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‘I swoosh, therefore I am…

the World’s Expert on Listerine.’

This is what I said on Sunday.  In public.

Supermarkets are funny things, they bring out the worst in me.  I only EVER pick up a wire basket because I will not be in there long enough to fill a trolley.  I have written about such things before.  This habit was all very well when it was me and two dogs.  Now there are children.  They grow and wish to grow more.  This requirement demands an unceasing quantity of food and much frequenting of aisles of the supermarket variety.  I try to go to smaller shops when possible, I like the Co-op wine section, but the food is a bit of a worry.  They don’t have wire baskets there either, instead they have giant black crate things for customers to lug round.  I constantly pick up two stuck together, without noticing, and then nearly die of shock by the bread when the bottom one in the stack falls to the ground with a great clattering thud.  So, although I prefer the Co-op on principle, I don’t actually shop there much.

Sainsburys is the nearest (well not as near as the M&S BP) so I do end up there more than I want.   It’s very expensive and, lately, the merchandising has been shoddy.  It was the case of the Listerine at the weekend that tipped me over the edge.  Basically, because when I come to think of a form of words to explain myself it all sounds very boring, I picked up Listerine marked on the shelf as 50% off – so £2 something instead of £5 something.  This was a proper discount, not one of those fake ones supermarkets go in for. Reader, it went in the basket.  At the till?  5 quid and more.

I was going to let it go.  It’s not the first time I’ve been caught out by the store putting items in the wrong place, over a bogus offer.  You need a law degree and a good pair of glasses to read the small print sometimes.  However, it was pouring with rain and I was on foot.  I thought I’d kill some time by pointing out the mistake to customer services, but prior to that I’d check the offer again.  It’s at this point that you realise you have a problem, isn’t it?  But, I reasoned, it was not about the money, it was the principle and I thought, at least I could save the next Listerine-swilling shopper a shock at the till.

I retraced my steps to the shelves.  It’s at this point I now realise you need a photo of the product placement.  I don’t have one.  Supermarkets don’t like you taking photos in their stores.  You may not know this, but Listerine mouth wash comes in many colours and sizes all with multifarious magical properties that will guarantee glossy gnashers and gums until your ticker throws in the towel, or whatever.  They’ve got absinthe green and pale green, blue, yellow, purple, silvery, red, orange.  I swear, Listerine comes in every colour of the rainbow and more besides.  So the shelf merchandisers just lob it all on, shuffle the price tags around into a vague approximation of the actual price on the system and bugger off home.  A bit like this.

This is by no means the full product range


My problem was that the Total Cavity Guard Listerine in Sainsburys was not only over the wrong price label, there was no right  label at all.   And it was this that I pointed out on Sunday.  The customer service assistant didn’t seem to think that this was a very big deal, or that customers were terribly interesting or intelligent or that service really was her thang.  The combination of her ill-chosen words, and nonchalant non-verbal communication drove me to make the outrageous World’s Expert on Listerine claim.  I also told her I would be back the following day to check that this was sorted out.  (Of course I forgot to because, actually, I am not really a crazy middle-aged old cow with nothing better to do than hector supermarket workers about fucking dental hygiene products on a Monday. )   The assistant eventually offered to refund my money to the ‘advertised price’ but I seized what I liked to think of as the moral high ground and refused.  It’s not the money… it’s the principle, I opined.  What a twat  I can be.  Anyway, it had stopped raining by then, so I walked home.  But I was not so secretly a little bit pissed off, with the attitude and the sloppy merchandising and the general trickery perpetrated on unwitting customers  that they go in for in that bloody shop.

The post script to this is that I was back in there yesterday and  I couldn’t resist checking the Listerine shelves.  This time, all  the products were priced, up but the offending item of Sunday was still placed over the wrong price tag – you’d still be picking it up expecting to pay two quid summat and be hit for over a fiver at the till.  Still, it was an improvement, at least the correct price tag was there, just in the wrong place.  I could have just swapped all the merchandise around, but I didn’t.  I trekked back to the customer service desk and then, assuming my World’s Expert role once more, took them to the shelves and pointed it out, again.  The original customer service bod from the weekend recognised me and dived for deep cover.  Another lady accompanied me to the display and very solemnly swapped the Listerine bottles into their correct places on the shelves.  I told her I would be keeping an eye on this…

It’s official: I have gone mad.

