At the End of the Day

We had a misty start here this morning. But above the mist was the pale blue of a fresh sky, and a new weather front. It was wonderfully quiet. Some dew was dropping from a conifer onto the palm tree beneath, tap-tapping on the branch-spines as it did so. The sister conifers’ cones were busy cracking open as the morning sun began peeping through the tall hedge at the eastern end of our land. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of wind. It seemed impossible to imagine that beyond this region, beginning roughly 300 miles to the north, people were yelling across large trading rooms and staring like startled rabbits at the pc screens….watching the financial omnivore that is the planetary banking system first try to eat the rest of us, and then – inevitably – itself.

Yet whether one likes it or not, that world outside this small paradise impinges all the time. Life can be taken up at times by nothing more than the chore of replacing things that break. And today, everything breaks…usually about three days after the warranty runs out. It’s an interesting verb/preposition thing that one, ‘runs out’: it runs out on the customer, like an errant partner. Somehow it makes me think that the warranty is integral to the sales-scam these days: the McGuffin programmed to wake up and quietly scuttle away into the distance before the customer can enforce the guarantee. Thus unable so to do, the customer goes out and does what we all do: buys another one.

Just over half a century ago, the phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ first made an appearance. It was in the 1950s that Clifford Brooks Stevens (usually he dropped the Clifford part) first coined the phrase. Stevens was  an American industrial designer of home furnishings, appliances, cars and motorcycles, but early on he recognised that the Western capitalist system was largely based on one model: production volume. There are three ways to increase volume: expand the market, increase rate of consumable purchases, and increase rate of durable replacement.

Planned obsolescence – or built-in obsolescence as he first called it – represents the last of those three, but Stevens (being a designer) meant to say that, as tastes change, a design becomes old-fashioned, and replacement sales can be brought forward by introducing ‘this year’s new model’. As you might imagine, the US automotive business was the first sector to go completely ape for this idea. My early fascination with advertising was built by two things: the first commercials on UK independent television (“the ITV”) and the car ads in American magazines.

‘Get down to your showroom TODAY and view the new 1956 Ford Fairlane’. And boy was it a corker:

Two-tone body, whitewall tyres, column gear-shift, drop-down facility…here was the future, now. All the blokes in these ads had natty, small Sinatra-style hats and sharp Italian suits, their wives flicked-up Barbie hair and dresses that swirled effortlessly. Everyone was smiling. In the mid background was a line-sketch of open-topped families driving along massive freeways. This was America: a tomorrowland where even the ice creams were too big to finish, and everyone felt good all the time.

What Brooks Stevens would never have approved of, however, is the obsolescence applied by today’s manufacturers. This consists of poor build quality ensuring breakage, cheap product formulations ensuring early wear-out, and a new electronic must-have gizzmo edition every three months. Over the last three decades, that has guaranteed every home in the UK in 2012 has to have a very large cupboard somewhere; when you gingerly open the doors, out pours an unfathomable spaghetti of wires, mobile phones, CD Walkmen, and floppy disks that belong to yesterday. But chiefly it ensures that the volumes stay up, the share price stays up, the options are worth more, the shareholder institutions can keep offering pensions that mean something, and the entire bonkers train will keep rattling along on its rackety track leading inevitably to the brick wall of saturation, and zero-sum global mercantilism.

What Asia has largely done in this context is copy the Western capitalist model, minus only the high price-tag. I have a Godson who, when at University, used to go down to his local market in Manchester, buy seven pairs of socks, and chuck them all in the bin the following Sunday. And let’s face it, cheap socks are somehow oddly irresitible, aren’t they? They sit there bound together on a stall and ask only a fiver for sixty pairs, and one thinks, “Why would one not buy them?” And you can never have too many teeshirts. Or solar garden lights, jockey shorts, knock-off watches, and nail clippers.

What the West has done is pat Asia condescendingly on the head (because as you know, yellow people are very small) and say “Good show, keep it up”, on the grounds that anything is better than either the rigid command economies they used to have, or no economy except that of appearing in Oxfam ads. Put simply, the West has failed to adapt.

