Thursday, January 6, 2011

In praise of older things

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 5.)

The watch I’m wearing as I write this column is about 25 years old. It’s a Lorus, which is a poor man’s Seiko, and it cost me about $70. In the years since, I would have spent many times that amount replacing straps and batteries.

The watch doesn’t look too flash these days – the gold finish has almost all worn off – but it has never missed a beat. Though there’s nothing on the back to indicate that it’s shock-resistant, I’ve lost count of the number of mountain bike crashes it has survived.

A few years ago I bought a much more stylish Fossil watch to wear on dressy occasions. I love the look of the Fossil, but it stopped dead not long ago and I had to pay a repairman to give it an overhaul.

I’ve never had to do that with the Lorus. It’s a testament to the same Japanese reliability that has made Toyotas and Hondas best-sellers all around the world. (I read recently that the only vehicle people will consider driving when they venture into the hazardous countryside of Afghanistan is a 4WD Toyota, such is its reputation for not letting people down.)

Speaking of cars, I still drive the Mitsubishi station wagon I bought new in 1999. It’s done more than 160,000 km and though it’s our second car now, it’s still a pleasure to drive. Apart from the routine replacement of parts such as exhausts and batteries, it has cost me very little.

Yesterday I put on my old Hi-Tec tramping boots to mow the lawn. I’ve forgotten how long ago I bought these, but I do remember that when we shifted house in 2003 and had a cleanout, I seriously considered putting my boots in the rubbish. They were old even then.

Nearly eight years later, I still wear them whenever I work outside. The rubber toecap has come away from the suede but apart from that, they’re fine.

I also wear a pair of cheap jandals. They are still spattered with fading traces of dark-brown timberstain, which remind me that I wore them when I helped my brother-in-law with a DIY project at his chalet in Switzerland in 2002. I reckon they’re probably good for a few years yet.

With great regret, I recently gave my wife a much-loved shirt to tear up for rags. I bought it in Germany goodness knows how many years ago, and when the elbows wore out, my wife took the scissors to it and it became a short-sleeved shirt. It survived several more years of frequent use before the collar began to disintegrate and I had to admit it was past its use-by date.

When I’m working in the garden I use a pair of loppers that my mother bought for my wife and me when we acquired our first house in the 1970s. I’ve occasionally used other loppers over the years but none feel right.

And when I pick up all the stuff that I’ve lopped off trees and shrubs to take it to the rubbish tip, I put it in the home-made trailer that I bought in the mid-1980s for $450. It’s one of the best investments I ever made and is in constant use. I paid a couple of hundred bucks to get it sand-blasted several years ago, to get rid of superficial rust, and then gave it a coat of paint. But apart from that, a new pair of tyres and a regular WOF inspection, it has cost me nothing. The suspension squeaks a bit, but what the heck.

In the kitchen, my wife uses a heavy cast-iron frying pan that I bought at the old Wellington department store James Smith (long since defunct) not long after we were married. The wooden handle is scorched and worn to the point where it has nearly broken off, but that frying pan cooks steaks to perfection.

You can see where this column is heading, can’t you? If I were the sub-editor writing the headline for it, it would be something like In praise of older things.

It’s a cliché that we live in an era of disposability. When something fails, it’s often easier and cheaper to throw it in the rubbish bin than get it fixed.

Planned obsolescence is an integral part of the consumerist economy and it’s inextricably bound up with the dictates of fashion. Many products become redundant for no better reason than that they are seen as old or outdated. A newer, smarter model has been launched and everyone must have it.

The fashion industry is the ultimate expression of this obsession with the new. Every year, the self-ordained high priests of style arbitrarily declare what is fashionable. This has nothing to do with logic, practicality or even aesthetics; it’s all intended to make style-conscious people feel suddenly ashamed of those perfectly good clothes in their wardrobe because they represent last season’s look. It plays not so much on women’s vanity as on their insecurity.

The popular media go along with this nonsense, never pointing out that what is ostensibly at the cutting edge of fashion has invariably been recycled, albeit often in slightly different form, from years ago.

Yet some of our most treasured possessions are those that we’ve had for a long time. I get quite sentimental about some of these things and it pains me to get rid of them, even when they have finally outlived their usefulness.

Not to sound too cheesy, they tell a story. Quite apart from being “fit for purpose”, to use a modern cliché, they carry evocative memories of our past, rather like a family photo album.

That’s why, when my Lorus watch finally conks out, I will probably tuck it into the back of a drawer when my wife (who doesn’t share my attachment to objects) isn’t looking. And it’s why I will probably want to hang that frying pan in the kitchen after the handle finally disintegrates.


pdm said...

Karl my boy - I am sure your children have told you why you need a `Fossil' watch. It is your age.

But I am with you - my old rugby boots, last worn in a serious game in 1970 were only `biffed' in 2002 when we moved to Hastings and after I had open heart surgery.

Donald MacDonald

Baz said...

I have a similar philosophy to maintain my favourite possessions. As long as there is a glide clip, some sellotape and a rubber band then all will be well.

Karl du Fresne said...

I have known only two Donald MacDonalds and one of them, unfortunately, is dead. Are you the other one?

Vaughan said...

I am going to keep my iPhone till I pop my clogs. That is for sentimental reasons and in case I'm only sleeping when they screw down the lid.