I love the Cornish Riviera Sleeper, the night train that runs six nights a week between Penzance and London Paddington Station. The beds are comfortable, the very pleasant lounge car offers free hot drinks and biscuits, the staff are uniformly helpful, kind, friendly and polite. I love this train so much that I was one of those prepared to spend a night lying on the cold floor of Paddington station in protest at the threat of its termination. (Will someone tell those pompous souls who compose standard train announcements that when a train comes to its last stop it’s the journey that terminates, not the train?) Happily, with no need for this dramatic demo, the Sleeper was reprieved, and long may it flourish. So it distresses me to write this article.
The Sleeper, alas, has been redesigned. The compartments now have more curves than angles: curved mirrors and a curved sink-top and sink. There are needless cupboard doors hiding the hangers for clothes, only one hanger being high enough now to hold a coat. There is a large pull-out table over each bunk, too large to put down when you’re actually in bed. The wonderful little net against the wall which safely held your book, spectacle case, phone and whatever while you slept is gone, and there are now some kind of seat backs on either side of the pullout table, presumably to lean against if in daytime the bed converts to a seat. This makes the bed so much narrower that even a small person like myself, especially with the year-round thick duvet that takes up yet more wall space, is likely to fall out of bed. I should add that the new reading lights are excellent.
So why? Why has a tried and true basic sleeping car design been ditched for more up-to-date-looking ‘modernity’? The new design (it’s tacky anyway) would make sense only if passengers, as in the old long-distance 1st Class Sleeper compartments, planned to spend both nights and days there and needed conversions to daytime use. This is never the case with the Riviera Sleeper, where the beds are already made up when you get on and you expect to get off when or before the night is over.
Form follows function, said the renowned art critic and historian Wilhelm Robert Worringer, and that should be the aesthetic of good design. The new form does not serve the Sleeper train’s actual function as well as the old. This brings me to the title of this article. What works is constantly being fixed, using more of the world’s dwindling resources and ending up no better and often worse. In the wake of the admitted climate crisis and Extinction Rebellion (at last!) fashion is now much criticized and rightly, but fashion at least was change by definition. It is not just clothes that sport constant change, it’s everything we use, everything we buy. The words ‘new and improved’ are devouring our planet. New may or may not be true, improved is doubtful. In any case the real function of ‘new and improved’ is to make the old look too old, even if it was better, and to make us keep buying and buying because if we don’t our economy will grind to a halt. There are countless examples, but I’ll mention just two things I have used most of my life, the toothbrush and the mountain boot.
The toothbrush, the basic toothbrush, has a basic shape. It’s a handle with a little brush at the end, which used long ago to be natural bristle on wood and is now plastic. It makes sense to have different texture brushes, for more or less sensitive teeth, but go to any druggist and look at the amazing array of shapes and handles, each one no doubt first advertised as the ‘new and improved’. Does anyone need all those shapes and handles? What we do need is all brushes to have changeable heads to save all that throwaway plastic.
The mountain boot: in my parents’ youth there was one boot, for walking, climbing, everything. It had a rubber sole with metal prongs, the Tricouni sole. Then came the Vibram sole, thick black rubber with cross and bar reliefs, crampons put on over your boots are then worn for new ice. The Vibram sole was a huge improvement. I have walked on other soles and never felt the same security. So why all these intricate new sole shapes? And why, with metal hooks now replacing holes near the top of the boot (yes, the hooks too were a real improvement) do my latest boots have a useless extra hook, which does nothing but get in one’s way when lacing up?
What we and the earth clearly need is not unending ‘new and improved’ products we don’t need, but a new and improved economic system, which prices and taxes things according to their ecological impact, preserves good design and fosters better public services instead of more greedy, destructive, pointless consumption. If I had internet skills, I would start an ‘ifitworksdontfixit’ blog to which people could contribute their own examples. Does anyone want to try?
Volume 34 no 3 January – February 2020 pp 13-14