Why Picture Perfect Christmases Make Me Want To Vom

Because there is no such thing. Although Christmas is nominally ‘Christ’s Mass’, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, it is an entirely human construction and where there are humans there is always sweat, some tears and occasionally blood. We may distract ourselves from this unsavoury fact with glitter and gloss and the gift of giving, but underneath it all, somewhere, lies stress and teeth gnashing; if not for you, then definitely someone sitting not too far away…

I am not against having a holiday during the *darkest, shortest days of the year. I am not against bringing something of the outside in, and brightening a room with pretty lights. I am not, when push comes to shove entirely against the giving of presents, but as a pagan at heart I wonder if it is actually the Yule Festival I should really be celebrating.

This is the last year I am playing the Christmas game (and that is only because it is too late to get out of it now). From now on, the whole exercise will have a back to nature Yule theme and for that reason I am never again going to spend a day of my life staring at manufactured crap in overcrowded shops as the obligation to buy for people I feel I hardly know bears down upon my shoulders. For those of you I do know, and love, perhaps we can come to some Secret Holly King arrangement…

I am bowing out now because I am not good at it and it makes me uncomfortable. My children don’t believe in Father Christmas any more either, so at least some of the pretence/magic can be dropped with honour. It’s time to embrace wassailing and the battle of the Holly King and Oak King. It’s time to burn the Yule Log and not wrapping paper. It’s time to be and not do. You see, that’s why picture perfect Christmases drive me mad, because they shout, look, look what I can do. See how I can wrap beautifully (I can’t), see how I can pour the perfect drink (all my glasses are smashed). Look, look at my beautiful tree (the children decorated ours yesterday, imagine…), look, look at my Wonderful Life. This post is not jealousy, it is just that I know a lot of it is not all that it seems and I know what putting on a show can cost people. Of course, every life has its sadness and woes and there’s nothing wrong with just putting that all aside and enjoying the company of friends and family for a few days in the depths of winter; it’s just that I believe we don’t need the thick layers of artifice and rampant consumerism trowelled on top.

Having said all that I am a sucker for some glitter, all year round and although it’s beginning to look a lot like a non-picture perfect Christmas… it’s Yule – ok?

A recycled birthday owl

A recycled birthday owl

*In Australia this will make no sense.

Luckiest 4%

That’s what I was told I was in this week; that’s 4% of the whole world. Now I have no idea whatsoever if that’s true and as it’s what I would consider to be an entirely subjective measure it’s not a statistic I will be dwelling upon. What it did do was made me think about the context being used to put me in the 4% – which happened to be a western capitalist democracy. And I also wondered if the measure had been arrived at by some instrument developed in the western capitalist democratic society, society that values success, worth and even luck in monetary terms.

For a passing moment it just seemed the like most atrocious cultural imperialism of the mind.

‘We think we are more lucky than you.’

*points to anywhere that isn’t the US or Europe*.

I wondered who was mad? Me, who can see the most terrible things going on everywhere: destruction of communities, hate for fellow humans, abuse and neglect of children, lack of care and concern for others, a loss of humanity in our daily transactions… or Them, who see a sick, money-driven consumerist society that values appearances more than wellbeing as a great place to live.

There’s no answer to that.

Un-brand your heart (and mind?)

Below I reproduce a quote about consumerism as a form of social control from the Wikipedia page about Herbert Marcuse’s book ‘One Dimensional Man’

Herbert Marcuse strongly criticizes consumerism, arguing consumerism is a form of social control. He suggests that the system we live in may claim to be democratic, but it is actually authoritarian in that the few individuals are dictating our perceptions of freedom by only allowing us choices to buy for happiness. It is in this state of “unfreedom” in which consumers act irrationally by working more than they are required to fulfill actual basic needs, ignoring the psychologically destructive effects, ignoring the waste and environmental damage it causes, and also by searching for social connection through material items.

It is even more irrational in the sense that the creation of new products, calling for the disposal of old products, fuels the economy and encourages the increased need to work more to buy more. An individual loses his or her humanity and becomes a tool to the industrial machine and a cog in the consumer machine. Additionally advertising sustains consumerism, which disintegrates societal demeanor, delivered in bulk and informing the masses that happiness can be bought, an idea that is psychologically damaging.

