COLLINS English Dictionary, pausing only long enough to pluck the briar pipe from its teeth and buff it against the leather patches on its tweedy elbows, defines Newton's Cradle thus: “An ornamental puzzle in which five metal balls are suspended, usually to be found on the desks of mid-ranking office dwellers who resemble Swiss Toni from The Fast Show.”
Newton's Cradle, in case you haven't recognised it yet, is the definitive executive toy. It has all the necessary qualities. It is showy, useless, shiny, quasi-scientific and intensely irritating to everyone but its owner. In addition, it makes a clacking noise which renders it completely inappropriate for anyone who doesn't have their own office. In its own small, pointless way, it perfectly sums up the futility, impotence and fundamental insecurity of the middle manager.
An executive toy promises many things. It promises entertainment. It promises relief from stress. It promises to add a human, humorous touch to a desk. But most of all, it promises reassurance. It is, after all, an executive toy. Therefore it confirms your status as an executive. If you are permitted entertainment during your working hours, you must be valuable. If you have stress to be relieved, you must be important. If your desk requires a human touch, you must be powerful and thus frightening. Of course, the executive toy cannot possibly deliver on these promises. The only accessory that will ever make a jumped-up pen-pusher suddenly appear important, powerful and frightening is a loaded gun, and these are frowned upon in most office environments outside of the American postal service.
The rise of the modern corporation in the Fifties created a vast new class of manager: The Organisation Man, as William Whyte dubbed him in the book of the same name. A man with a title and, perhaps, a future - if he astutely negotiated his way up the greasy pole, or allowed that alarmingly accurate law, the Peter Principle, to promote him to his level of incompetence. And it was for The Organisation Man - the Junior Vice-President, the Head of Purchasing (Staples and Paperclips), the Deputy Assistant Chief Account Sub-Administrator - that the executive toy was created.
It flourished in the Sixties, when it gained the look that has defined middle-management desk furniture ever since. Magnetic pen-holders, button-operated pop-up calenders, fancy clocks with built-in barometers; all are constructed from a patchwork of brass, leatherette, wood-effect plastic and some kind of semi-demi-precious rock formation like azurite or quartz, sliced in cross-section to reveal its layers. The only significant change arrived in the Eighties, when the innate elegance of chrome and black was somehow perverted into a host of ineffably vulgar creations - usually ineffably vulgar creations that would clip into a Filofax.
It's this vulgarity which is the key to executive toys. It's not the everyday vulgarity of normal life. It's the grasping, aspirational, anxious vulgarity of the social climber who imagines this is what his superiors would keep on their desks. On the rare occasions he is permitted entry to their offices, he might notice that they are so important, they don't keep anything on the desks at all. They have people to do that, and he's one of them. No wonder he feels a pressing urge to scurry back to his own room and play with his balls.
Permanent magnetic levitation was long thought to be impossible until the invention of this spinning top. Who knows in what ways this unique technology could benefit humankind? Not us, because all it's doing right now is keeping some bloke in a blue suit amused while he sits in his swivel chair waiting for something to happen.
THE EXECUTIVE DECISION MAKER|
A classic. Brassy, burnished to a high sheen, tawdry and smug. Twirl the knob roulette style and find out whether to “buy”,, “sell”, “go for it”, “cool it” or “ask Mom”. If you own the thing, you might as well use it. Its judgement is at least as good as yours.
Brilliant. Fish are a fine addition to any office, but this is the Frank Lloyd Wright condominium of fishtanks. It features an aqueduct swimway rising high above the aquarium, so the fish can cross from one side to the other by a choice of routes, which they will promptly forget. Perfect for hours of fruitless dawdling.
PUNCH LINE STRESS RELIEF SPRING
They're not fooling anyone. It's a technicolour Slinky. Still, that can't be bad. Comes in round and square varieties. It won't walk downstairs, but it can be fiddled with or used as a pencil holder. Just think how much time you could waste shooting Biros across the room with spring-loaded delivery.
The archetype. According to scientists, “It demonstrates elastic collisions in one dimension. However, not many executives have played with this toy seriously enough. If you pull back two balls then two balls fly off. How does this clever toy know how to do that?” Well? Eh? Eh? Eh? Answer that, Mister Big Shot.
ALEPH COMPANY BRASS MONKEY
Leave it out overnight on your window ledge in winter. If the temperature falls below freezing, its bollocks drop off. But that's no good, because no one can see it happen, so stand it on your desk and simply tell them about it. Alternatively, keep it around in summer and throw it at people you don't like.
Not a rival to Mystic Meg, but further evidence of an unhealthy executive obsession with balls. These magnetised spheres are alleged to soothe away stress when rolled in the hand. “Caution,” say the makers. “Do not throw, hit, or drop your Mag Balls. Keep them away from watches, magnetic tapes, credit cards, and TV screens.” Don't go near them, in other words.
SUNBURST FIBRE OPTIC
Resembles nothing so much as the disembodied head of Tina Turner plucked from a fiendish mescaline-induced nightmare and planted in your office like some hideous hi-tech houseplant. Train a safety fan on its glowing tendrils and it waves over your desk with the whispering insouciance of an electric frond-bearing fern. Rubbish.
As the coloured liquids gently lap over each other, they bring a welcome sense of serenity to the busy office of the anxious stuffed suit. Unless, of course, he does what anyone else would do, and churns them into a seething typhoon of multi-hued tsunamis. See how the oceans rage at my command! Hahahahahahahahaha!
ZEN STONE GARDEN
Ah, the simple pleasure of cultivating a small tray full of stones and sand with a miniature rake. As one carves patterns in the shingle, the mind becomes calm and focused, and the clatter and chaos of the office seem very far away. More fool you, because they're not very far away at all, and there you are pushing rocks around with a fork.