
Delivery company: No, sorry, for your convenience and peace of mind we will only deliver to you in person.
Me: Okay, well, I only live a five minute walk away from work, so could you let me know what time you will deliver and I'll just pop home to let you in?
Delivery company: Sure, for your convenience we can state with almost 50% accuracy which of these two six-hour-periods we will deliver within.
Me: I hate to be so entirely unreasonable about this, but that won't really work.  Can your driver just ring me when they are five minutes away?
Delivery company: I'm afraid the technology to make calls whilst en route sadly remains firmly within the realms of science-fiction, along with time-machines and matter-transporters and ovens that can heat food without using fire, sir.
Me: But you are calling me on my mobile phone.  Surely your drivers have mobile phones?
Delivery company: Mobile what?
Me: Then what you are saying is that you can't actually deliver to me?
Delivery company: That is correct, sir, though for your convenience we can drive it round to your house while you are out, then post a piece of card through your door saying "We attempted to deliver this item, but you were not capable of receiving it", and then, for your convenience, remove the item to a place of safe-keeping known only to three people in this organisation, all of whom will be on maternity leave for the foreseeable future.  Though there will be a small administrative charge to cover the costs of this service.
Me: Give me my damn squirrel trampoline.
Delivery company: No. It's ours now.
Me: You are a delivery company. Your one job is to deliver things. Why can you not deliver me my thing?
Delivery company: That's not the way the world works, boyo. Why don't you either learn to drive and pick up your thing yourself, or become famous and get invited onto Room 101 and whine about it?
Me: A pox upon you and all your kind. I shall do just that. Good day to you sir.


What, you may ask, is wrong with clocks? Well, what is the one job of a clock?  To tell you the time.
But let me ask you this: What is the first thing you have to do when you get a new clock..?
For some reason I could never persuade anyone else to get upset about this, but think about it: 99% of clocks are useless if you don't already have a means of telling the time, and if you already have a means of telling the time, you don't need a clock. They can't do the one thing they are designed to do.

Apparently it is time I cleaned the dust off my laptop screen.

Back when I lived in the house to which no one would ever deliver, I had a television**. The Thing It Was Designed To Do was show TV programmes, which it did, but it also knew the time. I don't know how it knew the time. I never had to tell it the time, it just knew.
I also had a video recorder.  (Anyone remember those?)  The prime directive of a video recorder is, of course, to record video, which it did. But it also knew the time. (I think the TV told it.)
I also had a telephone. It was good at making and receiving calls. It was designed primarily for that purpose. But for some reason it too had a clock, which I never had to set. Probably so it wouldn't be late for the little electronic raves the TV and the VCR organised whenever I went out for the evening.
All these things knew the time. My washing machine probably knew the time. I think I once heard my futon sing the Westminster Chimes. But my clock? That thing had No Idea. I had to tell it. It couldn't do The One Thing It Was Designed To Do.

Can you see what an entertaining episode of Room 101 this would have been? I would have had them rolling in the aisles. But back in the day when I was an Angry Young Man, railing against the injustices of all the tin-non-openers, un-delivery-companies and anti-clocks, I never stopped to wonder whether there was a chance that I was, in fact, myself, a Thing Which Doesn't Do The One Thing It Was Designed To Do...

This is a man who has stared Big Questions in the face. And then gone
to the Big Questions gift shop and bought himself a nice jumper.

The Big Questions

Back in the Edwardian era when I was a student, we'd sit around in our top hats and ruffled flip-flops***, smoking our large wooden pipes and pointlessly debating, long into the small hours, whether there was a God, whether there was a purpose to life, and whether Music was a dossier degree than English.****

Happily I have discovered that I don't really need an answer to the hardest of these three questions: It no longer matters to me one whit whether the English students were lazier than the musos. (I suspect they were, since most of the musos could read English, but not many of the English students could read music.) But these days, it doesn't have a great deal of impact on the way I make decisions.

A lot of people feel the same way about the other two questions, of course, but stay...

I accept that I'm probably not going to win the argument about the clocks. But A Thing Which Doesn't Do The One Thing It Was Designed To Do is, basically, useless. I don't know why every household feels compelled to hang on to the pointless tin-opener. I'd urge everyone who reads this to go forthwith to their cutlery drawer, subject every tin-opener they find there to a simple can-it-open-a-tin test, and then bin the damn thing if it can't. Otherwise the next time you try to impress a girl / guy with your cooking, and ask them to open a tin for you, they might pick the wrong one, and then the rest of your romantic evening together will be spent in casualty watching a team of surgeons attempt to solve the finger jigsaw puzzle that was once your true-love's hand, and wondering whether they will be able to salvage enough to make it worth buying an engagement ring.
As you cast the useless thing out into the cursed blackness of your wheelie bin, accept that what you are doing is just and righteous. And then give some consideration to the two big questions: Is there a God? Is there a purpose to life?

Because if there is a designer, and if he designed us, and if he designed us for a purpose, and if we are not carrying out that purpose... then we are that tin-opener. And if that designer is just and righteous, then maybe we need to stop thinking of the cutlery drawer as our cosy home for life...

The Bible, of course, has answers to those questions, but I'll save that for a future post. Until then, every time you look at a clock, fail to have something delivered, or slice off another finger opening your tin of tuna, consider this question - Am I A Thing Which Isn't Doing The One Thing For Which It Was Designed...?

I actually just photographed myself binning our useless tin-opener, but it would take a better
photographer than me to make the inside of our bin look arty. So instead here is a vampire deer.

(You can read Part Two here.)

* Other plans for fame included winning the Eurovision Song Contest, cycling the length of America in a wedding dress, and co-authoring a double-biography show with Stephen Sondheim - the first half to be a biography of him, written by me, and the second half to be a biography of me, written by him. I figured one half would have mediocre songs but interesting subject matter, and the other half would have mediocre subject matter but great songs. I never quite got around to suggesting it to him, but perhaps he'll read about it here and get in touch.

** I moved there with it, it wasn't delivered there.

*** I don't actually know much about the Edwardian era.  I was a student and missed most of it.

**** Also whether getting kneed in the nuts hurts more or less than period pain. Truly one of life's great unknowables.