Curse of the no-name gizmo

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I have often referred to one of the greatest plagues of our time, and as nobody has done anything about it, I am going to refer to it again, and that is the habit of introducing nasty elements into modern life which we cannot complain about because we do not know what they are called.

One obvious example of this was the milk carton with the top you couldn't open, the one that has "Open This End" and "Pull Wings Forward and Pour" written on it, but doesn't have the more truthful instruction "Try to Pull Forward and Get Milk All Over Your Trousers Instead" on it. Or the one that had that instruction on it because finally someone somewhere has admitted that the carton was a sleeping minefield, and it has now been generally replaced by another kind of carton which has a sort of flap on top that you lift before pouring, and then push back into place in order, supposedly, to reseal the contents and keep them fresh.

Trouble is, we don't know what this is called, either.

"These new cartons, with the new whatsit."

"What's that, Dad?"

"I don't think much of these new cartons with the thing on top."

"What carton with what thing on top?"

"You know. The top spout. The spouty thing which comes up but doesn't go down very well into the groove which is meant to ..."

"What's he on about?"

"God knows. Shut up, Dad."

I suspect that maybe that's how the things are designed. You have a high- level meeting in the boardroom of Nameless Packaging, a huge conglomerate which makes packaging that infuriates two billion people in five continents and several space shuttles, and you get coversations like this:

"Our research department tells us that people are fed up with those little metal ties which fasten the kinds of bag you get in butcher's shops. You know, the ones you twist on in the shop and twist off at home."

"Why are customers fed up, DG?"

"It's not the customers who are fed up, Charles, it's the butchers. They want something easier to handle. Now, our research department has come up with this."

There are gasps of astonishment as DG puts on the table a thing that looks like a sticky-tape dispenser. He demonstrates that by plunging the neck of the bag into the gadget, you can seal the top of the bag in remorseless blue tape.

"Gosh, that's clever, DG. And when the customer gets home, he can just unseal it? Just pull the tape off?"

"Don't be stupid, Charles. Once the tape is on, it is impossible to get off, and the only way the customer can open the bag again is by wrenching it open with his teeth, or finding a pair of scissors and jabbing furiously at the bag."

"Oh, dear. Won't the customer kick up a fuss?"

"No, he won't. He won't be able to because we won't give the thing a name so he won't be able even to discuss the horrors of it."

And so it came to pass that butchers all over the country started the present trend towards vegetarianism by fastening their bags in a hideous kind of tape which it is impossible to open, all except my favourite butcher in Bath, who still sells excellent meat and uses metal ties, and I think I would go there for the metal ties even if his meat was not so good.

This is not the only weapon used by manufacturers. Another one is to give their product a misleading name. Video libraries, for instance. I have gone to libraries all my life to borrow books, which involves choosing a book, taking it home and leaving it lying around in anticipation of the moment you read it, for which purpose you need a week or two. I am all in favour of deferred gratification. It is the only thing that makes sex bearable, for instance.

When I first joined a video library, I assumed it obeyed the same sort of civilised laws, so I put my film by Luis Bunuel or Billy Wilder or whoever on the mantelpiece, preparing for a leisurely viewing. What I got instead, of course, was a phone call saying that the damned thing was two days overdue.

"But I only got it out on Monday!" I expostulated. "I haven't watched it yet."

"It was only an overnight loan," they said wearily.

"Call yourself a library?" I said. "Why, when I borrow a book ..."

But they had gone.

Take another example. Restaurants. You know what a restaurant is? Then how dare McDonald's, the hamburger people, call their fast-food joints restaurants? They are no more restaurants than my video rental joint is a library.

A lawyer writes: Whoops-a-daisy! I think you had better stop there, Mr Kington. McDonald's are just a little touchy at the moment ...