It’s rubbish, but it’s ours

‘”They order,” said I, “this matter better in France.”‘ You know the quote, but do you know where it’s from? Pay attention – it’s Laurence Sterne, the opening words of his last book, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, published in 1768. I don’t usually find myself quoting Sterne, who can be almost as maddening as James Joyce, and for much the same reasons, but the words sprang to mind when I was looking at a rubbish bin in Paris recently.

To be exact, the generic rubbish bin you find on the Metro. It does not look much like a bin. Made of voluptuously curving aluminium, it is clearly modelled on Joan of Arc’s breastplate. Or, if not her, then one of those Amazonian figures you see on the Arc de Triomphe. You look at this bin, and you think only in France would this be possible. Only the French would even begin to consider shaping a rubbish bin as an abstracted female figure. Such a bin would be absolutely impossible on the sternly functionalist London Underground, or its equivalents in Berlin, Bilbao or Beijing.

Berlin, on the other hand, has possibly the best-laid pavements of any capital city, while Beijing has the best small vehicle, in the form of a tiny, semi-enclosed motor-tricycle that is used for everything from delivery van to one-person taxi. What interests me is why, in a world where everybody knows what every other part of the world looks like, do these design differences still occur?

To return to the Metro – why do the French persist in the idea that some, but not all, underground trains should have big clumsy sets of rubber wheels running on concrete strips, rather than rails? To stop them sliding off the track, they have to have another set of horizontally mounted stabiliser wheels. The amount of drag, hence wasted energy, that all that rubber produces must be massive compared to conventional steel wheels and tracks. Yet, the French invented this peculiar technology some time in the 1970s, and they doggedly refuse to let it die. It’s as if we had hovercraft roaring around wastefully everywhere, just because we can.

To speculate why the French do things the way they do is as useless as to ask why the British devised a telephone kiosk based on the tomb of Sir John Soane. This used to give the act of making a phone call a melancholy dignity, as if the kiosk was a portal to the afterlife. And it’s easy to overlook the fact that we invented the world’s best taxicab. Why us, rather than the Belgians? Something to do with the congested nature of Victorian streets, requiring compactness and manoeuvrability? These things are unknowable. But, we know when things are wrong. We know that bendy buses, which are fine in Munich, are devastatingly ill-suited to London. And that is simply because they weren’t designed here. They didn’t emerge from our consciousness. This is why a red London double-decker looks stupid anywhere else in the world, apart from Hong Kong.

Choose your own examples – Italians and small cars, Americans and movies, Scandinavians and furniture, Australians and sports stadiums – and then ponder this: how come – given that design is the most cosmopolitan of trades, both in the workforce and the client base, that globalisation is a powerful force, and that we all see the same films and many of the same TV programmes – these national differences seem to be as strong as ever? I don’t know the answer. But, it’s something worth celebrating.

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