Archive for the ‘cultural narratives’ category

The ableism of “on the go”

January 19, 2017

What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

Stopping for horses

February 24, 2015

“[Wh]en I go on my bike and I hear cars coming they don’t slow down even though there is not much room. I usually stop and get off my bike and stand on the grass verge but they still don’t slow down. Cars sometimes slow down for a horse, I think it is because the horse is higher up and they think it is more important to slow down.”

If you cycle a lot in the country, you’ll have noticed the same thing that 10-year-old Alexander observes: drivers who will slow down or stop for horses will not slow down for you. Some of it is a cultural thing: slowing for horses is considered good behaviour in a way that slowing for cyclists is not. That’s why you get bumper stickers boasting that the driver slows down for horses. It’s a badge of belonging, a sign that you’re a responsible member of the rural community.

Alternative theory: ignoring/endangering cyclists while respecting/fearing horses means you’re following the rules of the lizard brain.

Let’s stop talking about terrorism

May 28, 2013

I recently wrote about how most definitions of terrorism make me think that rape should be included in that category. But I’d like to make my view on terrorism a bit clearer: I actually don’t think it’s a very useful concept.

My view is that either every crime-with-victim is a form of terrorism, or there is no such thing as terrorism at all.

It’s not as if some fear-causing crimes fall into a special category; it’s a spectrum with subtle gradations. For example, you might feel unsettled if someone steals a hose from your unlocked garden, slightly more unsettled if the gate was locked and you realise they had to climb over it, properly worried if they smashed a window.

More serious crimes like mugging or burglary tend to cause genuine, non-negligible fear. However strong you are, you will probably be frightened and you will probably change your behaviour (however pointlessly) to reassure yourself that it can’t happen again.

If you repeatedly break into houses to steal, you are carrying out a campaign of fear. Your intention might just be to get the wide-screen telly, but you cannot fail to be aware that when you break into someone’s house, you will frighten them. Repeatedly carrying out an act that’s guaranteed to frighten people and disrupt their lives: how is that not terrorism? Just because you’re doing it for money? When we focus on what the perpetrator intended – “I didn’t mean to scare him” – and not on how the victim feels, we’re letting the perpetrator write the script.

The other side of the coin is that when we treat terrorism as different from regular crime, concepts of justice and fairness go out of the window.

Others have written, better than I ever could, about state-sanctioned torture, about detention without trial, about how the state can ignore human rights and due process in the name of protecting people from terrorism. I don’t think I need to go into that here. But I would add that along with the lefty concerns for human rights, there’s a strong right-wing argument for ditching this bullshit: if the crime is so bad, we should hurry up with finding out who did it, giving them a trial and locking them up. Not locking them up for an indefinite period because they might have done it; locking them up for a defined period because they did do it.

If you decide that some categories of crime are somehow “different”, you get a sloppy, emotion-driven, made-up-on-the-spot approach to justice. You get attempts to retrospectively apply laws that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged offence; you get “interrogations” that don’t result in any useful information but do result in the death of the person being interrogated; you get violations of international law; you get the police pushing for the right to question suspects for longer without charge; you get the police using terrorism legislation to arrest press photographers.

In other words, you get a justice system that’s less efficient at its job of protecting citizens, less efficient at its job of delivering justice. And you get a lot of state agents trying to take advantage of the messiness to seize more power for themselves. I think it’s possible to be very right-wing but still object to the concept of “terrorism” on the grounds that it just isn’t fit for purpose. That’s why I wish we could stop talking about terrorism and just talk about crime.

Social initiative: underrated but important

May 17, 2013

Right, it looks like I’ve gone back to writing about initiative again. Today I want to make the point that not all initiative is about starting your own business or organising a protest or doing something creative; social initiative is important too.

I’ve touched on the idea of social initiative very briefly before, in a story about two people who sat in silence because neither of them had the social initiative to start a conversation. But the concept deserves wider attention.

I think we’ve all had the horrible experience of being an unwelcome newcomer. You turn up somewhere, you don’t know anybody, and nobody talks to you. Nobody approaches you. It feels like hostility, but often it’s just a lack of social initiative. Nobody thinks it’s their job to talk to you, nobody wants to make the uncomfortable effort of talking to a new person, so they stay in their comfort zone with the people they already know.

It feels like a problem for you, but it’s actually a problem for the group. Because almost all groups – businesses, voluntary organisations, social scenes – benefit from having new people there who feel welcome and happy. The process of benefiting from new energy starts when you welcome someone. The process of conveying unspoken rules, so the new person can be a beneficial member of the group, starts when you welcome someone. The process of integration starts when you welcome someone. If your group can’t welcome new people because nobody thinks it’s their job, your group has a colossal problem.

