I forget what the column in the Pretoria News was called, but it was one that writers would take up for a season and then move on to something else. The column retained its name and identity, but different styles, perceptions, questions and answers came and went.
During my tenure there, Rob Fysh — now a roving biker travel journo — took on the column and with vigour and a gentle style for a time made it his own. Rob is tall, ruggedly handsome (he dated one of South Africa’s perennial stage beauties, Annabelle Linder, for a while), soft-spoken and carries himself with a swagger that suggests he shot John Wayne and d’ya wanna make something of it?
Slow to anger, Fysh came into the newsroom one afternoon seething with rage. “Tell me, Llew,” he said, “do you ever find that in a pack of, say, five razor blades, only the first one and the last one are …”
“Sharp, yes!” I finished his sentence.
He had wanted to devote his column to this perpetual poser every man has asked, but our invertebrate editor, Andrew Drysdale, was too frightened we’d scare advertisers away and spiked the idea.
That was 30 years ago and, guess what, nothing has changed — in the razor-blade-manufacturing industry, I mean. Unconstrained by the spectre of heavies from Gillette or Schick cancelling their ads with me, I can vouch for the fact that this engineering feat remains the same today as it was in 1978.
Buy any pack of disposable razor blades and only the first and last blades in the pack are sharp. Blades two to four are as useful as a potato peeler and may as well be thrown away. And somehow the blade makers, no longer bound by a code of Bushido ethics and the finest craftsmanship, churn these out in anything from single edge to outrageously expensive five-blade rubbish.
How many times don’t we, “the weary, disillusioned, demoralised, impecunious, stressed-out, Prozac-gobbling till-slaves” (to quote from yesterday’s blog), fall victim to Friday products or Monday mistakes? Or just plain negligence?
You buy some billies from a butcher. It’s awesome. Next time you go back. Fifty rands’ worth of leather. That sort of randomness I can understand, but when everything these days is supposed to be automated, SABS-approved and quality controlled to the micron, how do they do the thing with the razor blades?
Office staplers are another. Five staples fine and then jam, jam, jam. Ballpoint pens — Bic or Pentel or Papermate — one in every five will not work. Light bulbs — whether new, energy-efficient ones or old, bright ones — one in five you change blows the moment you switch it on.
Toothpaste — Colgate, Mentadent, McCleans or even the extra-costly Sensodyne — one in every three tubes will be 50% bubbles. And toothbrushes — all the same suspects above — one in three will brush forever. The others bale out after less than a month.
And so it goes — toilet rolls, rubbish bags, air fresheners, deodorants, candles (we, the suddenly disempowered, are now noticing what crap most of our fellow South Africans have to suffer through), batteries, underpants, vitamin supplements, rubber bands, clothes pegs, hose fittings, pool-cleaner pipes, blank CDs, newspapers … you name it; there will be a proportion that will invariably be inferior.
And the substandard stuff is somehow neatly tucked away between the quality stuff.
Oh, and then start getting into bigger-ticket items — there are those within the price range of you and me where you always take a chance. Sansui (sound systems), Samsung (TVs), Fiat (cars), Lexmark (printers), HP (copiers), Ryobi (power tools), Microsoft Windows Vista (software) … you name the sector and there will almost without exception be a horror story someone can tell you. Remember the guy who was so cheesed off with his car that he drove around for ages advertising that it was “the worst 4×4 by far”?
Does that simply mean you can’t always get it right? Does it mean that, no matter how hard you try, there will always be an Achilles heel? Could these exceptions to the rule simply be a fact of life, like the common cold, menopause or male-pattern balding? Are they something we simply have to put up with?
None of us would be as arrogant or blind as to say we have never made mistakes, that we have never ignored warnings or that we thought we could get away with something. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
There actually are degrees of negligence. Some mean no more than getting out a dustpan and brush. Others result in historic events — Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, Challenger. Fooling about on the lawn with the kids and fumbling a ball is a source of unbridled mirth, followed by love and hugs and laughs. But do the same thing a metre from the try line when you’re trailing four points in the final of Rugby World Cup and there are no laughs, no hugs, no love.
As debated before, there are little oopsies and big oopsies, and most of us have the good fortune not to be so much in the public eye that every little fumble is plastered all over the papers. Most of us try to do better next time.
Sure, Bafana Bafana’s performance at the weekend was a disgrace and they really must do better next time.
But the multifaceted arrogance, hypocrisy, deceit, dishonesty and damned stupidity of Thabo Mbeki and the ANC idiocracy as it continues to come to light in the Eskom catastrophe goes beyond even the worst derelictions of duty they have perpetrated so far. They were warned. They deliberately ignored the warnings. The universally condemned folly of affirmative action and attempts to hide the monstrous errors of judgement like blunt blades in between their more laudable deeds is nothing short of criminal negligence.
It will probably cost them their crown jewel — the 2010 World Cup.
But Thabo and his “confederacy of dunces” will be OK. History will judge them harshly, but they won’t feel the effects of joblessness that stare thousands of other people in the face. Like the Eskom buffoons who “earned” R57-million in performance bonuses last year, the ANC — which under Zuma Simpson has distinguished itself as a caricature of bad leadership, having made only three decisions (all of self-enrichment and greed, as Justice Malala noted in the Times yesterday) in the past 40 days — is loyal, if absolutely nothing else.
Is it any wonder, then, that we hunch down lower and lower with each passing day under the weight of a substandard way of life? It’s not whether we’re better off than pre-1994, or whether we’re alive with possibility or any of that Disney drivel.
It’s a question of how much better we could have been had we only heeded the writing on the wall.