It is brutally obvious what we Brits need to do: go back at least partly to small-scale workshops turning out genuinely craftsman-made articles. Margins would be high and volumes modest, but profits would be enormous – and the demand for this kind of stuff insatiable. I have, for instance, a chum who manufactures and markets hunting guns. Over 70% of the volume goes to China, India and Russia. Now that is facing reality and doing something about it.

“Aha,” say the Leftie trolls, “typical – a Tory’s idea of niche bollocks when what we need is jobs for the workers”. Well Troll chummy, first of all I’m not a Tory and never will be. Second, every Chinese niche is massive (see earlier). And third, we don’t need “Yer workazz”. What we need is skilled craftsmen in place of all those unemployable dickheads who did Media Studies because Teflon Tone told them it was A Good Thing.

I’m fed up of consuming. It’s time-consuming but never all-consuming. I’d rather pay a premium for something that carries on working until long after I’ve gone. I’m tired of being told by people one third my age that I can get a replacement battery on the internet, and it’ll only cost 40% of the entire unit I bought in the first place. I am well and truly pissed off to buggery with the replacement-driven capitalist model, and I want to get retro in favour of Britain being wealthy again among every class – by being smart: well-educated, entrepreneurial, responsible and mutual.

Globalist free-market economics has nothing to offer the West in the 21st century. If we try to take on the Asians at their own game of exporting low-cost supplier crap, then we will surely die: and frankly, we will deserve to. Let them sell us cheap socks, and we will flog them gold-rimmed teapots, with membership of the Earl Grey Tea Appreciation Society thrown in. That’s the way the world should work for us from now on. Sorry, I meant ‘going forward’.

44 thoughts on “At the End of the Day

  1. People don’t have a large cupboard somewhere, they all rent ‘self storage units’, or hadn’t you noticed?

  2. On quality. Just look at the amount of Triumphs, Nortons, BSA, etc motorbikes that are not just still running, but on the market every week.

    Now try and find a Honda gold wing, or a silver wing, in anything LIKE as good nick as the above list, if AT ALL.

    (Of course, they were not “in as good nick”, as they came out of the factory, as the old Brit classics are TODAY. :-) )

  3. You are advocating old fashioned real environmental consideration, as everyone used to follow. Repair and reuse, then recycle the bits when all else fails. That’s why we have dining room furniture that was bought second hand by my wife’s family sometime just after the war, it’s better made than anything in the high street and will outlast our needs. Sorted for life and that many fewer trips to Ikea.
    My 1960 Morris 1000, still does the job!
    It’s why I found the last gov’s car scrappage scheme so immoral.

  4. I love this vision of Britain. A large part of what makes us who we are is what we do for a living. Whether we like it or not. If you spend your life working for a bank thinking up ways to relieve people of their money for worthless financial products, you will end up being a twat. If you spend your life working in some soulless call centre getting abused by people every day because they have waited two hours listening to green sleeves just to talk to you then you will lose your soul. If you you spend your life waiting on street corners with a demented smile on your face to demand money from people for some crap charity then you will end up demented.
    If you spend your life honing skills to make something of which you can be proud, and see the fruits of your labour then you will learn to have pride.
    Any one that lives in this country can see which options are available to most of our young people and which are not.

  5. @woodys42. You’re on my wavelength. We have a 1940’s utility table, much better made than anything I’ve bought recently. We too thought the car scrappage scheme was immoral for environmental reasons. The money would have been better spent paying people to get their current cars are to full spec.
    And when our current motor finally expires I’m going for a Morris Traveller, hopefully woodworm-free and upgraded so at least the brakes work.

  6. The trouble with classic British bikes from the 60’s and earlier is that they were/are semi-incontinent even with the most meticulous attention: a drip tray is a must! Their upside is that, compared to the exquisite engineering of Italian bikes of the same eras, they require hardly any special tools.