My dad helps to run an amateur sports club. The club often gets visiting teams coming for friendly matches, and the other people who play or volunteer at the club are hopeless at dealing with them. No malice is intended, but my dad’s teammates huddle in the corner with their drinks. So my dad has unofficially taken on the job of welcoming the visiting teams, which does require courage: he has to leave the group huddled over their drinks and walk across to the strangers.

One of the counterintuitive things about initiative in general: it’s more about training and habit than you’d think. It’s not about reinventing the wheel. And it’s the same with social initiative. It starts when you realise it should happen, and it gets easier the more you do it.

My own experience of taking social initiative is that it’s fucking scary at first. You think “what the hell shall I say?” My advice: keep moving, keep smiling, just say something. I’d imagine that my dad probably just walks up to the visiting team and says something along the lines of “All right, boys? You found us OK, then?”

I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.

A casual remark from a 1990s It-Girl (probably Tara Palmer-Tompkinson) got me thinking about this stuff in a systematic way. In an interview she described herself as “good at parties” and teenage-me had a lightbulb moment. It had never occurred to me before that socialising was a skill, a skill you could be good or bad at. Teenage-me had the “turn up and hope for the best” model of socialising fully internalised. That remark from a pampered socialite was the start of my thinking about social initiative, although I didn’t have a handy phrase for it at the time.

The next “aha!” moment came when I was studying mediaeval Welsh literature and came across the concept of the “ymdidan wraig”, or “conversation wife”. (Modern Welsh would spell it “ymdiddan”, I think.) Anyway, the idea is that it’s the nobleman’s wife’s job to welcome newcomers to the court, to go around with drinks, to get conversations going. The phrase is the basis of the rather forced multilingual pun in this blog’s tagline.

Of course women have been acting as social glue and conversation-starters for centuries; nothing exciting about that. What I love about the concept of the ymdidan wraig is that her work is explicitly acknowledged. Because today, it really isn’t acknowledged half as much as it should be. Yes, some wives still flit around pouring drinks and introducing people… but that work is usually ignored and unrewarded.

As a society we train ourselves to devalue this kind of work by pretending it’s unadulterated fun and not work for the person doing the work. In other words, we train ourselves to underrate social initiative. We decide that socialites are just bimbos, politicans are insincere, the barman who asks how you’re doing is nosy. (I’m not saying that those judgements are always incorrect; I’m just saying that we’re more likely to dismiss people when we don’t grasp the importance of the work they’re doing.)

Most of us don’t even grasp the concept of social initiative, which means that  when it’s lacking in a social situation, we misread the atmosphere as unfriendly or hostile. (Actually, if you build up your own social initiative you get a lot smarter at differentiating poor social skills from genuine hostility.)

I’d like to usher in a world where we understand what social initiative is, understand the power of conversation and communication, reward people for stepping forward and saying something. I’m tired of power-socialisers being written off as frivolous. I’m tired of seeing people with zero social skills benefit from the hard work of a power-socialiser and then use the relaxed atmosphere created by that person to mock them for being too talkative.

I’m not saying I’m a social genius myself; sometimes I absolutely can’t handle social situations and I’ll use weak coping strategies like drinking too much, clinging to my friends or hiding in the toilets. I’m just saying: when I do overcome the temptation to run away, I don’t want anybody writing me off as stupid just because I have the courage to get a conversation going.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog for nearly six years and nobody’s ever asked me what the tagline means. I hope that means you all just saw the joke first time and required no further explanation, but I suspect you just didn’t have the social initiative to ask. Ask me! I won’t say “no”. How could I?

Spending time

April 19, 2013

My latest conversational trick: the phrase “spending time” can make a lot of activities look more impressive. For example:

“Tonight? I’m spending some time with my mum.”


“Tonight? I’m watching X-Factor with my mum and we’ll probably get blitzed on white wine as well.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because it’s important to spend time with my kids.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because I’m going to run around the garden with my kids, pretending to be a dragon.”


“I need to spend some time with the team in Bristol.”


“I need to go to Bristol, wander around the office asking everybody in turn about their work, get on their nerves a bit, surf the internet on my phone for half an hour, then suggest a pub lunch.”

Whatever you’re actually doing, technically you’re spending time doing it. But using the phrase “spending time” implies intentionality. It implies responsibility. It implies making a decision. That’s the key, I think. As a culture, even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge it, we respect the ability to make a decision.

