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Wheelie Bags and Related Petty Gripes
Commonplace Newsletter #108
I was walking to the station with a suitcase in my hand. I know this sounds like the beginning of a blues song but this really happened, just the other day in fact. So I was walking to the station with a suitcase- well, a small duffle bag- in my hand. And in truth I wasn’t feeling the blues at all- I was making good time, the sun was shining and at the other end of this cross country train ride was the promise of a three night stay with my family. I was in a peaceful mood, just sauntering along not thinking about much at all barring perhaps what I was going to order at the steakhouse later that day.
This is until I drew closer to a couple who were likewise walking the quiet path to the local single platform train stop. They were walking even slower than my languid, unhurried pace but this was not by design. Both the young man and the young woman were burdened down with backpacks, cross-shoulder bags and his-and-hers giant wheelie bags. They were sweating, straining under the weight like overworked beasts of burden and each of the heavy bags were overstuffed to the point of threatening to explode. The couple were bickering back and forth, hissing, panting. The wheels of their fridge sized wheelie bags crunched and scuffed along the footpath as loud as a whole gang of skateboarding street punks from some 80’s teen movie.
That is until his wheels fell off.
The whole thing, the whole chassis- or whatever you call it- just clean broke off with the four wheels still attached and the sheared structure laying gleaming black in the sunlight as the couple struggled on. Their arguing reached a quieter but more intense pitch and they shuffled a few steps on before realising what had happened. Seeing the damage he instantly made the decision to not double back and attempt to repair it. A futile waste of precious time. Instead he abandoned the wheels on the pavement as he awkwardly carried the unwieldy block-shaped bag by its too-small handle. He pressed on with the determined head-down focus of a soldier rucking his way through a hellish march.
Now I thought about helping, I really did, but I could tell no good would come of it. This was one of those make or break situations. And without sounding callous sometimes people have to be left to go through such things, they have to be allowed to fail.
A lot of non-fiction, a lot of everything in fact is created out of the desire for the author to justify his decisions, (humble) brag about his abilities and demonstrate why he is right and everyone else is wrong. I would like to say I’m above this- but I am not- especially when it comes to packing for a trip. Transportation hubs are where my self-satisfied smugness really comes out, I’m afraid to say. A single duffel bag can see me through an indefinite amount of time away from home, everything is folded and squared away in a manner that would get a nod of deep respect from Marie Kondo, the toiletries are just so and I’m prepared for each of the 14 different types of weather than can occur throughout the course of a single day here in the South West of England. Everything is accessible, the bag is as light as can be, I am prepared.
And wherever I go I seem to be the only one. I’m not a neat freak and I was neither a Boy Scout nor a member of any branch of the armed forces in the past, so how come I’m the only person who seems to have it together when it comes to packing and travelling domestically? I’m genuinely asking.
One of the most alienating things in recent years has been waiting at a train station or bus terminal while being surrounded by people who have seemingly decided to bring every single thing they own on their at most week long trip.
Just in case.
I have to resist the urge to tap the shoulder of some random passenger with their 4 foot high, 2 foot wide wheelie bag and ask them why they have brought so much stuff with them. What do they have in there- a wide funnel electric juicer perhaps in case there is an orange juice shortage in Manchester, a 55 inch plasma screen TV for the off-chance that they don’t have televisions in Derby, the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica in case Wikipedia goes down when the train goes through a tunnel pulling in to New Street Station. What’s going on? What are they thinking?
Not everyone at every station can be emigrating surely? And any adventure that does legitimately require additional gear such as a tent, a sleeping bag, and cooking equipment is not going to be conveniently concreted and tarmacked for wheelie bag access, is it?
So what’s happening here? It can’t be that every last one of these people is either a dandified clothes-horse or a would-be Carrie Bradshaw as everyone I can see is either dressed like a toddler in leisurewear and big spongy shoes or they are decked out in it’ll-do jeans and hoodie ensembles. I hate to sound like a catty gossip columnist but facts are facts. And I also hate to sound like one of those right-leaning traditionalist broadsheet columnists but what did happen to end the good old days when people would dress up to travel and you had leg room and people were civil and you didn’t have to be surrounded by constant signage and passenger safety notices? It’s all gone to hell I tell you.
So because this is the age of ‘hot takes’ and ‘dunking’ and generally being performatively outraged and aggrieved at something you read on your phone on your lunch break I now need to write a short section here to address what I know will be the objections to the (I would argue self-evidently playful and not 100% serious) diatribe above.
Firstly, I am not ableist and can clearly see the utility of wheelie bags, mobility scooters, voice activated apps and other such innovations for the core of people who genuinely need these things. The problem comes when people who do not actually need these aids use them with the result of becoming ever more sedentary and end up, to give one hypothetical example, blocking the carriage exit on a train I am trying to board as they struggle to lift a wheelie bag filled with way more stuff than they need as a result of being lulled into a false sense of security when said bag was previously wheeled effortlessly along a flat surface.
Secondly, I don’t think this is a gender issue either but thank you for asking. In the broken wheels anecdote at the start of this the man and woman were both lugging equal amounts of stuff. They had both overpacked and brought equal amounts of unnecessary nonsense with them. I’m not saying ‘real men’s bags don’t have wheels’ nor am I making a lazy 1970’s hack comic’s joke about the women and all the stuff they pack. I think everyone brings too much unnecessary junk with them. Men are just as consumerist and prone to being suckered in by advertising as women. The System has now become an equal opportunity exploiter.