  7. The problem with the “craftsmen” mode of production is that most people cannot then afford the product.
    You mention sporting guns as an example. The UK used to have a large gunmaking community-but the cost of handmade guns (and most of the quality stuff was) became prohibitive for the mid-range user. The result was the market went to foreign makers who produced a good (not quite as good obviously) product at a realistic price.
    The foreign makers were effectively BMW as opposed to Rolls Royce-and there’s a much bigger market for BMWs. It is the BMW type product we should aim to make-e.g the British motorbikes mentioned in another post, but updated and reliable obviously.

  8. For instance. Have you ever wanted your own guitar? No, I mean a truly unique instrument, made to your specification, with woods you chose, and perhaps a rosette you designed yourself? Up and down England there are talented skilled luthiers who would love you to come and talk to them. They will make you something beautiful – something you always wanted. So fire up the Audi…

  9. @mh
    I live in Chiswick, West London and the most prolific developments over the past two years or so have been absolutely gigantic self storage units…I just cannot believe that truly sane people are paying good money to store their excess possessions. Mind you, these very people do also fill the local charity shops with high quality clothes that keep me looking smart for a very low outlay. ;-)

  10. My business is repairing/restoring older motorcycles, especially British bikes although I work on a lot of Japanese machines as well, believe me I have many more specific special tools to strip and rebuild the British machines than I do Japanese; after 1945 the Japanese designed their bikes right from the start for modern mass production methods where as the British did not, one of the reasons was the changing ethos in design and technology from before and after WW2, and as too leaking oil, the main reasons an old British bike leaks oil is because : appallingly bad mechanical practice by their owners, a lack of any real breather system to control the positive/negative pressure waves in the engine and a lack of sufficient surface area of some of the joint surfaces of the engine cases, modification of the existing breather system ( if one is present ) plus modern seals and jointing products means oil tight engines. If one studies anything from out of Japan, whilst the marketing dept. may have a policy of design obsolescence, any engine capable of spinning at 10,000 RPM up would explode the first time around the block if it was not made as beautifully as they are and have been for the last 50 years.

  11. Did and have got, actually. Paid for by me, built in was part form by the Ibanez Custom Shop in LA and shipped in bits to Richie Tomson in Wigan, UK to assemble and fine tune to my liking. I currently have 17 guitars and 11 basses, but that’s the one I play the most, as it is exactly what I asked for. A forgotten era!

  12. @MickC: Yes, BMW is a good example (I have to say that, I trained with them briefly..).

    @johnny: Very true. Triumph now make bikes that are as good as any, and in some cases better.

  13. Another aspect of leaking English bikes – I think virtually all of them had vertically split crankcases, probably a hangover from when most machines were unstressed, low powered single cylinder engines (cheaper to assemble, I imagine), whereas the Japanese multi’s had horizontally split crankcases, which basically can’t leak. I can’t knock Japanese engineering, much as I’d like to!

    Japanese and German industry had been virtually destroyed in WW2, but the Americans happily rebuilt it (using money made from supplying the British war effort) in these former enemy territories, so consequently the English manufacturers found themselves fighting an industrial war against new designs, state of the art factories and machinery, and a motivated, low wage workforce, financed by our “ally” America. Can’t help feeling our “Special Relationship” isn’t all that special, but America’s arse also got bit, as their industry struggled to compete in the face of European and Asian competition – Detroit for example has become a ghost town.

    I feel desperately sorry for the American people, that the short sighted, globalist post-war policy of helping former enemies over trusted friends has also sown the seeds of their demise.

  14. Take this any way you want, but… I’m an engineer. A filament lightbulb will survive an EMP event, if it’s in a box, not in the socket. A transformer > rectifier > smoothing cap linear power supply will survive an EMP – no modern crap will. I bet there’s a thousand pounds (weight) of copper / iron transformer in my storeroom…. draw your own conclusions. I did 8 years in the RAF as an engineer and I know what the military are planning for – and iPhone 4S isn’t it!.

  15. @soapmct: Spot on. Having worked most of the last 37 years ‘on the tools’ I know that I wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the jobs you refer to.

