Sunday, 28 December 2008

Retail trauma

A phrase I've always hated is "retail therapy." The idea that buying things I neither need nor want strikes me as slightly bizarre. Watching shoppers in action sometimes makes me think that shopping is an addiction and that retail therapy is no more logical than "alcohol therapy" or "gambling therapy." Shopping is like alcohol and gambling in the way it lets some people leave their anxieties behind for a few hours. It's different in the way it creates clutter and landfill.

For years the government has promoted debt and spending. It didn't start under New Labour - the idea of a service economy, in which large numbers of people would sell luxuries to one another, began with Margaret Thatcher's unquestioning glorification of the market. Perhaps, as a shopkeeper's daughter, she could see only the objects that crowded the shelves of the grocer's store and not the hard work that produced them.

I enjoy luxury goods and services. I like fine soaps and good, fairly-traded coffee. I love sitting down in a coffee shop with a cup or bowl of coffee and reading the newspapers. But now I'm economising. I buy decent everyday soap. I go to a cafe perhaps once or twice a month and mostly read the newspapers on-line. Such economies mean shops will close and people will lose their jobs. Only young people believe that it's safe to spend - the anxiety about the economy hasn't hit them yet. But it will.

I headed into Nottingham for the sales. It was a mistake. The city was filled with exuberant crowds, rejoicing at their freedom from Christmas at home. They wandered through the streets, squares and shops. It was the last day of Woolworth and the crowds gazed at the empty shelves like tourists in a strange land. Teenage boys pointed and laughed at the few DVDs and games that hadn't sold, even with an 80% mark-down. Battered desks from the offices behind the store carried prices (£5 for a desk and chair) and SOLD stickers. Shop assistants mechanically rang up purchases and didn't smile. I watched a lad pick up items on the shelves and put them down. Then his hand moved to his pocket. Was he shoplifting? I wasn't sure and didn't know who would be damaged by such a small theft.

Elsewhere crowds flowed through shopping centres and aisles. I tried to look for the things I wanted: shoes, trainers, a warm jacket - possibly a pair of slippers. I stopped looking soon. Everyone knows there will be more reductions soon as further shops close. I can wait.

I couldn't tell if the sales were successful or not. There were plenty of people but queues at the check-outs seemed no longer than usual. And hardly anyone seemed laden with bags - some people seemed to have bought nothing at all. The gluehwein stall had few customers although skaters circled and twirled on the open air ice rink.

In the 19th century, when shopping became a popular leisure pastime, literary works warned of its dangers. In The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) Emile Zola described the seductive charms of the department store. And in Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti's mini-epic of sex and shopping, obsessive buying and consumption is a deathly danger. In both, women are at particular risk. This may say something about 19th century society and anxieties but, even now, shopping is seen as a particularly feminine indulgence. I've occasionally worried that my dislike of shopping (except for books and stationery) makes me unfeminine but I think women existed before shopping became a popular leisure pursuit. I'll be glad if I'm no longer expected to like shopping but I'll grieve for the loss of jobs - and for all those makers and shopkeepers urged - by government propaganda - to follow their dream into bankruptcy.

Note: If you're puzzled by the relevance of the illustration, it is one of Laurence Housman's illustrations for Goblin Market. Laurence Housman is largely forgotten these days but his career was far more interesting than that of his famous brother.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Theatre days

It's a few years since I last went to the pantomime.

I love panto. One of my best theatre memories is of a trip with friends to the Players Theatre under the arches off Villiers Street on the London Embankment. There I sat with a beer beside me, join in the traditional chorus of "Oh! the fairies!" and saw a recreation of an early 19th century panto, before the arrival of principal boy or pantomime dame.

Our local panto is usually a sell-out. Some years I'd be too late to get tickets and queue, hopefully, for returns. It's not a starry panto but features excellent panto actors who return year after year and girls from local dance schools as a chorus. And it's written by someone who knows panto-history, has a love of bad jokes and leaves plenty of space for improvisation.

This year, I received an email offering me two tickets for the price of one in the new year. Of course, I'm wondering if I can find a friend who would like to go with me. Many people I know despise panto. They accuse it of vulgarity, bad jokes and misogyny. But the vulgarity and bad jokes are the point. As for misogyny - occasionally there's a dame who has a pretty strange idea of women. But a show in which a woman takes the male romantic lead while a man in a frock wears the most extravagant costumes in the show hardly endorses sexual stereotypes. Moreover, a show in which the audience is encouraged to take part, shouting "Look behind you!", "Oh no it isn't!" and, in Nottingham, "Ey up, me duck!", is a risky piece of theatre owing much to the old traditions of carnival with its exuberant role-reversals.