And thirdly, this isn’t a ‘privilege’ thing wherein an affluent writer is advocating a type of minimalism that is impossible for the average person to pursue. You would only have to hear my accent, see my one bedroom flat, or read my bank statement to know this is true.
I’m simply saying that when you go away somewhere all you need is the ability to make decisions. For me this is a couple of outfits, some underwear, some shoes, a basic little bag of toiletries and something (a book, or an e-reader or your phone or a music player) to keep you entertained throughout the journey. That’s not unreasonable, right? How does a weeklong trip to stay with family or friends necessitate multiple giant bags? If anything thinking that bringing multiple giant bags away with you is proportionate is the true privileged position.
So that’s that out of the way. I trust I have now won you around to my way of thinking.
There’s a scene in The Darjeeling Limited- which is almost certainly Wes Anderson’s least good film- where the protagonists are running to catch a train and to do so they dump all their items of luggage one by one as they run. They are letting go of their baggage, you see, they are doing something externally which symbolises what they are simultaneously doing internally. Do you get it? It’s clever. You see their baggage is an analogy for their baggage, you know? And this on the nose, hitting you over the head with the point aspect isn’t the only thing that makes that film a disappointment compared with the others by the same director.
I’m trying to avoid having a similarly cloying and obvious message to this piece, but the truth has an annoying way of being cloying and obvious, which is why we so often ignore it. We’re far too clever and worldly-wise for such obvious answers even though the same set of answers have been in continuous circulation for millennia.
So we’re carrying too much stuff is what I’m saying- most of us are- and the wheelie bags of this world are enablers, are enemies disguised as friends. Why prioritise and make choices and pare things down to essentials when I can simply tote a wardrobe-on-wheels along some medieval cobbles, much to the annoyance of every single local in a five mile radius? Why do things properly and with a sense of pride when I can half-arse them at the last minute because the technology exists that will allow me to (just about) get away with this?
Now I know this makes me sound like the fun police but I can’t emphasise enough how easier and more enjoyable things become when you let go and accept that you can’t take everything with you. And I can’t emphasise how much better things get when you finally learn to trust that you are resourceful and capable enough to figure things out and make the best of it when you get there. And yes these are all metaphors. Mr Anderson would be proud.
Another day, another train. This time I’m heading to the beach. I have a light backpack on. This train route stops (on request) at the local Royal Marines Commando training centre. A quartet of new recruits alight at the base. They wear pressed suits and have fresh haircuts and they tote duffle bags, backpacks and ironing boards. Not a single piece of wheeled luggage in sight.
Now I’m not saying that we should reconfigure society to be a spartan militaristic cult of order with precise rules of conduct and unwavering dress codes. I’m just saying that every innovation- including Bernard Sadow’s accursed wheeled suitcase- invariably brings about unintended effectsand that we shouldn’t fatalistically see such things as being inevitabilities that we as individuals can do nothing about.
We have a choice, and making choices takes practise. The kind of which can be developed through packing only what we actually need for any journey.
That’s all I’m saying.
But anyway, as I said. I’m off to the beach.
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Perhaps the film Thrashin’ starring a young Josh Brolin or Gleaming the Cube starring a young Christian Slater
I intentionally use the word ‘his’ here because I do think this is more of a male thing to do.
I make this distinction because I haven’t travelled internationally recently at all. Although I strongly suspect that the principles are the same and so I can guarantee that I can pack just as lightly for a cross continent trip as I do for a cross country trip.
You don’t need a large structured bag to carry unstructured clothing. It was called a suitcase for a reason.
I use this phrase both ironically and I simultaneously mean it too. To be more specific, I think all of this is just further evidence of how so few people ever truly leave the school system and develop the ability to think for themselves- independently of top-down corporate and bureaucratic direction
I mean I am saying this but I would only admit that in a footnote and not in the main body of the text. Being a convenient hiding place to say what you really feel is what footnotes are for, after all.
For decades women have had every last insecurity poked at and prodded by advertisers in an effort to get them to buy more things they don’t need. In more recent years these same tactics have been tweaked and then turned on men.
Containing: a book (So Many Doors by Oakley Hall- pulpy novels are my preferred train reading by and large), a large bottle of water, a light jacket for when the temperature drops later, a carrier bag to keep my shoes from dirtying the other items when I go barefoot on the sand later, and a brush to dust the sand off my feet and ankles before I put my shoes and socks on for the journey home.
A business idea: A company that manufactures ironing board covers for military personnel. Rather than ubiquitous colourful polka dots and ditzy patterns (if I’m making gender stereotypical thoughts by questioning wheelie bags then what are these ironing board cover companies saying by only designing ultra feminine covers?). What about an additional range of covers that have tanks or guns or helicopters on them. I was going to say they could have a camo pattern but I suspect ironing a green uniform on a camouflage board might make the task even more difficult.
That is- rather than making the manoeuvring of a medium and large sized suitcases or backpacks easier over flat surfaces- the temptation becomes to use the largest wheelie bag that a person just about lift onto the train or into a taxi. Which sadly undermines the spirit of the wheelie bag invention in the first place. It just makes travelling needlessly more difficult for the wheelie bag owner and for everyone else around them.