A couple of years back, I had to go and see a pop star’s house. Um, I shouldn’t have said “pop star”. He was so scared he might be besieged by fans if they found out where he lived that he made me sign an affidavit: I could publish details on his curious spiral-shaped glass-and-copper house with its semi-subterranean recording studio only if I made no mention of his name, his occupation, or where the house was, other than stating it was in Surrey.
The reclusive Gomez – as I dubbed him – was glad I’d turned up, for one reason only: he needed help manhandling a massive Sixties German-built tape machine down the steps into his recording burrow. It was approximately the size and weight of an Aga cooker. What, I asked, was a known techno-freak like Gomez doing with such a piece of long-obsolete junk?
His grunted reply was to the effect that he’d become bored with being able to do anything musical he wanted digitally, powered by mighty processors. He wanted to play with great big wide reels of tape. He wanted to go back to analogue. He liked the feel of immediacy it gave. I noted in passing that he had carefully stored on racks every computer and every electronic keyboard he had ever owned, from the Sinclair ZX81 onwards. Gomez was an anal retentive all right, but he also understood something: no technology, however crude, is useless.
I have some of the standard trappings of a 1997 mediaperson: the digital cellphone, the notebook computer, the e-mail address, the Net browser. All but the address become obsolete constantly and have to be replaced. They are the symbols of the Nineties. But if asked what piece of kit I feel most affection and respect for, I’m hard put to choose between my Roberts R606 radio, my Russell Hobbs K2 kettle, and my Aviamatic watch – all three of which are more than 20 years old. The Roberts has an unstyled look to it, but its wooden cabinet and high-quality guts give it a good tone. The K2 kettle can only do what all automatic kettles do – one shot of boiling water is much like another, but does so with grace and elegance, is well balanced, all that. The Aviamatic – oldest of my trio at 24 – is Swiss, from the pre-Swatch era. Clockwork and self-winding, its innards, my watch-repairer tells me, are identical to those of today’s non-battery, self-winding Swatches. Only the fashion accoutrements have changed.
Telephones used to be like this. The heavy dial phone with its bells, rented never owned, was plumbed into your house and there it stayed, for years. It was, after all, a mature technology: Britain was well used to telephones even by the time of the Boer War. By the Fifties, everyone knew that at some point in the future we’d all have radio phones, but nobody was itching to get hold of one. Ordinary phones were fine because that’s what everyone had.
In this respect the Victorian post office, as it functioned in big cities, was a marvel. Letters whizzed to and fro at a prodigious rate. You could get a reply to your note the same morning, even within the hour. “By return of post” meant just that. It was the available technology, so it was made to work. The extraordinary thing is that this system, a little coarsened, still exists. Nobody finds it strange that a lot of people still put sticky scraps of coloured paper on letters and thrust them physically into cast-iron streetside boxes.
We are seeing more and more of this technological backwash. Gomez with his Sixties tape deck is an example. Anyone who drives an old Triumph, or gets out a pencil rather than switching on a screen, is an example. Alan Sugar, when he introduced the Amstrad PCW word processor, was a classic case: all his technology was obsolete from the start, which is why it was so cheap and such a success that immense numbers of people still buy and use them.
This notion of durability intriguingly runs counter to everything else that’s happening: well worth a study by someone not in the pocket of manufacturers.
Enough: as soon as I have e-mailed this copy, I am going to switch on the Roberts, boil the K2 for tea, and then drop a few handwritten letters into the box on the way home on my bicycle. It’s faster than the car, round here.