The Eighties concept of “quality time” has fallen out of fashion. We now acknowledge, I think, that quantity time is important. Showing up, being there. But we don’t really have a catchy phrase to acknowledge that actually, the pub lunch with the team in Bristol could matter just as much as the awkward one-to-one questioning. Contact doesn’t have to be serious or important or intense to matter. But to matter, it has to happen.

So use the “spending time” trick. Add a martyr face and use words like “should”, “need” and “serious” to strengthen the effect. Then go and enjoy yourself!

The shibboleth of homeopathy

December 20, 2012

I’ve written before (though not here) about the smugness of your average self-declared “sceptic”. The kind of person who puts “atheist” in their Twitter bio as if “not believing in God” counts as a proper hobby. The internet is absolutely crawling with them.

And of course all online communities have their shibboleths. In the left-leaning communities, it’s the BNP. Making an anti-BNP comment, however obvious or fatuous, marks you out as one of the gang. Hating the BNP is easy, sure, but that’s kind of the point. You might disagree on education or immigration or cycling, but you can all agree on hating the BNP. How very cosy. (The Daily Mail, ditto.)

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to spot that homeopathy serves exactly the same function among internet “sceptics”. In the past few weeks I’ve heard several friends expressing doubt about an ethical bank because it funds homeopathy, and another friend saying she’s unsubscribed from a vegan newsletter because they ran a pro-homeopathy article. Yes, the ethical bank also supports windfarms and fair trade and third world development projects. Yes, the vegan newsletter probably also offers a wealth of interesting content and support for a vegan lifestyle. But still, the perceived evil of homeopathy definitively overrides the good bits for one friend and plunges the others into a quagmire of ethical dithering.

To me, that’s hard to understand, because in these examples the good still so clearly outweighs the bad. Of course homeopathy is a load of rubbish. Of course it’s been debunked again and again. And yes, it can be dangerous. But I don’t believe that’s why it attracts such horror and ridicule on the internet, to the point where people (like me) who spend half their lives on the internet are trained to hear loud alarm bells when it’s mentioned.

It’s because homeopathy is a shibboleth. It’s a handy way of othering certain groups to show your membership of your own group. And it’s easy to laugh at the misguided flakes who use it, even when they’re misguided flakes driven to desperation by chronic pain. Maybe they’re misguided flakes who are frightened of mainstream medical treatment because they’ve had a traumatic experience that destroyed their trust. Chortle! The hilarious fools!

Even if you’re not that cruel, you’re still discouraged from showing empathy for homeopathy users because you know you’ll be jumped on if you express a nuanced view. You can’t say something like “We need to look at why people use homeopathy”, or criticise mainstream medicine in the context of the rising popularity of alternative medicine, because there are so many people out there itching to find a homeopathy advocate to argue with. And even though you’re not a homeopathy advocate, they’ll turn you into one for the purposes of winning an argument with you. Up to now, I’ve avoided blogging about homeopathy for the same reason I don’t blog about economics; I can’t face dealing with the comments of people who see certain keywords and joyfully jump in to say I’m stupid without actually listening to what I’m saying.

Mocking homeopathy on the internet is a way of asserting your identity as a rational, ethical person. It suggests you’re worthy to follow in the footsteps of the sainted Ben Goldacre, even though you don’t have his medical qualifications or his talent. Showing contempt for one minor, specific piece of flakery is a way of joining the right-about-everything club. You look like a free-thinker without actually challenging the views of anybody around you. It’s a sweet, easy pill to swallow.

The privilege of absence

June 22, 2012

“Just you wait till your father gets home!” The old threat is based on the idea of the father as ultimate authority for the home. But the dodgy gender politics obscures something interesting: the fact that the father’s very absence helps to confer that authority. You can’t use “telling Dad” as a threat if Dad is right there. He has to be absent for the threat to work. Mum’s presence is both a result of and a reason for her lower status.

The relationship between absence, power and status is complex. It’s obvious that if Godot had turned up, he wouldn’t have got his name in the title of the play. But absence doesn’t always confer (or denote) status; it depends on how much status is available to you in the first place.

I’ve mentioned before, in passing, that being able to work from home rather than going into an office is a privilege. That may seem obvious, but we don’t always unpick quite what’s going on there.

Firstly, working from home is usually not an option for blue-collar workers; when did you last hear of a cleaner or forklift truck driver doing their job in jim-jams? The proliferation of con tricks involving “work from home opportunities” highlights just how unattainable (but desirable) this kind of work is for many people.

