Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Favourite Bottle Topper

I didn’t know I had a favourite bottle topper (as distinct from corkscrew which I may tell you about later) but it turns out that I do. 

It is from East Germany. I bought it on a Fischer-Z tour a year or so before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the wall, the unification of East and West Germany and before the ideological forces of capitalism finally pissed on the Commie’s chips for once and for all.

It is no work of art. But it has not gained a place on my list of favourites as a thing of beauty. It is because it is a tangible reminder of a political system that really tried to be an alternative to the worst of capitalism. This unassuming item has one explicitly political feature which alludes to the notion of a 10 year plan and bears witness to the idea of a sound economy with no inflation. 

What is he banging on about? I hear you ask.  Good question to which the answer is the price of the item. Despite being around 20 years since I bought it I know exactly how much I paid for it. It was three-quarters of an East German Mark or 75 pfennigs. I do not claim to remember the price, but there is a permanent reminder on the item itself. We are not talking about a price label clinging tenaciously to the topper thanks to superior quality Soviet gum. It is through the simple expedient of moulding the price into the plastic itself. 

You do not do this in a free market economy where the seller will charge whatever he thinks he can get away with and will want to pricemark it himself. But the goverment of the GDR was more interested in giving the impression that their currency was stable and inflation did not exist than making a profit. One way of underlining these virtues is to make the price an integral part of the product. Of course you can only do this where manufacture and sales are run by the same party.

In addition to the primary function of topping bottles, there is a second element of utility as a replacement stopper.

Having been to East Germany on a couple of occasions I can honestly say that I have never seen a bottle requiring such a gadget. And without wishing to dwell on the stereotype of the communists as a bunch of dour alcoholics, the ability to seal an unfinished bottle was more a by-product of government aspiration than consumer demand. 

On one trip east, I stopped at a petrol station on the drive down the corridor to Berlin and bought a half-litre bottle of a clear sprit that looked interesting. It had dispensed with a measure of ‘alcohol by volume’ in favour of an octane rating. I did try drinking it but it was just too brutal to swallow. 

I kept it for around 15 years and used it to clean switches and remove the sticky residue of gaffa-tape from cables and the like. In a strange coincidence, during the very month that it ran out, I was given a 2.5 litre bottle of carbon tetrachloride (a similarly strong solvent) which was surplus to the requirements of its previous owner and which should see me out - in every sense. But I digress.

The GDR topper is not a looker, but it is more than just a utensil and every time I use it I think, "mmmm beer..."

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