Tuesday 19 June 2007

A throwaway line

I don’t know whether my next-door neighbour ever reads this column. I suspect not. I take him the paper every day, but I don’t think he gets much beyond the deaths. It’s funny how the over-80s seize on that page with the sort of eager anticipation more usually associated with a National Lottery draw. With the key difference that they have their fingers crossed that their own number won’t come up. If there is ever an outbreak of bird flu, I suppose that will qualify as a rollover jackpot.

I hope he’s not reading the disclosure of the following dark secret: I’ve just bought another lawnmower, in flagrant defiance of his advice. This means that I have now owned five of the things since I moved here 19 years ago. My neighbour, meanwhile, is still using one that was at least a decade old when I arrived. It periodically backfires and emits sheets of flame, but it can’t half shorten grass.

My problems with lawnmowers seem to parallel my love life. I just want the result to be neat and tidy, like everyone else’s, but the wheels keep falling off. The result of persistent collisions with walls and raised beds, I fear. (We’re back on the subject of grass here.) I borrowed a friend’s hover mower last week, which eliminates the vulnerable wheel problem, but it took me about three hours to complete what is normally a 40-minute job. I also felt like I’d fought several rounds with a handy middleweight. For the first time in my life, I fully appreciated the genius of the advertising agency which came up with the slogan about a Qualcast being a lot less bovver.

I then tried following my neighbour’s advice to the letter, and went to see the people who had quoted me £175 for repairing my own mower. I told them it was blanking ridiculous, and that they needed to get the blanker fettled right away for an altogether more reasonable price. But unfortunately I lack an appropriately menacing physical presence, so I didn’t get very far. Within minutes, I was agreeing to buy an allegedly robust new model for a mere £306.

My morale was not improved when I got back home and spotted, amongst the rusting wreckage in my garage, my last wheel-less lawnmower but one. It’s identical to the one I’ve just bought. Doesn’t augur too well, you might think. But it’s given me a bright idea. If I smear the new one with mud and grass cuttings, and kick a few lumps out of it, I’ll be able to pretend that I’ve resurrected the old model rather than wasting another load of money. Quite frankly, it’s either that or trying to kid my neighbour that it isn’t a lawnmower at all. A very noisy pram, perhaps. But life around here is already far too much like a Monty Python sketch, without going down that route.

There is a serious underlying point in all this. Thanks to the rise of cheap Chinese manufacturing and the relentless advance of technology, it’s become more cost-effective to replace just about anything than to get it repaired. This does not just apply to machinery and electrical appliances. Unless you treat yourself to a particularly high standard of luxury, you will probably find it cheaper to buy a new duvet than to get your existing one cleaned. And when did you last hear of anyone darning a pair of socks? This throwaway culture is at the root of all the major challenges we face with landfill and recycling.

I’d like to take a stand against it, really I would. But my technical ineptitude weighs powerfully in the opposite direction. More money than sense, my neighbour will no doubt say. And he’ll be right, though in my defence I must assert that it has much more to do with an extreme shortage in the sense department than with any over-supply of cash.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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