Save good design like it's going out of fashion

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The Independent Online
Sometimes I agree with Alastair Cooke and sometimes I disagree and sometimes I don't know what the hell he is talking about even though I always enjoy listening to him if I can get my heartbeat slow enough, but the only time he ever made me get up off my backside and rush out and do something was when he said that he feared that people would one day stop making proper ribbons for old-fashioned manual typewriters - proper cotton ones, not funny plastic ones - so he had laid in a great stock of them. As I, too, from time to time have pleasurable resort to my old portable typewriter (No batteries! Works through power cuts! Comes in two colours! Actually prints the hard copy as you watch!). I too rushed out and bought a dozen reels in advance, and I am now prepared for years ahead.

Manual typewriters are supposedly rendered obsolete by word processors and all those other things, but there are certain things they always did better. It is a great mistake to think that progress brings all-round improvement. For instance, I remember the time 10 years ago that I moved out of London and had to take the video recorder back to the Notting Hill shop from which I had rented it for years.

"By gum - bit of a museum piece here," said the man, as he welcomed it back fondly (as well he might, considering how much it had earned for him).

"I did think now and then of trading it in for a better, more modern model," I lied.

"You might have got a more modern one, but never a better one," he said, looking at its controls. "This is way ahead of what they're making now, for the public at least."

"This one is better than the new ones?"

"Oh, yes. The thing is that when they first started producing VCRs they thought people would use them for editing and making home films as well as recording and viewing TV, so they gave them lots of facilities such as freeze-framing, frame-by-frame viewing, very slow rewind and so on. Then they discovered that people didn't want all this and didn't know how to handle it - they can still barely handle timers on their VCRs - so they dropped it all and made the machines much simpler. Yours is an early one. It's pretty advanced still."

What he was saying was what palaeontologists sometimes tell us: that all species that have ever existed have died out sooner or later. But he was adding a footnote to their theory by saying that sometimes the wrong species dies out ...

There are plenty of examples of the wrong thing catching on and the right thing being sidelined. My brother-in-law became convinced early on that Betamax was better than VHS, as most people now think, and is still waiting for VHS to go away. I feel the same way about London A-Z maps, which are nowhere as nice or clear as Nicholson's Streetfinders and their other products. My wife has a similar grouse about Raspberry Crunch. Raspberry Crunch is the only cereal she likes at all. She says that the best make by far, the nicest and tastiest, is Cheshire's. Better than Jordan's and Sainsbury's own brand and all the others. And guess which is the hardest to find in the shops? The one that people won't stock? Correct. She has Cheshire's Raspberry Crunch stocked up the way I have typewriter ribbons.

This train of thought came to me as I lay in the bath this morning. Why? Because our bath is another example of an endangered design. It has its taps, not at the end, but half-way along the side.

I can't remember now why my wife and I chose this model (made in Germany, I think) but we have never regretted it.

For a start, you can actually reach the taps without pulling a muscle or trying to use the toes, and without having to pass through an intermediate pool of boiling or freezing water.

You can sit at either end of the bath without having to lean back against taps.

This means that two people can get in a bath together, if that's your idea of fun, and neither will get the rotten end.

And if there's just one of you (which is the way I most often take a bath) you get a dazzling choice of ends. Sometimes when I want to do a bit of reading in the bath, I sit at the end overlooked by the bathroom window so that the daylight falls on my book. At other times I sit down the other end because it's warmer and also has a better view, out of the self-same window.

Need I say more? This is a bath for life. Unless it wears out, of course, in which case I may find that, like Betamaxes and clever VCRs, it has been phased out.

Which is why at present I am formulating plans to lay in a store of baths with taps down one side, in the same way as one does with typewriter ribbons and Cheshire's Raspberry Crunch.