A few months ago one of the knobs on my microwave oven broke, so I went down to the local “white goods” shop and asked if they could get me a replacement. The friendly lady behind the counter looked it up for me on her computer and then announced the result of her search:

“It’s obsolete”.

Obsolete? A knob? Obsolete? But how could a knob be obsolete? Well, admittedly I wasn’t actually that surprised that it wasn’t available; the microwave was, after all, quite old – perhaps as much as five years old – and no doubt since it was made the company’s designers had been hard at work producing a new, improved model with a different sort of knob. Or, to look at it in another, more cynical way, the company had deliberately brought out a new design that was incompatible with the old one, to encourage us, the “consumers”, to buy a new microwave rather than try and keep the old one going.

It’s known as planned obsolescence. And clearly, to a capitalist, it makes sense. You sell something, it quickly wears out, you sell another, and so on. You make it easier to buy new, harder to repair; spares are often simply not available, or at least not cheaply. To make it even harder, you secure your product using non-standard screws that require a special tool. The result – waste. Acres, tons of it. Perfectly good appliances, each with just one fault, in landfill. Cheaper to buy a new one, sir. Manufacturers and dealers laughing all the way to the bank.

It makes less sense to those of us at the other end of the transaction, though, and to the physical resources of the planet. At what point, as raw materials run out, will the prolongation of the lives of commodities become more important than their obsolescence? When will the repair shops come back? When will we once more be able to go down the road and buy a thingummy for a whatsit from a little man in a brown overall?  Or will that day never come – will we simply run out and have to do without?

I wan’t going to give up that easily with the microwave, of course. For me, the term “mis-spent youth” does not refer to the traditional way of mis-spending one’s youth, but instead conjures up an image of me sitting craned over an improvised workbench in the spare bedroom, on which lay the carcases of old radios and TV sets. When I started going to London, in my late teens, I gravitated to the area around Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road, where there were lots of little electronics shops where you could get all sorts of parts for radios, TVs and other electronic devices. The occasional trip along Tottenham Court Road more recently on the 73 bus confirmed to my satisfaction that it was still very much a place for electronics shops, albeit with different names.

On closer inspection, however, it was not the same at all. Where one might have found, 40-50 years ago, boxes of assorted resistors and other components (including knobs), today’s shops simply sell complete appliances – mobile phones, laptops, cameras etc – not components. The manufacturers’ war on repairing has reached the former Mecca of the electronics enthusiast.


Tottenham Court Road – still a haven for electronics enthusiasts, BUT …

Relief came eventually when I reached Maplin’s. I have often thought these shops – which have appeared quite late on the scene, perhaps in the last 10 years? – to be too good to be true. They do indeed sell knobs – and plenty else besides – and, at least in my local shop in London Road, Brighton, the staff could not be more helpful. To be sure, it is a large chain – and when I started going there, I was a bit annoyed with them because they had a habit of asking for your address even if you were only spending a quid. But thankfully they have dropped that thinly veiled attempt to build up a junk mail list. And they turned out to have a knob that fitted my microwave; it was of course intended to be used as a volume control for a radio or similar device, but it fitted the bill, thus giving it a new lease of life. (A few weeks before, they had also sold me a wonderful box of assorted O-rings, which prolonged the life of my breadmaker).

There are other suppliers of spare parts who continue to buck the trend towards throwaway oblivion, and I would like to thank them for doing that. So, step forward, R & R Electrical of Blatchington Road, Hove, for at least tripling the life of my razor by selling me new foils; and Partpoint, of Queen Victoria Avenue, also in Hove, for selling me – for less than my bus fare – a salvaged wiring loom from a washing machine that enabled me to repair my own machine after it caught fire and sixteen wires needed replacing. And there are other places that are still happy to sell you a thingummy for a whatsit. They are just hard to find, and they also struggle with the manufacturers and dealers – the man in R & R told me he had a backlog of Kenwood orders and no clue as to when they would be honoured, if ever.

I have a feeling we have a few more years in which to hear intoned the dreaded six words, “cheaper to buy a new one”. Intoned by those hoping to sell me a new one; ignored by me in favour of one more botched repair. A trip to Maplin’s, a bit of dissection and a few minutes with the drill or soldering iron; and there you are. A bit of landfill saved; a bit of raw material left in the earth. A victory for common sense over the get-rich-quick brigade. Not sure of the impact on the Chinese sweatshops that make these appliances though … a slightly longer tea break, or the sack due to reduced demand?  Hmmm, will have to think about that one.