  16. Mike Vanden, up near Fort William last I heard, has made some quite exceptional archtops (mandos and guitars); my sympathies to all who suffer from GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome).

  17. I left a comment a while ago that i thought it was just a rumour.. thanks for the link to zerohedge ..
    interesting times..

    is ben b going to have to squirm out of his position that gold is an irrelevance i wonder..

  18. Anyone else notice that the Telegraph Comments have been offline for over 24 hours? Either something is going on, they don’t want us little people talking about or I’ve been BLOCKED…. John, given your experience of being blocked by the Guardian, can someone on a different IP address please tell me if Telegraph/Disqus is in fact offline, or if they’ve decided that not only are my comments not welcome, I’m not allowed to read anyone else’s either???
    Otherwise, keep up the Great work John, I usually factor your findings into my comments elsewhere, so I really don’t know if i’m paranoid or if Disqus has been offline for the last 30 hours? Perhaps Disqus is run by Junior IT “tech” in India also???

  19. So hit the nail on the head with the hammer on this one.

    Long time ago a tradesman bought one hammmer and would last him a lifetime. Did the job, and then some. Now you buy a hammer, the handle bends, junk metal and nowhere up to the job.

    I also agree with @soap mc tavish

    The making of something, give it a try, a challenge. Started a few years back on a hobby and and was rough and ready. Years later the work is so intricate I use a magnifying glass to work :p Satisfaction, can’t beat it and hope to be at the end of the process in a few moths provided the country don’t go tits up. Is challenging and defnitely not stress free, but it sort of completes life of doing something useful.

    Skills we need and then expect people to give it a go at least. Maybe it works out maybe it don’t but you tried! You can’t ask for anymore than that.

  20. Hammers … I have about a dozen, all good USA-made hammers. Fav is the 28 oz. Estwing claw hammer, the ‘Mighty Estwing’ the heaviest of all carpenter’s hammers. I’ve had it for 35 years, built many a building with it. No moving parts, no screen, no batteries, no warranty.

    One at a time, by hand accept no substitutes. Get rid of the toys, leave everything to the imagination, perfect (verb) and then make beautiful. Anything done can be done artistically. When in doubt add a plant.

    Oh, get rid of the cars, they can never pay for themselves or the factories that build them the roads they run upon, they never return anything for the millions of barrels of fuel that they burn up in exchange for the time you give up to use them. They also kill 800,000 per year every year.

    Never pay for themselves: this is why the world is bankrupt: the problem is at the end of your driveway.

  21. Agree, one problem the vast majority of the population (me included) are simply incapable of becoming a niche artisan, so what do we do with these people?

    On the subject of Japanese output I have some Japanese made Hi-Fi gear (Yamaha stuff funnily enough) which is still going as strong as the day I bought the stuff twenty-five years ago. Can’t say for the modern stuff though (probably the quality has suffered in able to compete with China and the other SE Asian countries)

  22. Agree, having got rid of my car a few years ago (hire a car and joined a city car club for occasional use) the savings are literally thousands a year. I am lucky in that I can operate on a day-to-day basis without a car which I know a lot of people cannot

  23. Some years ago having had 2 washing machines blow up beyond reasonable repair in 3years i bit the bullet,stated to the wife I wasn’t buying cr*p anymore and purchased a miele one,built like a tank,10 year parts/labour guarantee and they keep spare parts for at least twenty years.Also doing same with other items around the house as they need replacing.I also refuse at this time,much to my childrens disgust replace the laptop keyboard which is missing the ‘f’ button, and refuse to indulge them in any friut based products,unless its actually fruit!

  24. @ISTPWS. Don’t get paranoid – it’s down for everybody :-)
    You’re not missing much though. I read the post sometimes but after a few posts, the prejudices, the slanging matches and the trolls get boring. It needs moderating to weed out the rubbish.
    Here at The Slog the conversations are better mannered and opinions are usually worth reading.

