Get the hang of disruption

David Bernstein shares a variety of do-it-yourself, ‘substitute technology’ solutions to everyday problems, typified by his faithful coat hanger car aerial

My first task in the role of creative director was to decide who in my department should be allowed coat hangers. I chickened out and made seniority the basis.

I was reminded of this episode by Hugh Pearman’s advice on car security (Private View, DW 16 January). ‘Get an old Nissan Bluebird, well dented and rusted with bald tyres and a coat hanger instead of an aerial.’ Look impoverished and tatty, he maintains, and you don’t attract thieves and vandals. This is not quite so, in my experience.

Our car, a 12-year-old Volvo estate, is distinguished only by its rusted-in roof-rack, moss-lined sunroof and unique aerial. The said antenna was originally a hi-tech retractable one that would announce its presence with a menacing whirr. The reception was adequate.

Suddenly, while in France one day, there was no reception but plenty of aerial. Some ten metres of ribbon-like innards had spewed out and were trailing along the autoroute. We collected the debris, drove to our cottage and found the statutory coat hanger. Reception was resumed – and it was equally adequate.

Then a year later, again in France, the coat-hanger was stolen. Nothing else was. We decided not to inform the gendarmerie. We would look for a sturdier coat hanger. Instead, Sue found a child’s fishing net lurking in the garage. We removed the netting and were left with a metal ring on a pole which slipped neatly into the vacant hole. We taped it down and voila – the best sound yet. Seven years later, the ring is more a rusty figure-of-eight, but then nobody has managed to steal it and we continue to enjoy fantastic reception.

The fishing net and the coat-hanger are part of a species of technology. Not hi-tech or lo-tech but ‘sub-tech’. Sub as in substitute as opposed to sub-standard. Practitioners of sub-tech, ie those who use an artefact for a purpose other than that for which it was intended, are found everywhere – for example, in that fascinating TV series Trade Secrets on BBC2. But my favourite sub-tecchie is Mary Rose Quigg, the eponymous author of Mary Rose’s 1001 Country Household Hints (published by TAJ Books, 2002).

Being around Ms Quigg must be stimulating, since her imagination is in permanent overdrive, and strange, because in her environment nothing is just what it seems. ‘If a wall tile falls off and you have run out of glue, heat some jam to boiling point…’. You’ve run out of filler for a small repair? Quigg’s answer: ‘squeeze toothpaste into the hole and leave to dry’. Pour baby oil over your shower doors and tile surfaces to prevent scum build-up. If there’s no plug in the adjacent bath, try Blu-tack.

Want to make your umbrella water-repellent? Spray it with hairspray. But what if you get hairspray all over the mirror? Rub it carefully with alcohol. And while you’re at the drinks trolley pick up a can of cola. Pour some into a rusty lock and your key will turn and, instead of drinking the rest, use it to add a gleam to your windscreen.

Mislaid your cross-head screwdriver? Use the tip of a potato peeler. If you’ve got a creaking door and can’t find the machine oil and you’re out of vegetable oil (presumably because you are using it to fuel your diesel car) pour on washing-up liquid.

‘Creativity’, according to Milton Glaser, ‘is the disruption of expectation.’ Ms Quigg’s household must be the most disruptive in the land. You turn up for dinner. She’s in the kitchen warming the plates. Where? In the dishwasher on a dry cycle. You wonder what the meal will be like, if the olive oil for the salad is still by the sink in the garage or the salt is shut in the caravan for the winter to stop condensation. And if you miss that slice of lemon on your sole, rest assured that it’s doing sterling duty keeping the Quiggs’ car headlights free of mud.

I would probably have given Mary Rose a job in my creative department. She has the essential skills – the ability to see things in a new way and to communicate that insight. She would have scored well on those psychological tests – not the multiple choice variety, more suitable for account executives, but the open-ended ones which set the imagination free. For example, suggest alternative uses for a brick or a paper clip.

All too late I realise that I should have solved my first departmental problem by inviting the staff to suggest alternative uses for a coat hanger.

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