Tuesday, 16 June 2009
I like ordered rowdiness of markets, the generous displays of goods, the shouted conversations. Last weekend's "continental market" turned out to be Italian, with a number of Sicilian stall-holders. Locals gazed, listened, sampled and sometimes bought, delighted at this fleeting encounter with another culture.
Shopping may not be the best way to sample another culture but - for those with money - it's the easiest. Stalls arrive with polite stall-holders for their two- or three-day visit, no doubt vetted for picturesque appeal as well as health and safety. It really is delightful to practise a language when buying real cheese or olive oil or bread - and the stall-holders seem so pleased to encourage customers' attempts. I still treasure the memory of a macaroon stall at a continental market when I startled the stall-holder by greeting him in one of my three phrases of holiday Dutch.
Of course, the visiting market stalls sweep aside much of the complexity of their countries' culture - and it's not a bad thing. We begin as observers, with a picture postcard impression of smiling unfamiliarity. A market encounter couldn't possibly convey deep insights but it's a starting point - and a place to enjoy differences as small as the taste of a new cheese or the lilt of a foreign tongue.
Money seems only incidental to the pleasures of the continental market but these days money and marketing are supposed to be central to everything. Public services (how quaintly out-of-date the term "service" sounds) are told to compete and set up "internal markets". When I grew up we were expected to value health and education for their own sake but now we're expected to see them as "products" produced by competing "brands." The glossy brochures and little give-aways - pens, toys, badges, notepads - that every service produces are signs of the dominance of market forces. So are league tables and the competition for grants. People who once cared for their work have to set out their stall at the market and compete for custom. ("Our school gives free notepads and badges." "Look at the cool fridge magnet produced by this university - not to mention the dons trained in marketing and presentation." "Come to our hospital - we have glossy leaflets, handsome doctors and free pens."
By contrast, the continental markets are restrained and courteous. The stall-holders set out their wares, wait for customers to arrive and answer questions. There are free samples at times but these are just samples of what the stall-holder is offering for sale. Health and education may have been sucked into the idea of the market but - fortunately, perhaps - they don't do it very well.