Thursday, 29 May 2014

On both shoulders

In a Saturday edition of the Financial Times, there was a life-style piece about rucksacks being worn with suits to the office. Its author begins with an anecdote about the first time he saw someone wearing a rucksack to a financial institution in the City of London in the early 1990s. It was an American, who became the butt of office jokes for it. At that time, the briefcase was de rigeur. Twenty years on, and the briefcase has the same prospects for the future as the fax machine.

We are bipedal and symmetrical. We should distribute weight evenly. Last week, when in London for four days, I brought my stuff over in a wheeled suitcase. Once at my parents', I needed a smaller bag for use around town. The low-cost airlines allow only one piece of cabin baggage; having the suitcase meant nothing else. So I borrowed a bag with a shoulder strap from my parents, into which I put a rain-jacket and some papers. Not much weight. But after walking a couple of miles with this weight on my left shoulder, I could feel strains in unusual places - left thigh, right hip, eventually left shoulder. Warning signals. So I shortened the strap and put the strap behind my neck, round the front of both arms, with the bag on the small of my back. That did the trick - the pains went quickly. This taught me an important lesson - use a rucksack when walking.

When I started secondary school in 1969 at the age of 11, all pupils had to bring their books to school in briefcases; heavy leather bags with a handle. The only choice was black or brown, carrying it in your left hand or right hand. No shoulder straps to ease the burden. Below: this is what my school briefcase looked like. Weighed down with a Golden Treasury of English Poetry, a Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer, and a Concise Oxford Dictionary, to name three of the heavier tomes I had to drag around, the briefcase formed a loathsome object that I came to hate.

Schoolchildren in Poland carried their books in rucksacks, the weight evenly distributed across both shoulders. The tornister was a far better thought-through design for young backs and growing bones. Although also designed for carrying text books, exercise books, pencil cases and rulers, the tornister was equipped with shoulder straps (below). Once on the wearer's back, it formed no obstacle to free and symmetrical movement.

Carrying several kilo in one hand for a distance of nearly two miles (over 3km) was, for an 11 year-old, not a clever thing to do.

By the sixth form, most of us grew long hair, wore greatcoats and carried our schoolbooks in army-surplus haversacks, with the names of rock-bands embellished in biro, slung casually over one shoulder. Plus there was less homework and by then we'd got wise to dragging around unnecessary books.

As the decades passed, briefcases grew straps so that they could be hung from one shoulder. (Google images of 'briefcase' and you'll see that today most come with a shoulder strap.) Certainly more convenient than a handle, but a single shoulder strap is still not the answer. From the mid-1980s to late 2012, I'd carry the stuff I needed at work to and fro in a Billingham bag. Stylish and practical (if you're on a photo-shoot), this bag even when nearly empty was proving to be a great strain on my shoulder.

And so, on 21 November 2012, I bought a rucksack - not one designed for back-packing across the Himalayas, but something urban that could be worn with a suit. My Samsonite X-Blade rucksack is a miracle of design. Very light (1.2kg/2.65lbs), padded straps, padded back, it is small enough to be carried on free of charge on board low-cost airlines, yet large enough carry a laptop, charger, papers, one change of clothes and couple of lenses. After a year and half of almost daily use, it is still in perfect condition, no scuff-marks; zips working faultlessly. Black is a practical colour for hauling around town on public transport. And formal enough to wear to the office. But above all, given that on average I walk over 11,000 paces each day, most of them wearing this rucksack, it means comfort and freedom from shoulder sprains.

If only these things were around in 1969 (and we'd been allowed to carry our school books in them!)

This time three years ago:
How I almost saved Barrack Obama

This time five years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time seven years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns


Bob said...

Good post Michael. When I was a kid not long after the Middle Ages, we carried our books and notebooks under our arms. I can still remember having to list over to one side to counteract the weight on the other. Of course all the books had slick, shiny covers and they always shifted around - it was a constant battle to keep them in one place.

Of course, there were all kinds of back-packs available in the old 'Army Navy Store' but I guess we never connected the dots.

I do the same as you now. I have a light and sturdy backpack from REI and throw my tablet, phone etc into it for travel. Certainly much more comfortable with 2 straps on the back than one on the shoulder.

Anonymous said...

I too have many early briefcase memories that oscillate between pride in owning something that my father once used for his work, and distain at being lumbered daily with such a symbol of tradition. I wish I still had it - for it had a certain 'thing' to it - cracked leather, faded metal buckle/lock and many memories.

Frater Arbor