24 December, 2008

Grey Days

It’s here. If all the headlines and news-talk didn’t hit home ‘til now, this is it. “Welcome to the recession.”

This is running through my mind as I stand just inside the door at Woolworths. The combination of dishevelled, half-stocked shelves and shuffling crowds plugs uncannily into the zombie-movie scenes that’re so in vogue online. I catch my hands sub-consciously wielding a pump-action shotgun. My nostrils flare and catch a whiff of pure desperation.

I haven’t been in a Woolworths for at least a year, and even then I was dragged in. I haven’t wanted to enter in a decade. That would be when I was buying Stereophonics singles on cassette (ah, that that could be the most embarrassing crime against taste I committed in that grand old store). Even then, all tacky books and oversized chocolate, it was well on the way to becoming a failing pound shop. Woolworth’s demise is hardly my fault. But it’s too much watching others pick over its stiffening corpse, let alone joining in the plunder myself. I move on.

Despair is thick in the air all around the town, on the final Saturday of financial life. Already the morning news reports declared “sell or bust”. Fairy lights in the windows of even the least festive stores are meant to drag in precious customers who seek to make every coin count. Isn’t desperation the currency of every Christmastime? Seasonal slogans in inappropriate places, the impossibility of reading our loved ones’ minds, a determination to make one day a delight for all concerned, all add up to a heady mix.

This year is different. I visit the only independent record store in town, even if it rarely has anything I’m looking for. I spend an hour in my favourite bookstore, just reading the back of novels, even if Waterstones has a better selection. In a way my interest in Christmas shopping has been rekindled now it’s a rescue mission. The sensation of economic decline is reinforced by the languid grey sky hanging heavily overhead.

The shoppers who laugh (for there are a few) are not happy. They are demented. They are in denial. They are drugged worshippers of a death cult, merrily embracing their end. I'm torn between scorn and pity.

There are vultures outside the town, eyeing up the carcasses, ready to strip our failing high street bare of all cashflow. Their prices are unmatchable, their efficiency undeniable and their appetite insatiable. Tescos have added another floor in order to sell more clothes. Week-to-week you needn’t go anywhere else, for anything.

If there’s one lesson I’d love us all to absorb, it would be to shop in places we like, re-learn the link between payment and prestige, and really consider what we value. ‘Bang for your buck’ pales into insignificance against the human cost of forsaking our independent shops in favour of sterile megastores. There must be a rebirth after the fall, and it is still within our power to determine quite what sort of phoenix will rise.

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