Saturday, 14 June 2008

Packaging

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There is more to packaging than meets the eye. Actually, that's not strictly true. In general, there's just more packaging than meets the eye. The fellows who work down in the frudgetable*-wrapping factory really love their jobs. Probably the keenest worker in the world is the chap who tapes up lettuce. The plastic on one lettuce can take longer to get through than the US border, and that's including the 'plane flight. As for cucumbers, I'm just glad that somebody's found a use for condoms that didn't make it through quality control.


Sticking with foodstuffs, that Prince Charles fellow is a bit devilish. For all his rambling about how organics and environmentalism will cure cancer, mend the Middle East and stop Boris breaking London, he's managed to produce a range of comestibles that seem to be housed in more cardboard than it would take to wrap up a medium-sized Channel Island. You open a box of, say, biscuits, and you have to rattle it about for quite a while before you find anything edible amid the vast, empty acres of packaging.


But as the French found out when they were testing their over-sized cigar slicer, not everything is the fault of the royals. There's Argos as well. If Hercules were born today and had time to deal with a few super-human tasks before he was shuffled off to a documentary on Channel 4 (episode two, after the baby with a superfluity of limbs and before the man who can converse with root vegetables), two of them would probably involve shopping at Argos, then managing to unpack whatever he's sent to buy.


For the shopping part, the whole system feels like a 1960s dystopia. Everything has that bland but bright plastic look than was once touted as the incredibly depressing future by the same people who thought that concrete was sophisticated, rather than seeing it as the Duplo to the Lego of the red brick (Technics are all-glass skyscrapers - expensive, fiddly, cool and flash, but never looking quite right in the end). There is an American utopian novel from the nineteenth century called Looking Backward, in which all of humanity's woes are solved by a combination of clockwork computers and raging communism (and they say Americans don't do irony). Essentially, this describes Argos - a procession of queues that would have impressed the Soviet Union, and retro mechanics borrowed from a margin note in a Jules Verne novel. The worst bit is at the end, when like a gambling addict with his last ha'penny on Fuming Trousers in the 3.54 at Epsom, you stand before a brightly coloured monitor, your words alternating between prayer and obscenity, hoping your number will come in first. Its silliness is almost, but not quite matched by the bit when you use an over-sized pocket calculator to communicate with a gnome who lives in a tunnel, waiting to load things onto a conveyor belt. Oh, and the pens, the pens, which for all their failings are wonderful, because the entire pub quiz industry is based upon them.


In fact, the shop itself is like those pens - weird, a bit rubbish, but ultimately fab, because it's the best place to buy all those miscellaneous bits and bobs that you'd otherwise spend days wandering around looking for in dozens of different shops. Consumerism teaches us to forgive anything if it's cheap enough.


So, after Hercules has got his twin-pack of standing lamps, his remote control quad bike, or his sandwich toaster home, sweat pouring from his manly brow, he must then attend to the unpacking, which is where I get back to packaging, which was the point of this to begin with. The quantity and variety is almost thrilling. It's a bit like undressing a Victorian noblewoman, only instead of layers of lace, corsetry, bustles and frilly bits you must contend with sticky tape, cardboard, expanded polystyrene, foam, string, plastic bags, and sometimes smaller cardboard boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Even once you're unpacked, there's still plenty of work to be done, because there'll be tape stuck to the walls, tiny balls of expanded polystyrene all over the carpet and more cardboard piled up than you ever thought yourself capable of carrying home.


Once Hercules has dragged that lot down to the recycling bins, he can get back to some proper heroism, like saving Croydon from barbarians, or helping actuaries lift their wallets.


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* A frudgetable is anything a bit green and a bit tasty that leaves the whole of human civilisation confused about the fruit/vegetable thing. Cucumbers, for instance, or peppers. Everybody bangs on about tomatoes, but they're only the tip of the really confusing iceberg. I don't know how an iceberg becomes confusing – maybe it has tax credits?

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