New Year, and a Life in Captivity

So the New Year is striking off on a down-beat note.   Differences from the celebrations of other years could not be more marked, at least if we obeyed the conventional wisdom and kept our seasonal conviviality strictly to ourselves.

The which we did, self and memsahib, bingeing on Netflix and scarcely bothering to note the passing of the midnight hour, Or the hour before, the hour this sceptred isle finally thumbed its nose at the European Union.

On this particular day of the New Year’s birth (snow outside, temperature a stimulating 1⁰ C) it’s fashionable to review our past year, looking back on its highs and lows, and that’s so unutterably boring in my case I’ll go for ten years instead…

If the first ten years of this century are to be remembered as ‘The Noughties’, the second should be referred to as ‘The Wokies’.  This was the decade when I learned that ‘coloured persons’ were ‘persons of colour’, actresses were actors, and after expunging all the words that were no longer ‘appropriate’ from the Oxford English Dictionary it could be reprinted as a 35-page pamphlet.   On the ‘up’ side, I could ‘identify’ as any sex I wanted from a Sears Catalogue of around 250 different styles.  ‘News’ became the new Gospel, embellished by writers and presenters alike with ever more emotive language.  Of course there were days which lacked ‘news’. Like all good journalists on such days they wrote their own.  

Plaintive complaints of ‘no platforming’, terrified screams at ‘cliff edges’ and tombstone-voiced predictions of Armageddon assailed me so I spent my ‘Wokie’ days with loins permanently girded for a ten-year hurricane of wokeness – but was the journey worthwhile?  Well, personally I feel like Christian upon discovering the Slough of Despond is just a theme park and the real Vanity Fair looks an awful lot like Cambridge.  I dressed for a scourge when I could have got away with a lounge suit.  No drama!  Two General Elections, a referendum and the severance from a super-state all passed with not a hint of apocalypse.  No falls from cliff tops, no carbon monoxide seas wherein to drown, not even a pothole to interrupt the smoothness of the road.   The only consequences of the stultifying ‘Wokies’ for me are a complete loss of any sense of direction, and the inescapable conclusion that all signposts have been removed.  

So here I am, on the threshold of 2021, with no idea of where I’m going next!  But that doesn’t matter because I’m not supposed to go anywhere.

We’re told to stay in our houses.  Don’t travel, don’t socialise, don’t ask any more questions.  It’s a pandemic, gettit?  This is only temporary, until our Greaters and Gooders have made all the money they can extract from it, then you’ll be set free.  In the meantime, if you feel like suicide, or murdering your kids, or even learning Welsh, we have people you can talk to – they’re just a helpline away.

‘You’re call is important to us.  Continue to hold and one of our advisors will..’.

A bit like Joe Biden, I don’t really know where I go from here.  I don’t know what the next decade has in store. I joined the last one in expectation of great adventures, and in the event the adventures weren’t so great, but maybe the ’21s’ will be better. At any rate I must shake off this malaise.  I might go out and demonstrate against the slave trader guy whose statue dominates the town square. It isn’t a very good statue so I might help pull it down.  He won’t mind, he’s been dead for two hundred years.  While I’m in the mood for demonstrating I could join the movement for saving the planet, which apparently involves stopping traffic in City Centres and lying down on motorways.  It’s a little cold for that right now, though, so I’ll just write another post for this blog instead…Happy New Year, everyone!

NB: This was the decade in which I retired…I felt the world deserved a break, at the time.  Now I’m not so sure.

Gift Wrapped.

This is a tribute.  Whatever damage to our health this black COVID comedy has visited upon us, its most permanent effect has been the demise of our traditional way of shopping.  Although our physical wellbeing will return, we are witnessing the final decline of the Mall, the Department Store, the High Street retailer.  

So, a little piece from Christmas past, and maybe an expression of sorrow for things lost; things we’ll miss in the online society of years to come…

“Gif’ wrapped?”

She is in her fifties, piped into the store’s idea of what a woman should wear in her thirties if she were a size 12. She is not a size twelve.

Plastic smile.  “Would’y’like to include-a-message?”

“Sorry?”

“Message.  Would’y’l….”

“Oh!  Sorry.  No thanks.”

The boxed perfume and cologne upon which I have just expended next month’s rent lies before me on the counter.  As enemies go it is already vanquished – its acetate window a little clouded, a little wrinkled, its cardboard colours brash.  Defiant, but defeated.  It is nothing like the resplendent offering that I selected from the brightly-lit glass case.   A cell-phone begins to play something Bieber.   The woman stifles it at the third chord.

“Yeah? Did he?  Oh, right, and he….”

A miracle happens.  Cell tucked against shoulder, bright paper from somewhere.

“Silver or gold?”

“Erm, silver?”

My perfume gift is interred in a whirl of glitzy paper.

“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!”  The woman tells the ‘phone.  “No, not tonight.  I’m goin’ t’ Freddy’s.  I said.”

Ribbon shoots from somewhere far beneath, not one but two strips.  She holds them up for my approval, her face a mirror of enquiry.  I am being asked to select a colour.  The ‘phone is squawking angrily.  

I point at red.  

“Its no good him prattin’ on.  I said last night I wasn’t goin’.”  From furious to obsequious.  “Yes, madam?”

She has a customer enquiry further along the counter.  I expect her to move away but no, the miracle is still happening.   My gift is wrapped neatly in silver, a red ribbon is flying around it.

“Those are really more for the older man, I think.  Hav’y’thought of Hugo Boss?”  And to the ‘phone:  “Well he knows where he can put it, doesn’ee?”

Ribbon in a tight binding, scissors from treasure-house  below, their point stripping through the loose ends, reducing them to tight curls.  Gum, glitter.  To the new customer:  “He’ll really go for that one, I should think.  What about the cologne?”