I'd really like to go to the panto. But the two-for-one offer alarms me. It seems another sign of the recession. Family and group visits to the panto must be down - in times of hardship theatre, the arts and so many other pleasures seem like a luxury that can be cut.

When I'm poor, which happens from time to time, theatre and the arts see me through. My mother taught me that, if you have a choice between dinner and a theatre ticket, the theatre ticket is the better investment because the pleasure lasts longer. You can always take a slab of bread and eat it while standing in the gallery. And my mother taught me the pleasures of free museums and art galleries - places to wander and let the imagination roam. A carefully-chosen postcard of a painting can be carried around for months, used as a bookmark and finally, in an act of generosity, sent to a friend.

But how many theatre companies and art galleries will survive the economic crisis? What will become of the musicians who give so much pleasure? And, for people whose pleasures lie elsewhere, how will the sports grounds be maintained? Will there be bus trips that take us to the countryside and will the paths, moors and beaches be maintained? What will happen to those historic sites that have been labelled "national (or international) heritage"? Somehow, in the disasters ahead, I hope we find time to preserve not just life itself but the things that, for many of us, make life worthwhile. And I hope we learn to share these pleasures more generously.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

To whom it may concern

I heard Adrian Mitchell perform only once, back in the 1970s. Then it was his poem about Victor Jara (later set to music) that made an impression.

I'm hesitant about political conviction as I am about religious conviction. Both have the capacity for evil as well as good and justified anger can lead swiftly to the cruelties of hate and vengeance. But Adrian Mitchell's poem for Victor Jara didn't call for vengeance. It simply insisted that we listen to what had done. Victor Jara was a folk singer who had supported the socialist President Allende. In the wake of the CIA-backed coup (on September 11, 1973) that toppled Allende and installed the dictator Pinochet, Jara was one of thousands taken to the Chile Stadium. His captors tortured him before they killed him; the broke his hands to make sure that he could never play the guitar again. Sometimes it's the details of cruelty that appal - it's easy to let the wealth of statistics sweep over me. But I couldn't forget about Victor Jara's hands.

These days, like most people, I've become infected by a kind of cynical helplessness. There is more I could do to oppose injustice, cruelty and so forth, but it's hard to believe it will do any good. But when I heard that Adrian Mitchell had died, I sought out his most famous poem, "To whom it may concern," and found a youtube video of his performance at the Albert Hall for the Poetry International. When Adrian Mitchell performed in 1965, he seemed like the voice of an angry hope for the future. The huge audience included Alan Ginsberg. The Vietnam war is long over but the there are still wars and safe, convenient, public lies. Adrian Mitchell went on campaigning and writing, though the audiences were smaller. But something seems to have vanished from the world since the campaign against the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was lost when our government refused to listen to the people who marched against war in Iraq. These days the innocence of hope is almost dead.

The world is a poorer place for the loss of Adrian Mitchell.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The champagne of teas

I'm just making my second pot of tea of the day. I want a lighter drink so it's Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas." That's what it says on the packet anyway.

I'm making the tea in a splendid teapot and cup set which was a gift from my daughter. Unusually, the teapot holds just the right amount for the cup and a half of tea I want.

A friend and I started wondering about teas and wines. If Darjeeling is "the champagne of teas." what does that make Earl Grey? The Gewuerztraminer, perhaps. And Assam might be a St. Emilion. We wondered if there was a good summer's job in France, drinking tea and wine and writing suitable descriptions. (If you are a French tea importer, I would really like that job.)