There are other alternatives to counter the consumer lifestyle. Anti-consumerism: a lifestyle that demotes any unnecessary consumption, and with that, demotes unnecessary extra work, extra waste, etc. But even this alternative is complicated with the extreme penetration of advertising and commodification because everything is a commodity, even the things that are actual needs.

What I wonder is this.

Are the street gangs, that amply demonstrated their apparent freedom this week to help themselves to the symbols of consumerist society, more or less trapped in the machine than those of us who work long hours to pay for things we don’t need?

I’ve read of the people who looted shops described as the canary in the coalmine for our society, subject to the effects of toxic gas before it gets to the miners. Doubtless, it’s a provocative metaphor, but it’s an interesting one.

There’s been so much talk about right and wrong this week, but the canary down the mine has no concept of this, it simply croaks it. That’s because concepts of right and wrong are no use to a canary. For humans right and wrong are not just moral concepts we pass on uncritically; they do require, on some level, a personal cognitive process with reflective qualities. If moral values were as fixed as some of the government would like you to believe, all those before the courts today would be hung, or transported to Australia.

Working in education, my own interest is particularly in learners’ feelings, the affect, our emotions and how they can drive us. The trillions that companies spend every year on building brands are appealing primarily to our emotions. Many of us can talk ourselves out of a purchase on the basis we don’t really need it, but it requires that robust cognitive input. We affect how we feel by being a consumer and how we feel drives our consumption.

The reason I mention it is because it seems to me that although the people who looted shops may have exercised some cognitive processes (I might get caught, I might go to prison, do I actually care?), the frenzy of illegal consumption was probably initially driven by emotional states.

In which case, as the intellectualising of the phenomenon begins in an attempt to structure the future, should we do what must be the unthinkable if you are The Man driving The Machine.

Ask the canary how he feels about it?

Capitalist Consumerism meets Existentialism: what happens this evening?

We are all hoping London will be quiet tonight, but shops in Hackney, Mare Street have been closing early and battening down the hatches just in case. I am sure there will be many more elsewhere.

My particular interest is that my daughters are staying in Hackney with relatives, last night elsewhere near Leyton. My maternal alarm bells have been ringing for 24 hours now, but common sense says if they stay in the house they will be fine. Perhaps it will be no more noisy than a usual summer’s evening in Hackney…

I was noting how many times the word ‘unacceptable’ is being used by the authorities in relation to the London riots; I have now lost count. Their whole tone is too obvious, insulting to the rest of us who can work out the criminality and chaos on our own. We don’t want words, we want to see some action. Balls to the rewarding the criminals line you’ve been peddling Mr Mayor’s Office – your job is to be seen on the streets you are in charge of, with something more creative to say than lofty rhetoric.

There is a line in a book I have been reading by John Macquarrie – it is discussing the human need to have a basic minimum of things for an existence and then from that foundation a human might begin to realise the uniquely human challenge of self-determination, or indeed simply the self. Without the bare minimum humans are put in a constant state of need. Inversely with too much a human being no longer just has things, rather the things have them.

Too much, too little, they both can amount to the same stunting of humanity, most particularly when one is juxtaposed closely with the other. This is not an excuse for what has gone on on the streets of London, but it is a potent ingredient to throw into the bubbling pot of disenfranchised youth who hitherto no-one much cared about as long as they stuck to maiming and killing each other.

Tradescant House, Hackney - I used to live on the 8th floor, far left

Update @ 18.30

Watching the unrest in Hackney on the television now it strikes me that the groups at the north and south end of Mare Street are in different gang territories: the Pembury and the London Fields. A young man I know told me this morning that his old ‘crew’ from Enfield had been touch yesterday telling to come to the hood and do some shopping. The other areas in London that have been affected will have similar gang problems. No-one is mentioning the gang word yet – too loaded and scary for a nice Tory government to address in the middle of the summer holidays. They need to wake up and admit to what is going on: the heart of London communities are being torn out by gangs and gangs step in to fill voids in society. I started the day with my head in hands, I’m going to end it that way.