To me:  “Seventy-Nine pounds, dear.  Cash or card?”

I never hear the end of the conversation.  I am dispatched, processed, a satisfied customer.  My gift cradled in my respectful grasp, my work of art, my Lichtenstein in silver created by the hand (well, one hand) of an anonymous woman whose work should surely be exhibited somewhere more prominent than my humble Christmas tree.

At home I contemplate the bottle of single malt that I shall gift to Uncle Bill with naked fear.  They stretch out before me – the paper, the scissors that will never cut it in a straight line, the sellotape which has no distinguishable end; the instruments that are the true hell of Christmas.  Grimly, but with determination, I down a third gin and fit the scissors around my fingers.

My wife comes in from work at six o’clock.  “The neighbours are complaining,”  she says,  “about you shouting again.”  She sees the broken glass and the splash of gin on the wall. “Have you been throwing things?”

“It was an accident.”  I tell her.  “Me, shouting?  No, must have been number fifty-eight.”

“What on earth is that?”  She has spotted Uncle Bill’s wrapped bottle of single malt.  “It looks like a traffic accident.”

I come clean.  What else can I do?  At least in my long-sleeved jumper she cannot see the scars where I finally turned the scissors on myself.

“Well you do your best and it is the season of good will!”  My wife says charitably.  “I hope you haven’t bought me perfume again.”

Today, when the thoroughfare should be brimming with supplicants to the Great God of Consumerism, scarcely a foot is heard to fall.  Brightly lit windows flicker code to each other across empty streets – gone the street markets; still-born the Santa Claus parades, the rattling strings of coloured lights that echo in a rain-rich wind.

Not once have I ventured out to make my contribution to those echoes. My Christmas is already shopped – day after day parcels to be gifted trickle to my door, from Amazon, from Etsy people, from emporia I have only seen on my monitor and whose threshold I shall never need to cross.   

One hellish prospect remains, however:  the paper, the sellotape, the scissors that won’t cut straight sit waiting and I know my skills have not improved!   If I was briefly the acquaintance of a lady, a true artist, and if she should remember how she wrapped some perfume for me once?  If she should by any chance be reading this, and be in need of some libation, maybe a mince pie or two as reward for a small service, I can assure her of a welcome at my door…

Out of Darkness?

“Round to your left, please!”

There are ways of saying ‘please’, which vary from earnest entreaty to thinly-disguised threat.   This is the latter.

“Did you order online?”

She stands in command of her little empire of plastic bollards and fake crime tape, stockily built, belligerent and enjoying the anonymity of her paper mask.

“Do you have documentation?  In through this door and go to station 2.”

The image of state authority passes through my mind as I obediently follow the painted lines on the floor.   “Your papers!   What is your destination?  Why?”

Inside the emporium, I am told to remain standing on a yellow square.  I do so, making a mental note to never use this ‘click and collect’ service again.  Probably, I will avoid using this store again.   I have the possibly illogical notion that if I am ever to catch the benighted virus, it will be here.   It will float into my respiratory system on a cloud of vitriol.

‘Station 2’ Comes up with my merchandise and allows me to collect it from the counter while ‘Station 2’ hides behind her perspex screen.   The items are loose, four little germ hives that rebuke me for failing to think of my rubber gloves.  I depart.

“That way!”

“Yes, dear.”

Retreating to the safety of my car and my sanitizer, having run the gauntlet of a purchase that the retailer was so anxious I should make, I reflect that the traumatising nature of the transaction is not so much the fault of the retailer as it is the fault of staff who would rather not deliver this so-tight-the-pips-squeak routine, who, in fact, would rather not be there at all.

This is an outlet for a big company, of course; a concern with branches nationwide.  Edicts are issued from on high, executed (i can think of no more appropriate word) by those who see themselves as minions and to whom the paper mask has afforded the benefit of disguise.   

As I drive home I realise that I have been privileged to witness the death of the ‘retail experience’ as we know it.  The end of the Mall, of the High Street with its punitive overheads, its regimentation.  Lockdown has given us all a freedom which, having experienced, we should be anxious to preserve.

Here’s the tragedy.  This authoritarian solution is likely to become distinctly a big company drag shoe administered from well-heeled boardrooms with no appreciation of the latent enmity that exists between staff at floor level and their customers.  Now there are masks.  Now any element of personal contact has been eliminated.  Now we can say what we THINK!  It is not a philosophy shared by those dwindling ranks of independent retailers who have a genuine interest and would like to offer a friendly, warm avenue of communication with those who walk through their door; but they are the ones who will suffer most from the collapse of ‘Retail Therapy’.   

High Streets and Malls, gang-raped by the big corporations, were in trouble long before COVID came to call.   Malls do not make money.   Pillaged by rents and business rates they are the biters bit.  Recently those on the High Streets have done no better.  Only banks can be relied upon to make profits.

Of those who have passed their isolation working from home, four out of five have expressed their preference for continuing to work from home.  The removal of restrictions should mean a mass migration back into the town, a human tidal wave of relieved shoppers grateful the siege has been lifted.  It has not.   Apart from essential travel, we seem reluctant to return to the bean-can life.  If a vaccine is not quickly found, perhaps we never will.

A personal opinion?   We could be standing at the threshold of something massive.  There is clearly a need for some centralisation, but not as much – a need for towns (cities) – but not as many.  Maybe the twentieth-century commute is a thing of the past, the big office no longer an eight-hour prison sentence at the hub of each day.  Does the nursery belong in the home, rather than at some converted church hall or school?  And are the icons of the education industry ripe for scattering, now they are so much a source of foment for rebellion and unrest? 

Photo credit: Joe Stubbs on Unsplash