The Definitive Two

iPhones are really nice, I love them, but they’re too much phone for me. A bit too nice. In my experience, mobile handsets frequently get lost, dropped, wet, beery, muddy, left in the gym or on a pub table, broken, accidentally pocketed during saunas, used in pouring rain, carelessly handled with filthy, gloved hands, covered with Peak District grit and ever so occasionally even stolen. I’m not sure then that I really want to have such a nice piece of kit in my pocket as an iPhone. They’re brilliant things, but for me they don’t really function as a phone because they’re too precious. Too good.

Likewise I’m a car lover, but why bother buying a nice posh car that will get crashed into, pranged, keyed, dirty and possibly stolen? It just seems like a waste of money. I want to be able to be able to park it up somewhere with broken glass on the floor and graffiti on the walls (ie the only place you can ever find a parking space in most cities) and not spend my time worrying about it. If I can’t do that then I can’t help but think it’s not really fit for purpose. If I have a car that I can’t leave out on the road, it’s not much good to me.

I don’t want to feel like I must mollycoddle my belongings – they exist to be used. It’s a quite irritating fact of life for those who don’t wish to step onto the treadmill of upgrade culture that the Western world is awash with products far, far better than they need to be. It’s why the only pen I ever buy is the Bic Cristal. It is as good as it needs to be and no more.

I love nice pens. I can happily spend an hour or twelve stripping, cleaning and rebuilding my posh draughtsman pens with the same care an assassin does his rifle, and when I’m at the stationers I always find myself uncapping the nice disposable German fine liners and scribbling things onto the little test sheets. I invariably used to come away with a couple, adding a tenner or so onto my bill when I’d only gone in for some paper or board. After all, if cake is removed from the equation, there are few things more rewarding than a nice quality pen. But one day I suddenly got annoyed with them. I realised I’d not ever seen a single one of them run out.

Now I know at this point you’re probably thinking “why would he be annoyed by pens that never run out? Surely he’s been lucky enough to find the holy grail of pens, not only once but with every single one he ever bought, so should at least be mildly pleased if not ecstatic at these repeated discoveries, particularly as he might just hold the key to solving perpetual motion and therefore the solution to all the world’s energy needs, making him the quite possibly the most powerful person in the history of humanity”.

Well I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s not the case. I’ve never seen any of them run out because pens vanish long before they have a chance to do so. I don’t know where they go, but they vanish. You leave them on your desk and the next thing they’re gone. You put them in your bag and the next thing they’re gone. You lend them to people and the next thing, the thieving, filthy lying bastard has stolen it and is claiming he hasn’t.

Practically speaking, it’s not that much of a problem – you’ll still be able to write whatever you need, whenever you need as there’ll always be another pen kicking around somewhere nearby. You see pens are treat like oxygen, or music. They’re common property. Free for all, in the public realm. You don’t own a pen so much as use the one nearest to your hand whenever you need one. So we’re always able to write, just never with a pen you buy. Extremely annoying for those of us who buy and like to use nice pens. Because what actually happens is we buy nice pens and then end up using crap ones.

The most maddening thing for me (but mainly others) is that I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I might buy nice pens which I subsequently lose, but I also end up with other people’s nice pens. I’ve just had a quick dig through my pen drawer and found two pens that I know for sure clearly aren’t mine. One is of a sort I’d never buy and I’ve no idea of its origin, the other a nice 0.5 graphic pen scribed with the name of an old college mate.* I don’t remember stealing his pen, I’m not a filthy lying stationery snaffling thief. It’s just that somehow, inexplicably, I ended up with his pen.

My habit of buying nice pens ceased the moment I realised what was happening to them. Once I realised that the pen purchaser simply performs the task of adding to the world’s generic pen collection I decided enough was enough. I’m not the sort to be all protective over such inconsequential things, so I was never going to start wearing my precious writing implements on lanyards hidden under my T-Shirt or attach them to my person by way of a mitten retention string, but I am the sort to get annoyed by the whole subject. So it was decided from that point on I would buy only Bic Cristals.

