Exchange with Mart: Martin Kelner's Theory of the Meaning of Life: Part 3 - The Importance of Stuff

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The Independent Online
I WAS listening to one of those local radio programmes in which people sell or exchange unwanted items over the air, when somebody offered to swap a paraffin heater for a cockatiel or parrot or some sort of caged bird. To be honest - it was some years ago - the swap may have been the other way round: the owner of the bird may have wanted a heater.

Whichever way it was, I remember being perplexed, and it is something that troubles me still. What, I wonder, do the former owners of the paraffin heater make of the bird? Do they cluster round it in the chill of the night, rubbing their hands together, saying things like, 'Well, it might look pretty but it doesn't give off much heat'?

And do those who have swapped the family pet tap the side of the heater in idle moments and say 'Who's a pretty boy then?' and complain bitterly that the heater has not said a word since they've had it?

More to the point, who was it that decided the exchange was a necessary life move? Did Dad summon the family one evening and say, 'That bird is going to have to go. It's costing us a fortune in Trill. You can't hear the telly for its chirping, and there are bird droppings all over the Daily Express. No, don't cry, little Tommy. I'll tell you what. I'll get you a paraffin heater instead'?

And was there another family down the road, listeners to the same radio station, preparing to make a complementary move? 'Look,' says Dad, settling down in the big chair at the head of the kitchen table, 'I've been reading a report in Which? warning of the dangers of paraffin heaters. Apparently there are problems with this method of heating, relating to fumes particularly when used through the night, and also they can cause fires when knocked over.

'We have a number of options - electric storage heaters, gas fires, some limited form of central heating. On the other hand, we could just get a budgie.'

I am happy to say I have never, in all my years as a semi- professional broadcaster, presented a programme in which this type of transaction takes place, but I have always been an avid listener, because these programmes confirm for me the Kelner Theory of the Meaning of Life, Part 3 - The Importance of Stuff.

This theory states that life is all about acquiring stuff, then acquiring more stuff, maybe changing your stuff round a little, then acquiring even more stuff, then getting a bigger place because there's no room for all your stuff, getting rid of some stuff, then getting a smaller place because you haven't got as much stuff. Then you die.

If you are reluctant to accept this thinking, get yourself a satellite dish (now, there's a bit of stuff you don't need) and watch the Shopping Channel, an entire television programme dependent on man's (and especially woman's) insatiable desire for the acquisition of stuff.

New television channels usually have to do some market research to find out who their potential viewers are, but here is a channel that knew its audience instantly. This is the television station for anybody who has ever bought one of those toasted-sandwich makers.

My back-of-the-envelope figure on this one is that there are 40 million of us with one of these useless devices gathering dust in the cupboard with the shoe polish and the J-cloths.

And don't look so smug if you don't have one, because I am including anyone with a bullworker, an exercise bike, any other fitness aid ordered through the post, a miracle vegetable peeler, slicer and grater, any set of LPs available only by responding to a television ad, and any cooking device advertised in the Sunday colour supplements and not available in the shops.

Yes, that's right. The Shopping Channel is television for the terminally credulous, for the gullible, for suckers - for you and me, in other words.

And what glorious stuff we can lay our hands on without leaving our armchairs: a miracle juicer, which will extract the juice from a carrot and enable you to make carrot cake with the pulp; a miracle car wax (everything is a miracle on the Shopping Channel) which will maintain its shine even if you set fire to your car, should you wish to do such a thing; a portable metal step you can carry with you anywhere and which will enable you to do step-up exercises and acquire the body you have always wanted.

The demonstrations of these items take 10 minutes and bring what was previously only available in lock-ups in Blackpool into your own living-room. It is hucksterism of a high order, which has me reaching for my credit card. Fortunately, I do not own a dish so I only view this channel at friends' houses.

Most of the time I am limited to the Innovations catalogue which comes with the Sunday magazines and advertises useful items such as leather-covered Radio Times holders that play the theme from Crimewatch UK, and electric dog polishers.

Then, of course, there is the Argos catalogue, one of the most popular publications in Britain. I am told there is a new one just out, so if you will excuse me, I am looking for a microwave. We have decided to get rid of the hamster.

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