Another reason why it’s a privilege: those who are present bring (usually unnoticed) benefits to the office – and those who are absent don’t. If everybody in a given office worked from home all the time, there would be nobody to do the countless things that can only be done by someone in the office: take delivery of that order, scan that physical document and email it to the guy who isn’t there, dig out that physical file and look up something for the guy who isn’t there, fix the photocopier, buy toilet paper, greet visitors, make rounds of tea and generally put up with continual diversions from your “real” work for the sake of creating an office that feels like a proper workplace rather than a missing centre. People who are in the office for one day out of five probably won’t do a fifth of that work – they’re more likely to do none of it. Why should they get their hands dirty fixing a printer jam when they’re “hardly ever in”? People who say they’re “more productive away from the office” are probably telling the truth; but they are overlooking the other truth that their own productivity comes at the expense of someone else’s.

Absence, in these circumstances, is a result of higher status. Absence reinforces the idea that your time is more important than other people’s (albeit verbally expressed with terms like “I don’t have time…” rather than “I’m too important…”).

But the relationship between absence and status generally is more complex than that. The level of self-importance and resource-grabbing varies hugely among remote workers, and, as I said above, it’s to do with how much status you had in the first place. If you’ve argued for the right to work from home for childcare reasons, you’ll make fewer demands as an absentee than someone who’s not in much because their job involves a lot of travelling. (The more far-flung the place, the more justified the unreasonable demand sounds. “I need you to fax it to me NOW! I’m on my way to the AIRPORT! I don’t care that it’s 6:30pm on a Friday night and I don’t actually own a fax machine! I’m going to DUBAI!”)

Similarly, if you’ve been hired as a work-from-home freelancer so that the company can spend less than they would on hiring in-house staff, chances are your status will be pretty low and people will expect you to respond to contact as quickly as you would if you were sitting at the next desk and they said your name.

So what am I saying here? Just that I’d like more analysis of the power dynamics between people who are here and people who are not here.

4x4s and the mud myth

December 17, 2008

Urban 4x4s are the cars it’s OK to hate. We know that they’re more dangerous than other vehicles and that they lull drivers into a false sense of security. We also know that fuel-inefficient vehicles contribute to climate change and reduce ground-level air quality by creating unnecessary emissions.

I completely agree that your average 4×4 driver has no concern for the safety of others or the long-term safety of the planet we all have to live on. But this isn’t a rant about 4x4s, Chelsea tractors, SUVs, jeeps, whatever you care to call them. It’s a rant about the mud myth.

I’ve heard it voiced over and over again: “You can tell if someone’s a real 4×4 driver from how muddy their car is. If it’s sparkling clean, they’re just a poser.” Mud gives a driver credibility by implying that although today they’re driving through town, normally they’re battling tough off-road conditions. Even green groups seem to swallow this: Green Voice takes pains to single out “spotlessly shiny” vehicles, while a few years ago Friends of the Earth Birmingham offered “mudwashes” to drivers of urban 4x4s: “a lick of crud to cover their lack of cred”.

The narrative seems to be that the minority of SUV owners who use their vehicles for off-roading are justified in their actions, while the majority who use them for the school run should be vilified for their choices. Mud, in this narrative, demonstrates purity of purpose.

I really can’t grasp the logic. It’s like saying, “See the mud on these shoes? That’s because I wear them on my feet almost every week. So you’re not allowed to laugh at me when you see me wearing them on my hands.”

If you see a 4×4 in the middle of a city, it is by definition an urban 4×4. It doesn’t matter what the driver normally does with it; when you see it in town it is because the driver has chosen to drive a lumberingly inappropriate vehicle into town. They have chosen to enter a space shared by motorists, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians while woefully inequipped to negotiate that sharing; the high-up seats of a 4×4, while greatly appealing to the lizard brain, make it much harder to see road users below a certain height: cyclists, children, wheelchair users, etc.

There’s also the issue that 4x4s aren’t exactly a socially responsible choice even when used for their intended purpose of driving off-road. Leaving aside the issue of carbon emissions and their effect on the global environment, 4x4s are usually bad news for whatever immediate environment they’re driven in, whether that’s Botswana salt flats or Dubai sand dunes. And it’s not as if keeping 4x4s out of the town centre will magically make us all safer: according to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), the majority of road deaths in the UK happen on rural roads.

Could it be that our bad record for rural road accidents is linked to the mud myth? In mocking Chelsea tractors for their cleanliness and trying to force them out of cities, urban activists are buying into the myth that 4x4s belong elsewhere. That makes it tempting for 4×4 drivers to see the countryside as “their” space, a place to forget about city things like speed cameras and vulnerable road users. Which then feeds into a general myth about the countryside being a place for all drivers to let their guard slip.