Do you know what? I love them. They’re reliable, they always work and through the clear shaft you can see for how long. They’re cheap, disposable but perform well, they’re compact, they do their job just as well as is required. They’re a rare example of a product that is just as good is it needs to be and no more. While I can and do write and doodle with my Bic Cristal all day every day, if I should lose track of its location I don’t really care; I paid something like 32p for a box of a thousand.

I don’t feel bitter about the thought of someone else using my Bic Cristal. I don’t care if it gets lost, stolen, dropped and stood on, snapped, chewed by some filthy idiot or used by a hateful, punchworthy** colleague to scrape chewing gum out of his shoe tread. I just forget about it, accept that it has become another pen of the public realm, get another one out of the box and continue with my life.

From my earlier paragraphs I might sound like I treat my phone and car, and therefore other property with disdain. I don’t, but I don’t mollycoddle things either. I like and buy nice products where necessary. I generally hate cheap tat, and avoid bargains like the plague. “Buy cheap, buy twice” is a motto I agree with. But sometimes you can’t win – for some products that disposability is a key part of their function.

That’s when you need the perfect balance of quality and disposability. The Bic Cristal has just that. Where posh pens are a joy to use and a killer to lose, the lowly Bic Cristal has mediocrity in spades and is far superior as a result. It is therefore, in my humble yet often and loudly voiced opinion a true design classic. But even better than that, it is a truly definitive product. Think pen, think Bic Biro. The best and the worst. As likely to be found on the desks of the local comprehensive school as on the table of the Prime Minister. In fact it could even be the very same one, when you wonder how long some could have been in the system and how far they might have travelled.


*I say mate, but I didn’t ever particularly consider him one. He was just another student at college, and in the 8 years since graduation we’ve had zero contact. My only real memory involving him was twice kindly obliging his request to go out into the car park to push start his rusty heap of a hatchback, and each time watching as it fired into life and he proceeded to simply drive away into the dark, leaving me standing their alone in the pissing rain, grubby handed and incredulous at what a sodding ingrate he was. What was I, his starter motor?  College mate my ass, I’m glad I stole his pen. I’d do it again, the unappreciative twat.

** Okay, maybe I care a little bit.

The Definitive One

As they’re used by upwards of 150 people, the two office kitchens can often be quite busy. With one sink, two fridges, one kettle and a limited amount of worksurface to be shared between so many staff, one can often feel a little squeezed.

As a result it seems our usual personal space issues get left at the door when we enter the office kitchen – applying civilised society’s normal rules of comfortable proximity would leave us unable to function. And so, much the same as when using public transport at rush hour, it’s best to just get past the discomfort and get on with it. Sure, you’ll get a bit too close to someone’s armpit and no doubt you’ll step on somebody’s toes, but it’s just the rules of the office kitchen.

During one recent visit I found myself waiting for sink access behind a colleague who drinks a rather suspect green tea which he brews in a special glass teapot. The details and specifics of this teapot’s functionality are as alien to me as that of those cafetier things with the plunger. But from casual glance it looks to contain some sort of seive/strainer in the middle. And though I can only hazard a guess at what it does and why it’s better than a teabag, I am acutely aware that they take longer to clean that a normal cup.

And so as I waited for him to perform his teapot cleaning ritual, with my failing patience getting the better of me I observed the rules of the kitchen and reached around to tip the cold remains of my previous cup down the sink. In doing so - and this is typical of the risks one runs when operating outside the safety-net of conventional society - I very nearly caught my colleague’s special teapot with my cheapo mug. Had they have collided as I briefly anticipated, I imagined one or both of our respective recepticles could have suffered damage. At best, I feared, one of us was leaving the kitchen with an item rendered beyond use.

Luckily they escaped contact and emerged unscathed. I remarked that I very nearly caused a catastrophe with my impatience, that I very nearly broke his posh teapot with my cheapo mug. He seemed rather calm about the whole thing, and made known his confidence that should anything have actually happened, his teapot would have survived.

