Now that ours is a service economy we must make the most of it. It does, after all, have its good points, even if they are for the most part negative.
It is, for example, no bad thing that men no longer burrow for coal miles below ground, or sweat buckets in noisome steel mills, or queue at dockyards hoping for work as casual labourers.
Set against that, men’s work had a certain dignity that cannot be found in answering the phone in a call centre, for all the world like a battery hen in a factory farm, or dressing up in Olde English togs to please visiting American and Japanese tourists.
But those who lament the passing of much of our manufacturing industry and puzzle at the wonder of our becoming the fourth-largest economy in the world without actually making anything, may be reassured by those economists who insist that the wellspring of our growth is design and innovation.
How much better, they say, to dream up world-beating ideas and delegate the task of actually making our inventions to other less fortunate nations, most of them in the Asia Pacific region. They need the work and they have an abundance of cheap labour, so everyone is happy, save for those who inveigh against globalisation, and they, poor souls, are just spitting in the wind.
So far, so good, but you will note that all of this rests on our supposed flair for invention, but how real is it? If I were pressed to name a few examples I could do no better than cite the wind-up radio and the Dyson vacuum cleaner. No doubt other ingenious novelties of British design have contributed to the world of computer software, but these are seldom publicised and still less understood.
To hold our heads high as a pioneering nation – and let’s not forget that ours was the first industrial revolution, so honour is at stake here – we must make a more public demonstration of our skill and ingenuity, and where better than in a public lavatory?
Sadly, however, there is disturbing evidence that our continental neighbours – those whose economies are allegedly tied down by over-regulation and compare unfavourably with ours – have taken a lead. We have much catching up to do and there is no time to waste.
Allow me to remind you, if you did not already know, that Germany has invented the WC Ghost, a voice alarm that reprimands men for standing at the lavatory pan. Triggered when the seat is lifted, the battery-operated device issues warnings such as: “Hey, stand-peeing is not allowed here and will be punished with fines, so if you don’t want any trouble, you had best sit down.”
The prototype English version says in an American drawl: “Don’t you go wetting this floor cowboy, you never know who’s behind you. So sit down, get your water pistol in the bowl where it belongs. Ha, ha, ha.”
The manufacturers of the device, Patentwert, says it plans to introduced a version using the voice of our dear Queen. It being unthinkable that Her Majesty would ever utter words such as, “Don’t you go wetting the floor, cowboy”, some other sentence will be needed. “It gives me great pleasure to declare this lavatory seat closed” should serve as a warning to be seated down before it’s too late.
The Germans are not alone in pushing the frontiers of lavatory technology to new and undreamt-of limits. In Amsterdam, inventor Leonard Van Munster has created a WC fitted with sensors linked to a computer. Users are given a reminder if they fail to flush the loo, smoke, do not raise the seat, or use too much paper. (How one uses a lavatory without first raising the seat is something perhaps only the Dutch understand.)
“The computer has developed its own moods,” says Van Munster. “Sometimes it doesn’t say anything, but will then suddenly start to sigh.
“And when someone is spending a lot of time in the little room, one can hear it make funny remarks such as, ‘Do you know that during the 50 minutes you’ve spent in this the toilet, 50 people have died in wars all over the world?'”
It is hard to fathom which is more disturbing: Van Munster’s insistence on investing his computerised lavatory with human qualities, or his sense of humour. To calculate a grim death toll and announce it to people attending to the most private of bodily functions may raise a laugh in Dutch conveniences, by I can’t see it being a hit everywhere.
Perhaps this is where we British have a unique contribution to make. For there is no shame in taking the inventions of another and improving upon them.
Our version of the talking lavatory would draw on our ability to distinguish between coarse humour and epigrammatic wit. It might, for example, cough discreetly before announcing in the Queen’s voice: “To trap one testicle in a zipper may be regarded as a misfortune, to trap both looks like carelessness.”
To which the cistern, slightly flushed, responds: “I wish I had said that.”
And the bowl ripostes: “Ah, you will, Armitage Shanks, you will.”