But good tea and coffee - not to mention teapots, coffeepots, cups and associated devices - seem to be the latest victim of the financial crisis. I went into Whittard's yesterday - it is one of the few shops I like - and walked into a sense of almost-tangible gloom. It's not so unusual these days. Sometimes the gloom is marked by an excess of cheeriness with shop staff smiling as broadly as they can and asking with determined enthusiasm, "Can I help you with anything?" But that draws attention to the vast empty spaces between the elegant displays where large red signs advertise price-cuts. Elsewhere the staff can't conceal the creeping misery and their worries for the future, though they remain polite and helpful, slipping into familiar shop-assistant mode as if it were a familiar coat. I used to think it was the crowds I hated, and that sales with space to move were fun - not any more. Sometimes I even shun the free samples of food and drink that are pressed upon me, though I almost always accept the hot coffee served by smiling teenagers with trays on traffic islands and in doorways. Behind them I can see empty chairs and tables where once customers lurked waiting for a seat.

Everyone has been waiting for price-cuts so the streets are crowded. There was a short queue of parents and grandparents taking children to meet Father Christmas (no charge and no purchase necessary) and a female elf in red and green managed the queue with a stern frown. The children were quiet and less excited than my two were in their Father Christmas days.

I met a friend to drink gluehwein in the Old Market Square. At first that too was fairly empty but at about 6.00 the queues lengthened. Soon I could barely hear the singing reindeer's head (bilingual in English and German) introduce itself for the third time (as "lustiger Rudolf", I think). It seemed slightly hesitant but nonetheless it stretched its neck and blinked hopefully as it began its rendition of "Tannenbaum" and "Silver Bells."

I stayed for more gluehwein than I'd intended and, as I made my way to the station, noticed that many shops were open long past their closing time though most of the customers had gone. At home I turned on the news. The second item told me that Whittard's is about to go into administration. I wonder how many of the shops I passed will still be open next Christmas.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

In defence of media studies

The criticisms are automatic. Whenever a commentator begins the phrase "useless subjects like ...", I know it's going to end with the words "media studies." Fifty per cent of the time, the commentator will continue by making the observation that media studies graduates aren't guaranteed jobs in the media at the end of their studies, as though the only end of a degreee was a relevant job. Obviously I'm old fashioned. I still believe - against all the declarations of politicians - that study can be an end in itself and that sustained thought on a range of subjects enriches the thinker, society as a whole and the democratic process.

Thirty years ago the phrase "useless subjects like ..." would have ended with the word "sociology." People still think of it as a new discipline - in fact the first university sociology departments were established in the nineteenth century - but at last its debates about society, the family and ways of life are taken for granted.

Eighty years ago English was the typical "useless subject" - so controversial that some Oxford and Cambridge colleges still refused to appoint tutors in English. The subject, which included Anglo-Saxon, history of language, the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Milton, was seen as best fitted for women, working-class people and colonial subjects but not a matter of serious scholarship. The subject which needed no justification was Classics - the study of Greek and Latin.

Now it's media studies that's under attack. And I wonder why. Our daily lives are saturated by the media. For the last couple of years I've barely watched TV, although I've managed to see most episodes of Doctor Who. But when I wake up, I turn on the radio. I check the internet so that I can read the papers and my favourite blogs. I notice advertisements on my way to work. Sometimes I go to the cinema. Occasionally I try playing a computer game or hunt for podcasts and video clips. I'm more influenced by the media than the literature I read - and I think that's true of most people. Surely something that influences people so much is worthy of study.

Media studies covers a huge area. It usually begins with thinking about the ways in which various kinds of media are created: what is the structure of a newspaper report, a film, a TV show, an advertisement? It's important to understand that these things are made to set rules and that the way they are shaped may control what they say.

The film-maker Peter Watkins, who is also one of the most acute critics of the media today, writes about what he calls the "monoform" - rules of editing, sound, etc. which are so aggressive and dominant that they deny the viewer or listener space for reflection, criticism or resistance. I once heard Peter Watkins speak to Media Studies students - I slipped in to hear him although I wasn't on the course. He asked the students to time the length of visual clips used in news broadcasts. I think they were about 6 seconds long then. They are shorter now, allowing even less time to reflect and question. But since Peter Watkins' lecture, I've found myself asking key questions: Whose film are we seeing? (Sometimes the film is library stock and not recent footage of the events described.) Does it tell the same story as the sound track? What story is being told by the way the clips are edited together? What stories are not being told? (A story without a useful film-clip is unlikely to make it onto the TV news. And complex stories which take time to understand don't fit the rules of narrative that rule the newsrooms.) Peter Watkins argues that these questions aren't asked enough in departments of media studies. I expect he's right. But outside the world of the media and media studies, these questions aren't asked at all.

