x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Star Trek gadgets define our lives, but where's the 'on' switch?

Family shopping lists change over time, but some things ¿ such as a man's reputation for domestic incompetence ¿ are always the same.

Until this week, my reputation for domestic incompetence was perhaps the greatest source of shame in my adult life. As my long-suffering wife will testify, I was brought up in an age when men went out to work while their wives stayed at home and watched daytime television.

Consequently, at the age of 55 I still can't knock in a nail, change a nappy or mend a fuse. My cooking skills extend no further than "ping" cuisine (so named after the noise made by the timer on the microwave).

Indeed, having rashly promised to provide my wife with an evening meal the other night, I then had to break the news that her dinner was burnt. When she asked how, I admitted that the local takeaway was on fire.

But hope is at hand. Far from being dinosaurs of a bygone age, it now seems that men such as me are in the vanguard of modern metrosexual living.

Salvation has come at the hands of the latest report from the Office for National Statistics. This august body is charged with calculating the annual rate of inflation in the UK, and it estimates the cost of some 700 assorted "essential items" in a typical family's shopping basket.

Its latest formula published last week provides a fascinating commentary on changing times and tastes (as well as some comfort for klutzes like me). Many of the "essential items" that had featured for decades have now been removed, including two items I've always viewed with fear and loathing: stepladders and glass casserole dishes.

When I was growing up, the sight of your father up a stepladder at the weekend, mending some faulty guttering or rendering damaged stucco, was a traditional vignette of life in Britain. So was the casserole dish, the saviour of generations of housewives. Merely bung in some meat and vegetables, add a good dash of stock, turn it on and set it to simmer for about three weeks.

But no more. According to the ONS, nobody uses ladders or casserole dishes any more. Similarly banished as bellwethers of daily life are items such as "the cost of developing photographs at your local chemists", "walking boots" and "boiled sweets".

Instead, as we race headlong into the brave new dystopian future, the inventory of articles used to calculate the rate of inflation now reads like a props list from an episode of Star Trek. At the top is a tablet computer, while second-most popular is the bundled internet package.

Alongside these obvious changes there are other, more intriguing examples of changing times. Who, for instance, would have thought that a fresh pineapple was now a prerequisite of daily life? And what about baby wipes?

But it all points to an evolving culture in which the virtues of "Make Do And Mend" (the old fashioned term for recycling, used to such great effect during the Second World War) are defunct. Most of us have forgotten the art of darning socks, preparing fresh meals or undertaking household repairs. Just as casserole dishes have lost their place, "takeaway chicken and chips" now ranks as essential.

Indeed, you only have to walk the length of an average train compartment during rush hour to see what I mean. Whereas once upon a time you would see people quietly knitting or reading a paperback, frazzled commuters now spend their time frenetically texting or answering their emails (often while grazing on takeaway chicken and chips, much to the disgust of everyone else in the carriage).

Indeed, one recent survey estimated that the contents of an average handbag or briefcase contains nearly £1,000 (Dh5,800) worth of electronics equipment. Anyone stealing my mother's handbag 20 years ago would have found little more than a packet of paper tissues and some half-sucked mint humbugs.

But that, I suppose, is progress for you. In fact, I've celebrated my new-found confidence by purchasing the gadget that, according to the ONS, no self-respecting modern man should be without: the e-reader. Just think, no more carrying around lumps of reconstituted tree bark to while away the long hours on the train. The e-reader not only comes with the complete works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, but it can fit happily inside my jacket pocket.

It truly is a wondrous piece of technology. Or at least it would be, if only I could work out how to switch the darn thing on.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London