The Weasel: Ghosts in the machine

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Once in a while, you see a cartoon that goes beyond funny. It speaks to the depths of one's soul. It happened a few years ago with a drawing in The New Yorker by Charles Barsotti.

With face frozen in a catatonic rictus, a man stares in disbelief at a heap of paperclips on the floor while holding a small box he has opened upside-down. Caption: "Breaking Point." Another cartoon that uncannily mirrors my world appears in the current issue of the same journal. By the excellent Roz Chast, a Rembrandt of middle-class angst, it consists of three separate drawings. Top left is an anxious, elderly woman. Bottom right is an evil-looking TV emitting ominous fizzing noises. In the middle, there is a large remote control with buttons variously marked "Lose sound", "Lose picture", "Never saw this one before", "No clue", "Utter mystery" and "TV explodes". The caption reads: "How Grandma sees the remote".

I am Grandma. Or, rather, we are. Mrs W is even worse at using the remote control than I am. You can tell our intimate grasp of the workings of this device by the nickname we have given it: "The whizzy thing". Of course, we do use it, but only certain parts. Much remains a no-go area. The consequences of accidentally pressing the baffling buttons – why the hell does one have a little heart on it? – are variable. Sometimes nothing happens, though there remains the strong likelihood that you've only stored up trouble for yourself. Sometimes you have to live with a superimposed green arrow or an even larger, unfathomable visual intrusion for weeks afterwards. We respond to the occasional TV injunction "Now press the red button" with fear and loathing.

The ability to master technology declines with age. I was a whiz with the Dansette but find myself clueless with our CD player. Doubtless, it is the youth of the designers that results in gadgetry being loaded with superfluous features. As a result, all these little grey gadgets look pretty much the same – yes, I have been known to point the telephone at the screen in an attempt to get David Attenborough – and are equally perplexing. The symbols that occasionally appear on our wireless telephone are as impenetrable as Chinese calligraphy. Why an envelope, a spanner or a little wrapped-up present? They can't be for when we want to ring up Rymans, Kwik-Fit or Liberty, can they?

Even though I happen to come from the corner of West Yorkshire that gave birth to Luddism, I am not entirely averse to technology. As recently as 18 months ago, I acquired my first mobile phone. I've used it maybe three times. At present it's lost, something that never happened to the old flex-tethered model. For the life of me, I cannot see the great advantage of carrying a mobile when we have – or had – a perfectly good nationwide network of phone boxes. I mean, do we carry round an espresso machine because we occasionally want a cappuccino? Moreover, anyone over a certain age – maybe 35 – looks more than a little absurd when talking on a mobile.

Texting is even more idiotic over a certain age, say 17. No, I've never done it. Y4? This irritating hi-tech fidget – the telecom equivalent of crochet – achieves annoying apogee with the Blackberry. In many ways, this gizmo is a needless miniaturisation of a technology that reached perfection in the Olivetti Portable typewriter. Just because technology keeps advancing – or, rather, getting more complicated – it doesn't mean we have to use it. I know from a friend who interviewed Keith Richards that the great axeman's preferred mode of communication is the fax machine. Technology reached a certain stage that suited him, after which he wisely lost interest. The opinionated Stone is dismissive of both computers (he once said they were fine for secretaries) and the internet: "I'm not interested in what some other arsehole at the other end of the world thinks about this or that." I don't go quite that far. I found that quote from Mr Richards on the internet, but computers are not always the massive advance that we assume. My Apple Powerbook has been on the blink since I dropped the Oxford Companion to Food (892pp) on it. The Olivetti Portable would have shrugged it off.

****

Possibly because Leap Year is regarded as a time of ill-luck – you are doubtless aware of the Scottish proverb "A Leap Year is never a good sheep year" – there are very few celebratory comestibles associated with 29 February, which falls this coming Friday. In fact, the only one I know comes from the world of cocktails, a milieu that rarely passes up the opportunity for inventing a snifter. Created by the legendary barman Harry Craddock for a celebration at the Savoy Hotel on 29 February 1928, the Leap Year consists of (per person): 40ml gin; 10ml Grand Marnier; 10ml sweet vermouth; 5ml lemon juice. Shake with ice and serve in a cocktail glass with a twist of lemon peel.

This potent concoction should be handled with caution. According to the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), it was "responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed". It certainly had that effect on Mrs W when, jumping the gun a bit, I tried it out on her. "Lovely orange colour. You can taste the gin in it! Whoo-hoo! Rather astounding. I propose we have another."

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