I can't outline the huge scope of media studies. There are areas and debates of which I'm barely aware - and probably some I couldn't begin to understand. The practical skills some media students acquire - from storyboarding to sound recording to website design - require a range of abilities. I'm most aware of the work of media studies in film and cinema history. At times - as in studies of the documentary movement - it overlaps with literary, music and art history. And then media students use debates about society - about the treatment of class, race, gender, etc. - and apply them to their analysis.

For instance, in the clip below from Mervyn LeRoy's film, Gold Diggers of 1933, the media studies student would be able to use a range of approaches. It would be possible, using Peter Watkins, to consider how the intensity of the film - its use of music, the Busby Berkeley choreography, and the potency of its visual images and editing - make it hard to disagree with what it says. The power of the song is particularly strange given its place in the film - it is presented as a song in a stage show but it becomes something more powerful and political. An approach looking at the treatment of race and gender might note that something complex is happening. The song is sung by two women - Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Although Etta Moten has the better, more powerful voice, the central role is given to the white woman, Joan Blondell. Etta Moten's name doesn't even appear in the credits. And while the words of the song say that women are dependent on men, the men's individuality gradually blurs them from objects of admiration and pity into a pattern on a screen. Meanwhile the historical approach would tell how the film picks up a famous speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt and sets its key phrase to music. And the historian might also have something to say about the film's original audience: mostly poor, suffering from the effects of the Depression and entering the luxury of the cinema in search of escape, hope and happy endings.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The brave people of Sark

There has been an election on the small island of Sark. The Barclay brothers, who own a number of businesses on the island insisted. The Barclay brothers are billionaires who own a number of businesses on Sark as well as a nearby island. They cast themselves as the defenders of democracy.

Shortly before the vote took place, the Barclay brothers issued threats against the voters of Sark. The Barclay brothers wanted their own candidates to win. They therefore warned the voters of Sark that they would withdraw their investments, causing poverty among the islanders, if the islanders voted
in a way the Barclay brothers didn't like. This threat was published in the Daily Telegraph, which the Barclay brothers own.

The people of Sark voted for the candidates they wanted. And now the Barclay brothers have announced that they are closing all their businesses on Sark, making 100 people - a sixth of the island's population - unemployed.

The people of Sark showed that their understanding of democracy was far better than that of the Barclay brothers. They refused to be bribed or blackmailed into voting as the Barclay brothers wished.

I have occasionally bought The Daily Telegraph. As long as the Barclay brothers own it, I shall never buy it again. People who try to bribe and blackmail voters in the exercise of their democratic rights are not fit to own a newspaper.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


A month or so again it was still warm. That's when I saw him: a stocky, cheerful, black-bearded man smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback book. He looked as though he was enjoying life. And that struck me because he was snuggled in a sleeping bag beneath a blanket in a shop doorway. He had half an hour or so till the shop would open and was enjoying the his daylight solitude.

It's not hard to see rough-sleepers in any town if you get up early. There's an underpass which usually houses one or two men (usually men, sometimes women) who, on cold nights, burrow deep into their sleeping bags so that only their hair or a woolly hat is visible. Every so often the underpass floods and the sleepers aren't there any more. I don't know where they go.

I don't know where they go in the snow and hard frosts we've had in the past fortnight. There are hostels - but not many - and I've heard that some rough-sleepers are frightened of them. The people who use them are sometimes drunk or mentally ill. People who are homeless have rarely had a comfortable, secure past.

I don't know what to do to help rough sleepers. I know money would help, because it would provide warmth, which must be a major need. But money is short in a time of financial crisis - people (including me) cling to what they have.

Most vulnerable of all are the asylum seekers forced into destitution because their claims for help have been refused. Some fear deportation - what they fear must be terrible if they choose homelessness and near-starvation in preference. Failed asylum seekers are forbidden to work, forbidden to claim benefits, forced to beg for survival. A local organisation hands out supplies but it doesn't have much money. Destitute asylum seekers are given a bag of food a week if they can find somewhere to cook it or £2.50 a week if they cannot.

Meanwhile, we prepare to celebrate Christmas. The story tells of a young couple forced to shelter in a stable because there is nowhere else for them to sleep. Later, with a small baby, they seek asylum in Egypt because they fear persecution at home.

When the shops open, the rough sleepers move on. The Christmas carols mingle with more recent songs in the city centres.