Hard sell: Jacques Peretti.
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Why does nothing last? The Men Who Made Us Spend on BBC2

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Plus: Britain’s Poshest Nannies.

The Men Who Made Us Spend; Britain’s Poshest Nannies
BBC2; ITV

Another morning, another skip into which another virtually new kitchen will shortly be hurled. Your street might not be like this – or not yet – but mine is and it makes me sick. Where did it come from, this relentless pursuit of the new, this complete inability to feel guilty about producing so much needless waste? Jacques Peretti – he’s roughly what you’d get presenter-wise if you put Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis in a blender and whizzed for four minutes – believes that Ikea must take some of the blame, its “Chuck out your chintz” campaign having been so effective. There are other culprits, too: Margaret Thatcher, who believed that the consumer should be sovereign; computer-aided design, which allowed manufacturers to vary their products minutely and at very little cost, the better to increase our lust; consumer credit, which allows us to spend even when we’re broke; and, perhaps most monstrously of all, the German businessman who first came up with the now widely accepted concept of built-in obsolescence by limiting the life of his company’s light bulbs.

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Cynicism, denial, greed, vested interests . . . All are on display here and it isn’t pretty. The disdain some companies have for the ordinary person! Consumers might be sovereign in western capitalist terms but we’re also suckers and don’t they know it. When Peretti told Benedict Evans, a snooty, San Francisco-based “tech analyst”, that most people who lust for the latest iPhone seem to have no idea how it differs from the previous model, Evans’s contempt seemed absolute. “It’s not the consumer’s job to know how it’s better,” he said. Suddenly it was obvious why Apple, which refused to put up its own representative for interview, had suggested Evans as a proxy. All power to Peretti for having given the man enough fibre-optic cable with which to hang himself.

In California, Peretti visited iFixit, a collective whose members spend their days tearing apart technology to see how it might be mended. The iPhone 4, for instance, is held together with two tiny five-point screws that were seemingly designed by Apple specifically to keep its owner from looking inside and iFixit has created a screwdriver that will fit them (you can buy it online). Inside the handset, the company uses regular screws, which only underlines that Apple would rather you buy a new phone than attempt to replace a fading battery yourself.

Some technology is considered obsolete even before its built-in obsolescence kicks in. Peretti visited a recycling plant full of kit that had not even managed to make it out of the box before being abandoned. He also provided some pretty shocking footage of post-festival fields filled with row upon row of tents that had been used only once. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this upset me more even than the mountains of printers and phones that had preceded it.

However much I loathe them, I’m now accustomed to the skips and to the four-by-fours that roar in once the makeover is complete. But even my jaw swung when, the other day, I saw a Norland nanny walking by, complete with a silly hat and white gloves. Where had this exotic creature appeared from? It seems she must have legged it to our litter-strewn borough hot from Bath, the home of Norland College, a fact I came by courtesy of Britain’s Poshest Nannies (17 July, 9pm) on ITV.

Will her skills come in useful in these parts? I’m not sure. These days, Norland nannies don’t just learn how to change a nappy; they’re taught how to dodge the paps (celebrity culture has invaded even the talcum-powdered world of the Victorian establishment). I suppose a defensive move with a Silver Cross pram might prove effective down the Turkish greengrocer’s should our heroine find herself fighting for the last punnet of flat peaches – but should she be tempted to kick the local Staffies “like a ninja”, she could quickly find herself in a world of pain.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution