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Kitchen tools or potential murder weapons? The can-openers that work!
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After All: A tin of jellied eels for Christmas

Image credit: Christine Bohling

In his traditional double-length festive-season special, our columnist tells his no-less traditional Yuletide Techno Tale – this time, a near-murder mystery involving a classical love triangle, a gullible engineer and ... a can opener.

Oh, how much She hated Him: His manners, His clothes, His passion for tinned jellied eels which made His breath smell of rubbish dump (or, as we choose to say now, ‘waste management facility’) during the night – at those rare moments when He was not snoring like a trooper.

Nor could She stand His ever-growing – like a glutton’s waist – collection of domestic technical trinkets (He was an engineer, after all): knives, corkscrews, scissors and such like. Those useless pieces of junk, as She was fond of calling them, were cluttering every corner of the house.

But, luckily, She didn’t have long left to suffer. In the run-up to Christmas, it was agreed with Her Secret Lover that He had to die. They came up with the devilishly clever way of murder, prompted by ... Jerome K Jerome, or rather by the following extract from his book ‘Three Man in a Boat’ – a Victorian classic about an ill-fated camping expedition by three friends and a dog:

“...Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.

Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife and broke the knife and cut himself badly. George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day...

Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry – but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it.

There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it...”

By the time you’ve finished reading that rather long quote, my insightful readers, you might have guessed that She and Her Lover decided to kill Him with a can opener! And you were right! Not by hitting Him on the head with the tool, God forbid, but by stressing Him up to the point of a (hopefully, fatal) heart attack: like many heavy snorers, He had a bad heart.

They thought their gruesome goal could be easily achieved with the help of the can openers that did not work, and most of them, as the plotters knew only too well, didn’t!

It was a brilliant plan, as hard to uncover as Jerome K Jerome’s obstinate tin – or so they thought. She gave Him a set of brand-new can openers for Christmas to further enlarge His collection. As a special Christmas treat, She also threw in a large tin of jellied eels: a truly lethal – and totally irresistible (for Him at least) – combination that was bound to work!

Let’s us now digress for a minute from our spoof whodunnit and talk about the seemingly unimportant little things that make our lives easier: plates, glasses, cutlery, and other kitchen utensils. These acquire particular importance in a time of lockdowns and self-isolations, when our familiar domestic objects become our trusted (and often only) companions for weeks on end. Occasionally, however, those objects do let us down: plates and glasses break (or get smashed against walls during overheated lockdown arguments), cutlery gets rusty, and can openers simply refuse to work.

Yes, in all my 30 odd years in the West, having spent hundreds of pounds on all those 'heavy-duty, automatic, voice-activated, cordless, tin-touch, electric' and other ‘cutting edge’, yet refusing to cut, can-opening tools, I have so far discovered only one that actually does open tins and cans with ease and without inflicting heavy injuries on yourself and any family members who have the misfortune to be around during the process.

That one – of a ‘Metaltex’ brand – I bought in a Morrisons supermarket while on holiday in the town of Whitby, Yorkshire, over 10 years ago (can openers are, of course, the second – after toothbrushes – most frequently forgotten-to-be-packed travel items).

'Made in P.R.C.' (read: China), it cost me... 38 pence. Technologically, it was very simple, if not to say primitive: a cog-wheel-shaped blade and a handle resembling a small bowtie, or a butterfly (its other brand name was ‘Butterfly Can-Opener’). It opened tins and cans quickly and smoothly – almost without effort. I’ve been using it successfully nearly every day since then. Yet, whenever I cannot find it in the kitchen drawer and have to try any of its much more expensive, technologically sophisticated and mostly British-made counterparts ('remote-controlled, electronic, solar-powered, voice-activated', with names like 'Magic Cut', 'Perfect Grip', 'Smooth Edge' etc) – all received as gifts from some unimaginative friends and distant relatives – the result is always the same: the can – unlike my fingers and thumbs – remains stubbornly uncut!

Do British-made can openers carry some kind of curse? In the USSR, believe me, they were in general much more reliable, even if there was just one make on sale, and it was called ‘penknife’.

This gets more surprising if we remember that the can itself is a British invention, for it was the British engineer and paper manufacturer Bryan Donkin, who first developed a commercial process for preserving food in metal tins in 1812.

Early cans were made of heavy-gauge wrought iron that often weighed more than the food they contained. Soldiers in the early 19th century opened them with bayonets; the American Civil War fighters resorted to rifle fire; and some hapless Victorian campers – as confirmed by the above-quoted passage from Jerome K Jerome – attempted almost everything else, including boat masts.

Well, if we look back at the pace of technological progress, we’ll have to admit that the evolution of can openers lags far behind that of radios or railways.

There are some rare exceptions, of course. Several years ago, my good friend Mark Sheahan, British Library’s acclaimed Inventor-in-Residence and erstwhile E&T contributor, came up with ‘Squeezeopen’ – a round tin that could be opened with a squeeze of just one hand. Mark told me that the idea was prompted by watching his elderly mum, suffering from arthritis, trying to take the lid off a tin of shoe polish with both hands and failing. His ‘Squeezeopen’ tin is stunningly easy to uncover: just squeeze it in the palm of your hand, press lightly – and bingo, the lid comes off with a friendly pop. Nice and simple, like all great inventions! Alas, for all sorts of reasons, not readily available in shops.

Recently, I was also relieved to realise the country which produces the world’s best vacuum cleaners and nuclear submarines is capable, after all, of engineering a reliable and easy-to-open new-look 9g tomato ketchup packet, ingeniously named ‘Ketchup!’, presumably to echo Uma Thurman’s clichéd joke about “Mommy, Daddy and Baby to-mae-toe [sic]” – which was how she pronounced it – in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ movie. To me, it was the biggest design and technology breakthrough of recent months. Why? Simply because I was able to open it with ease, without either breaking my fingernail, or – worse – splashing all 9g of the sticky red substance all over my shirt. It is amazing how much mess some miserable nine grams can create!

I would be happy to credit the company which made the new packets, but the only information provided was ‘Specially packed for Country Range’.

Glory to the modestly anonymous ketchup-packet maker and breaker!

Yes, it is wonderful to observe that at times engineering thought in this country is not limited to heavy industry, energy and car manufacturing, but applies itself to affordable everyday consumer goods, too. The names of designers of all those simple things that greatly facilitate our lives should be made public and revered, alongside those of Faraday and Bazalgette. Alas, that so far does not apply to can openers and their makers...

Back now to our Yuletide techno mystery.

... The moment the poor chap was left alone with His beloved tin full of jellied eels, He started trying frantically to open it with multiple brand-new tools from Her Christmas gift set. He failed, of course. But being a true engineer, He didn’t give up!

Instead of having a heart attack, he popped out to the nearest Morrisons store and bought a simple ‘Butterfly’ can opener for £1.99 – much more than it cost me ten years ago (inflation, you see) but still affordable for an engineer, even a furloughed one. With it, he successfully opened the tin and promptly consumed half of the eels embedded in it.

Having returned home, She was so impressed with His can-opening prowess that She decided to dump her Secret Lover. She and He finished the eels together, had a great Christmas and lived happily ever after. 

'The Bumper Book of Vitali's Travels. Thirty Years of Globe-Trotting' by Vitali Vitaliev is published by Thrust Books on 1 February 2021.

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