  25. Just think of this as the “Keynesian” digging and filling holes – it keeps up economic activity (driven by the politics of our era – free capital, non-free labour etc). Think more about pushing (based on your own) politics to other economic activities – mine would be a universal income delivered via cashpoints to

  26. each adult in the world, reducing absolute poverty and allowing space for more enlightened policy around society and the environment, without having every Chinaman having to make trash to throw into Western bins to “make the world better”. Paid for by countries based on their GDP (say 1%)

  27. We need to bring back the Guilds. For all I know they still exist, but we need to make them more important. That way we could train young people to have pride in a trade & a skill.
    We manufactured hand-built quality bicycles from British steel in the 70’s & 80’s, & we still see them being advertised on the internet today. These days, a similar bike made of carbon fibre which has a safe shelf life of approx. 4yrs, will cost 10 times as much.

  28. But not everything gets thrown away because its broken……more often than not its only because its last years model or just because we can afford a new one (the sock analogy)……for sure that wastefulness is rightly the first thing to go as budgets get tighter. Iv’e spent a lot of time in Asia and interestingly and thankfully havn’t noticed that same need to consume that we suffer from in the west

  29. I have a Toshiba microwave of approximately the same vintage; cost me about 200 quid, which is a lot of money when you’re 19. Never misses a beat. My mate has gone through about 12 of those 20-30 quid ASDA jobbies in the same period – a perfect demonstration of what Terry Pratchett calls the ‘Cheap Boots Theory of Economics’; cheap boots cost a couple of dollars and last a season or two. Good boots cost 20 dollars and last for many years. But you buy cheap boots because they’re cheap, even though it will have cost you double the amount that the good boots would have, over the same period of time. And you’ll still have wet feet!

  30. @Heironimusb

    Don’t get me started on the number of guitar amps and effects boxes I’ve got. Nearly all handbuilt by me, often from ‘recycled’ parts. There’s a certain satisfaction in taking a discarded valve radio from the side of the road and re-purposing the parts into a guitar amp. A few of my amps even appear on big festival stages from time to time, which is very satisfying to see, I must admit. Very hard to make a living out of it, though. Too many people are captured by GAS and must have the latest toys whenever they appear to consider dropping 10 times the money on something that’s actually made properly.

  31. Just watched the lightbulb conspiracy…..what a powerful vid and what a pity its taken us 100 years to start to properly expose it! The obvious answer (as suggested in the film) is to hold the manufacturer responsible for the ultimate disposal
    So…..given that the whole of the developed world finds it difficult or impossible to produce competitively, isn’t it an oportune time to legislate to force its producers to take some responsibility ie either agree to dispose of the product at the end of its life or to pay the purchaser to do so. ie in true American style, if you cant win the game then change the rules and reinvent the game!
    Its got to happen so we might as well take the initiative and write the rules…..

  32. If your washing machine breaks, it is usually the carbon contacts (brushes) on the motor that have worn down. You can buy new replacements but these are expensive or you can go down to your local tip, they usually have the motors taken out of scrap washers as they want the copper from the windings. Most of the guys at the tip will let you take a few part worn brushes from the pile of motors you have and you can give your washer a new lease of life. (my last one went on for 14 years till the drum bearings went, sounded like a 747 taking off in the kitchen for the last few months of its life)
    When you buy a new washer, don’t buy the model with the fastest spin speed if they do the same one with a lower speed at a lower price, the only difference is a labelled jumper switch (or solder link) on the main board and the decals on the front.

    Of course if everyone fixes, re-uses, re-purposes or re-cycles stuff then capitalism will crash and very little new, truly innovative stuff will be made.

  33. @Woodgnome: Have you ever come across Pete Cornish? During the 80’s I played in a band with Pete – who apart from designing/making guitar effects for everybody from Queen to Pink Floyd etc is a long standing practitioner of the baritone sax!

  34. “Of course if everyone fixes, re-uses, re-purposes or re-cycles stuff then capitalism will crash and very little new, truly innovative stuff will be made.”

    Unless I am much mistaken capitalism is about to crash anyway and although there is a lot of ‘truly innovative stuff’ around which makes for big changes, how much of it actually makes big improvements?

  35. Pingback: At the End of the Day | The Slog.

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