“I think it’s Pyrex, so it would have been alright”.

And at that moment, that moment of unconditional acceptance, for the first time in my life I became aware of how comforting the existence of Pyrex is.

It’s always been there, Pyrex. It’s one of those brands that you just know you can rely on. The definitive “best”. Every self respecting graphic designer knows that Swann Morton 10As are the only blade worth having in the studio. Every cleaner knows that Henry would laugh Dyson out of existance in a vaccuum-off. Anyone who’s ever eaten fishfingers and chips knows that ketchup other than Heinz might as well be animal effluence. And so it goes, when we head out to buy glass kitchenware we all know there’s only one brand worth having.

Like Tannoy, Hoover, Kleenex and Portakabin, the Pyrex brand has become synonymous with the market sector to which it contributes. To the extent that should they be outsold by a lesser brand, Pyrex will still be the name used. Much as you’d never announce over a public address system that someone needs to vaccuum the torn up pocket disposable handkerchiefs in the prefabricated portable office, you’d never tell someone after a dinner party to make sure they return your microwave and dishwasher-safe large glass oven dish when they’ve washed it. You’d just say “make sure you bring my Pyrex dish when you next come round”.

There’s more to it though. Unlike the products featuring in my rather bizzare building-site security office post night-of-boredom cleanup scenario mentioned above, the Pyrex dish is still seen as the ‘definitive one’. And while people (or as some might call them - ‘idiots’) might incorrectly refer to their inferior glassware as Pyrex while they ‘hoover up’ with what is clearly a Dyson, they won’t be that precious about it. After all, they bought the cheap nasty stuff so they obviously wouldn’t know the difference.

However should their glassware of choice actually be Pyrex, you’ll find quite a bit of brand loyalty and a certain quiet boastfulness about it. Because to buy Pyrex is a conscious decision. The purchaser of Pyrex knows what’s what. One never buys Pyrex by accident. So when, for example, your mum visits and brings you a lasagne, she’ll be very insistent that you remember to return the Pyrex dish it was made in.

“Remember to bring back my Pyrex dish when you’re done”.

“Don’t forget about my Pyrex dish when you’re next up”.

“Make sure you remember to bring my Pyrex dish when you come next, I could do with it – it’s that big square one I brought you the lasagne in, it’s Pyrex”.

And the text message;

“will be in from 3 onward so come any time after remember pyrex dish”

Because Pyrex dishes are special. It’s not ‘cool’ to own Pyrex. It’s not an aspirationally motivated purchase. Unlike an Apple Mac, a 3 Series BMW or a pair of Oakleys - undoubtedly good products who’s qualities are overshadowed by their own often evangelical brand image, there are no lifestyle connotations about one’s ownership of Pyrex. It’s not the one-upmanship of the logo. No. It is genuinely one of the very few brands out there that is still bought purely for its quality and reliability. You’d never show off about the fact that you’d just bought some Pyrex dishes, but you’d definately not lend them out to ‘just anyone’.

Just as my collegue felt safe in the knowledge that his teapot would survive an altercation with my mug, your mum will always know that her Pyrex dish is the definitive one - the only one she’ll ever need - and it’s well worth nagging a forgetful son about.

In the ridiculously far-fetched situation that I was ever in the market for a mixing bowl, I would buy Pyrex. If it meant a special trip to the Cole Brothers (yes, Cole Brothers) kitchenware department, I would still choose Pyrex because Morrisons’ or Wilkinsons’ own products will not do. A big glass bowl without the Pyrex logo on the bottom would be like eating stew and dumplings without Hendersons Relish – illogical and immoral.

I would take comfort in knowing that my glass kitchenware will shrug off being ovened, microwaved, dishwashered or subjected to a strategic missile strike. In fact in all my life I’ve only ever seen one Pyrex dish break. It fell out of a badly stacked kitchen cupboard upon opening the door, causing it to shatter. But not before it broke the floor tile it landed on. True story.