Oddfellow April 2017

Tony McStea

Bubendorf 6 April 2017


That’s my word for the day. Up to recently, I‘d never heard of it. According to The Bible (aka the OED), it means:

“The substitution of an epithet or appellative, or the name of an office or dignity, for a person’s proper name, as the Iron Duke for Wellington, his Grace for an archbishop. Also, conversely, the use of a proper name to express a general idea, as in calling an orator a Cicero, a wise judge a Daniel.”

So, where did I find it? In a French trade marks case. The mark in question was MECCANO. Before computer games, iPods and cell phones came along to divert the younger generation, there was MECCANO, the invention (UK patent 587 of 1901) of Frank Hornby, of Hornby trains and Dinky Toys fame. It started with a simple Set 1 and, by adding upgrade sets, could be taken all the way to Set 10. Set 10 itself was an awesome thing that came in a wooden cabinet, and, from memory, cost a princely £44 Back Then (they now sell on eBay for around £2000). Little boys lusted after a Set 10, but most of us (this little boy included) never got beyond Set 5. Whole generations of engineers grew up on MECCANO. I mortified my grandmother (not literally, I hasten to add) by making a guillotine that worked.

The company got into financial difficulties and changed hands a few times, finally ending up in the hands of a French company Meccano S.A., which still produces MECCANO sets. It was this company that was unhappy with the use of “meccano” by the French weekly news magazine Le Point to describe a complex structure. French trade mark law has a provision similar to the Australian Act’s S.24, and this is what Le Point argued in its defence. Having lost at the Paris court of appeal, Le Point appealed to the Cour de Cassation (France’s Supreme Court, which, like the EPO’s Enlarged Board of Appeal, decides points of law, not cases). The CdC held that the use by Le Point of “meccano” to describe a complex structure could be considered an antonomasia (voilà!), and that the use of a sign registered as a trade mark is not unlawful unless it is capable of causing a degeneration of that mark, and it sent the case back to the lower court for a decision on this principle. Not a good prospect for MECCANO, which could be the victim of genericide.

I have a particular interest in genericide, as one of my first jobs in BALM Paints (now Dulux Australia) was to buy Saturday’s “Age” and check the motoring section for misuse of DUCO. At the dawn of the automotive age, cars were still using the old linseed oil-based paints from the horse and buggy days. Then, in the early 1920s, DuPont discovered that a substance previously much in demand in the period 1914-18 and no longer so, “guncotton”, aka cellulose nitrate or nitrocellulose (NC), gave quite a nice adherent film. Reduce the degree of nitration and the nice film lost the undesirable tendency to distribute the coated surface all over the neighbourhood. It could be baked in an oven and it dried in minutes. It revolutionised the automotive industry. DuPont named it after itself, DUCO (DuPont Company).

Under the pre-WW2 cartel agreement between the Big Three, DuPont, ICI and I.G. Farbenindustrie (a combination of the big three German chemical companies), the rights Downunder in DUCO (and DULUX) were acquired by BALM, ICI’s Australian paint-making arm. The runaway success of the stuff, plus misuse by BALM, meant that DUCO started to become generic in Australia for any kind of car paint, even after NC lacquers were replaced by DULON acrylic lacquers in the 1950s.

So, every Monday, I’d write letters to major dealers who advertised things along the lines “Holden Kingswood, immaculate red duco”, or, worse, “reducoing a specialty”, and kindly suggest that they use “lacquer” instead (even though often it wasn’t – up to relatively recently, only Holden used lacquer (paint that dries by solvent evaporation alone), everyone else used enamels (film-forming chemical reaction involved)). The big dealers were usually cooperative, the smaller ones somewhat less so.

Dulux sold its automotive/refinish/industrial business, plus the McNaughton Road, Clayton site, to PPG Industries some years ago, so I guess DUCO the paint is no more in Australia, as it now appears to be the name of an event managing company. The paint does live on elsewhere.

Going back to MECCANO, my remembrance thereof merely serves to emphasise that I am truly ancient, or at least on the verge of true ancientness. Some lines of an A.E. Housman poem from my schooldays still stick in my head:

Now, of my threescore years and ten,        
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.


Problem is, I’d have to rewrite it as

Now, of my threescore years and ten,        
Only point two-five remain,
Of seventy springs just this one’s left,
I may of life be soon bereft!


Anyway, Housman lived to 77, so what did he know? Yes, first birthday with a 7 on the front approaches, and the transition from Old Git to Really Old Git. At the moment, I’m going through the business of organising pensions. I’ve received a pension from Givaudan since I “retired” there at 65. Because I haven’t worked 40 years in Switzerland, I don’t get the full pension, but as what I get is somewhat higher than the average worker’s wage, I guess I can’t complain. On top of that comes the AHV (pronounced “ah-hah-fow” (rhymes with “now”)) the “Alters- und Hinterlassenenversicherung” (Old age and widow(er)s’ insurance). This is the Swiss government pension payment, and is payable from 65, although one can put it off until 70 at the latest and get a higher rate, which I did.  Again, how much you get depends on how long you’ve worked in Switzerland. Wives get it too, so Mrs. McStea is looking forward to her private largesse.

The AHV folk were very helpful – did I have any entitlement from the UK or Australia? Although I have a UK National Insurance card, I only ever worked at university summer jobs and the traditional Post Office sorting job at Christmas. The bit of the gov.uk website that tells you how much pension to which you’re entitled is a disaster that never works. Is it trying to tell me something? And although I worked for 20 years in Oz, I believe the pension is means-tested there, so I doubt whether I’d get anything. Nevertheless, I mentioned this to the AHV people – and was rewarded with a sheaf of forms about an inch thick, on which I had to detail all sorts of things. Will I live long enough to complete them? Watch This Space…


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