In the age of plenty, before the global financial crisis and Brexit and the hyperinflation of Marmite prices, life was benignly predictable. A chap would go to work every day, hang his hat on the same spur of the coat-stand, and attend to an unceasing circuit of familiar paperwork in his office. And upon a desk in that cubicle, the obvious gift for some insignificant birthday, stood the perpetually swinging pendulums of that archetypal desk toy, the Newton’s Cradle.
Just because it was classified a toy, it would be wrong to assume that the Newton’s Cradle illuminated the man in the grey suit with the joyful purposelessness of play. It was a multifunctional weapon of corporate generalship. The hypnotic metallic rap of ball against ball would lull the wannabe CEO into a reverie in which grand executive thoughts might spontaneously flower. And it served as a momento mori for those on the pinnacle of power watching the underlings climb towards their eyrie: ask not for whom the cradle tocks, it tocks for thee.
These days, desk toys seem unnecessary. Fewer people have a desk of their own. Many of those who do are subjected to, or self-enforce, clean-desk policies, denying the tyranny of email by scouring their workspace (as Tacitus said of the Roman conquest of Britain: “they make a desert and call it peace”). Others cohabit with expanding glaciers of paper into the crevices of which a small intern might slip and only be disinterred come Doomsday.
And yet there is something particularly pleasurable, even creatively fruitful, about handheld amusements. Of those I tried, the favourite – not just with me but with the whole 1843 office – was Feel Flux (below, left). This comprises a hefty copper cylinder, open at both ends, and a heavily magnetised ball. When you drop the ball through the top of the cylinder, it doesn’t swiftly fall to the floor (that would make for a rubbish toy). Instead, Lenz’s law (according to which the magnet creates a repulsive magnetic charge in the cylinder), ensures that the ball descends slowly, as though sinking in treacle. Watching this defiance of the laws of nature is undeniably mesmeric – like observing a man walking through fire or Donald Trump trying to maintain message discipline. Feel Flux’s promotional video suggests the best way to play is to deploy two cylinders, catching the ball in the second as it discharges itself from the first. With one cylinder, you need to keep on your toes, as unmitigated gravitational force takes over when the ball reaches the lower lip. My Feel Flux was accompanied with a warning to keep the magnet away from electronic devices (“Lucky”, thought I, “that my computer is made of driftwood and chewing gum”). One of the joys of Feel Flux lies in discovering the variety of items to which the magnet attaches itself with the enthusiastic adhesiveness of a terrier to an exposed ankle – not just to, say, a pocket full of keys but also the floor, the wall or an oblivious colleague.
Ferrofluid (above, right) is a more gentle divertissement, with a similar charge. A small, glass tank is filled with a suspension of black, magnetised fluid. At rest, it sinks to the bottom; when a magnetic stylus kisses the wall of the tank it springs up to meet it, growing into a dark sunflower. Pull the stylus farther away and the flower resolves itself in perfect synchrony into globules that look like paw prints or a shoal of tadpoles, which can be sent swimming round the tank with a flounce of the wrist. Sitting on the desk, the capsule of Ferrofluid gives off an elegiac air, because it looks like it’s preserving a sample of ink: a substance that was once the lubricant of business, and is now sadly endangered.
PhiTOP boasts of being a philosophical toy. Somewhat disappointingly, this does not mean that it banters with you syllogistically or offers odds for Pascal’s Wager. A chrome egg lies lengthwise on a mirrored disk. Flick it at both ends with sufficient force – which requires the fingerwork of a safecracker – and it wobbles up to an upright position with the grace of a cobra charmed by a drunken fakir, before slowly subsiding. It’s addictively tactile, though the rasp as it spins is unlikely to win you friends in an open-plan office. But simply fondle the egg, and you can dream of it hatching a corner office for you, in which stands a Newton’s Cradle that sings to you ceaselessly.