Mark Andrews: It's gonna be a blue Christmas without Ronco
It can't be much fun being a fly. You spend you life being whacked with newspapers, eaten by fly traps, having aerosol cans pointed at you. And the highlight of your week is when you find a nice big pile of horse doings for you and your mates to sniff around.
Well, this week, for once, it looks like the insects are having the last laugh. Members of the South West France Fly Collective have been laughing their tiny socks off after hearing how a pensioner in Bordeaux managed to blow up his house while trying to swat one of their brothers.
It seems the 80-year-old, who lived in Dordogne, got a little irritated when one of the creatures started buzzing around as he settled down to eat his dinner. So, as you do, he took his electric fly-swatter to exterminate the pesky critter. Unfortunately for him, there was also a gas leak in the kitchen, and instead of dealing a bit of street justice to the tedious intruder, the device caused a spark which blew up his kitchen.
You have to say, though, that an electric fly swatter does sound like a rather over-engineered way of dealing with a rather low-tech problem. What is wrong with a rolled-up newspaper?
It's a bit like the heated ice scraper I bought a few years ago. In the Argos book it looked like a great idea. No more getting your hands cold on frosty mornings. Just plug it into your cigar lighter, and the ice just melts away.
But as with all these gadgets, it never really stood up to the rigours of real life.
Firstly, you should really keep the engine running when you plug the device into the cigar lighter. Yes, a bit of frost on the windscreen is a nuisance, but nowhere near as finding the car won't start because your scraper has drained the battery. Secondly, by the time the heated ice scraper is actually hot, you have probably already cleared the screen using one of those, boring, old-fashioned non-heated ice scrapers. And thirdly, once you are finished, there is the problem of what you do with the red-hot device device in your hand. Obviously, you aren't going to put it on the seat, in case it burns a hole in the upholstery. For similar reasons you aren't going to put it on the carpet. You could, I suppose use it to swat any flies that might have made a home in your car while you've been clearing the screen, but it's probably wise to check for any petrol leaks first – you wouldn't want to go the same way as our friend in Bordeaux.
What you will probably do is sit around for 10 minutes with the thing in your hand, waiting for it to cool down before you commence your journey. Then, if you're anything like me, you will put it neatly back into its box, and from then on only take it out to use it as a conventional ice scraper. Which normally costs about 85p, as opposed to the £14 or whatever I paid for the electric device all those years ago.
It makes you wonder what happens to all these gadgets once the novelty has worn off. For example, does anybody still use their battery operated tape rewinder, which was supposed to reduce wear on the motor of your VHS player? Or the £60 pet fountain, which provided your cat or dog with an endless supply of fresh water? Just like the bog-standard dog porcelain bowl, available from all good pet shops for less than a fiver.
I wonder how many people still have a Ronco Veg-O-Matic tucked away in the deepest bowels of their kitchen cupboards? If so, the chances are you realised sometime about 1978 that the time spent washing it afterwards far outweighed the convenience of not needing to slice your vegetables with a knife. Then there was the £30 travel mug, which plugged into the car cigar lighter, and kept your coffee warm while you ploughed down the M6. And presumably left you with an equally warm groin every time the Highways Agency decided to impose a sudden 40mph speed limit because somebody had dropped an apple core on the carriageway.
All this underlines my theory that anything worth inventing had already been invented by about 1988, and that anything that came after that time represents inventors flailing around trying to find a purpose in life.
Sadly, it appears to that the public has caught on to this. I've just discovered that the Innovations Catalogue went out of print some years ago, which is terrible news for anybody who still hankers after a keyhole-activated motion light to go with their beige slacks with adjustable waistband. Most tragic of all, though, is the news that Ronco has ceased trading. Which means we will never again hear those wonderful American accents reassuring us that all our loved ones really want for Christmas is a battery-operated potato peeler and a device for opening bottle tops.
It seems nobody these days wants to bother solving problems that never existed in the first place, and I think that's a little bit sad. Which makes it all the more important that those of you fortunate enough to possess any of these items ensure they are preserved for future generations. That Ronco Record Vacuum, that smokeless ashtray, or that battery-powered battery tester, could become the treasured heirlooms of tomorrow.
And think that, maybe 200 years from today, archaeologists will present television documentaries telling who in the olden days people really did spend their money on motorised tie racks. And fly-swatters which caused explosions.