When I worked in north Manchester, I had a great friend from a local family of Irish extraction. She explained to me the origin of the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread”, which was as follows. In large families with plenty of sons doing manual labour, the women of the household had to prepare the packed lunch. The availability of consistent, wrapped, sliced bread removed much of the drudgery that had to be done late at night or first thing in the morning. A great thing, for sure, for sure.
What modern inventions have matched this ? Non-stick pans, of course – what an innovation for the lover of scrambled eggs ! Worth the cost of flying to the moon for that alone. Another one that struck me the other day – wading through the Christmas cards for friends that are still alive and in touch – was the peel-off postage stamps. No more foul glue sticking tongue and lips together. Marvellous.
But now I’m scratching. I was struck by recent articles that ask why the pace of innovation is so slow these days (even if Bill Gates disagrees). It’s true. Brainless executives and politicians talk about the unprecedented pace of change, but it is as nothing compared to my grandmother’s time. She was born in 1870 and died in the 1960s. Forget Queen Victoria and the Wild West, she was alive to see the first aeroplanes, two world wars, the first antibiotics, the first artificial fibres, manufactures in stainless steel, telephones, machine guns, central heating for the masses, the first motor cars. Beside this, the internet and the jet engine are comparatively slight matters. And so much of our current innovation is of no moment. What exactly are automatic wipers on cars for ? And keyless ignition – the innovation that thieves like more than customers ? If we concede that the ability to play Candy Crush on the 8.17 from Paddington is not a breakthrough for humanity, we can note that until smart phones came along, mobile phones just replaced phone boxes, and Uber minicabs. Drip-dry shirts have come and gone, as have nylon sheets (thank goodness).
What improves lives is better quality things. We have made great progress here – motorways are no longer littered with the open bonnets of steaming cars – but not as much as we would like. Washing machines don’t last as long as they used to, because of the fierce price competition that drives down quality of white goods. But if you try to buy one, you will be dazzled by the micro-chip operated wizardry that you are offered (and don’t need). My roll of honour of great quality purchases includes:
- My golf trolley by GoKart is superb, and the after-sales service (the only component I needed was provided free by next-day service) faultless.
- I bought some stainless steel saucepans from Alders in Eltham when I moved to London in 1992. I still have them, and they are spotless. They are still going strong, which is more than can be said of Alders in Eltham.
- Clark’s leather trainers. Wear them almost daily, and they are comfortable and last and last. Mind you, I had some Rockports that did the same.
- The teapots on Brittany Ferries, which seem to be the only small metallic teapots that can dispense two cups of tea without drenching the table and the paper you’re reading
I then get into a debate about whether paying more gets you better quality. In the case of washing machines, it seems you do. Another recent discovery from your big-spending confidante: I pushed the boat out and bought some Ralph Lauren socks last week, and they are great. However, in the case of golf trolleys and saucepans, it seems price is not always a guide to quality. I can taste how much nicer a posh port is, but haven’t noticed this in wine. Some Bordeauxs are so full of oak that they seem to come from a carpenter’s not a vintner. Before you buy an expensive Burgundy white, try a Bourgogne Aligoté – cheaper and just as nice. When it comes to cars, my most expensive purchase – a brand new Jaguar XJ – had endless faults, and couldn’t go anywhere safely in the snow. Whilst my daughter’s 12 year old Ford Focus zoomed by. Rats !