That might not be disastrous in itself if it didn’t collide head-on with the myth that the countryside is a safer, healthier place for children than the city. In fact, according to the full IAM report,  children account for over a third of the pedestrian and a quarter of the pedal cyclist casualties with fatal or serious injuries in rural areas.

Woolworths and the myth of consumer power

November 26, 2008

This blog is partly here to unravel the seemingly inexplicable elements of human behaviour and communication.

Many posts so far have skirted around one of the biggest causes of seemingly inexplicable behaviour, without mentioning it outright: power.

I believe that a large proportion of behaviour which otherwise makes no sense whatsoever can be explained with reference to power. Men who wolf-whistle at women in the street despite the fact that this method has never been known to attract a woman; toddlers who take your hand to lead you into a different room before immediately turning round and leaving you there; the colleague who takes more time asking you to do something than it would take her to do it herself. They’re all ways of reinforcing, testing, demonstrating power relations.

Power is the elephant in the room, so we joke about inexplicable behaviour instead. In reality, it’s quite straightforward. The goal of the wolf-whistler is not to attract a woman; it’s to reinforce his status as dominant by reminding women not to get too comfortable in “his” space. The toddler who wants to take you on a pointless journey is testing the limits of what he or she can get an adult to do. And the colleague who makes a fuss over simple things is using demands to reinforce the power relations between you. It’s all ritual and it’s all about power.

Capitalism is the ultimate outlet for the cultural narrative that ignores power and brushes off its manifestations as inexplicable, confusing or boring. The rhetoric in favour of a free market makes it sound as if capitalism is a vehicle for natural justice; good companies make money, good workers get jobs. We carefully maintain the myth that capitalism is about rewarding hard work, climbing the ladder, being competitive, making good. We pretend that it’s a system where customer feedback, in the form of increased or decreased spend, helps businesses adjust what they provide to better suit the needs of the customer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism is about power. That’s why so many elements of it are inexplicable. It is not, and has never been, about rewarding hard work. It’s about using a system that pretends to reward hard work in order to reinforce power relations between employer and employee. It is also not, and has never been, about giving the customer what he or she wants. It’s about seeing how you can manipulate the customer into wanting whatever you’ve got. Advanced capitalism is about seeing how miserable you can make the customer and still make money out of him or her. Because being able to make someone miserable and take their money at the same time means that you have a lot of power.

The phrase “consumer confidence” plays into the myth that consumers have power, that there is some link between how a company treats its customers and how likely it is to survive the “credit crunch”. The reality is that consumers continue to take huge amounts of crap in return for handing over their hard-earned cash.

I went into a branch of Woolworths a couple of weeks ago. They were offering various deals on boxes of chocolates: two for one, three for two, £2.50 off, etc. Signs listed the types of chocolates included in each deal. It sounds simple, but it was made fiendishly complicated by the fact that most of the brands of chocolates listed as part of each deal were not on sale anywhere in the shop. The chocolates that were part of a deal and available in the shop were scattered all over the shop rather than together on the shelves. Some chocolates were part of two separate deals which were not to be used in conjunction with each other.

In order to take advantage of any of the deals, the customer had to be able to memorise several separate lists, search the shop for items on the lists, mentally eliminate items that were on the lists but not available in the shop and perform other demanding feats of memory and mental arithmetic.

You might ask why this branch of Woolworths was putting certain brands of chocolate into three-for-two deals when it didn’t stock those brands. Some people might suggest that it’s because they made a mistake. Others might say that it’s because the signs listing the deals were created centrally and didn’t take individual shop stock into account. I think the answer is simpler than that: power. Advertising unavailable items is one of the oldest capitalist tricks in the book. Even better if you can offer a juicy deal on the unavailable item. You manage to attract people and make them miserable at the same time. And once they’re in the shop, they’ll probably sate the desire you created by buying something else. You have a miserable, frustrated, paying customer. That’s power. The wild-goose chase is a classic manifestation of capitalist power.

Moving from aisle to aisle on my own wild goose chase, I was slowed by the sheer volume of other customers trying to buy chocolates. We were all confused and stressed, getting in each other’s way, blocking each other’s view of the chocolates and the offer signs.

Woolworths has been in trouble for quite some time, but it’s nothing to do with consumer spending or the lack of it. It’s in trouble because the parent company Kingfisher has made millions of pounds by selling off Woolworths properties and overloading the subsidiary business with debt.

I found out shortly after my trip to Woolworths that it’s now in big trouble, on the verge of being sold off for £1. This conversation on the Money Saving Expert forum is an unintentionally hilarious take on the whole thing. The posters have reacted to the news that Woolworths is in trouble by sharing tips as to how they can continue to buy from Woolworths, circumventing the stock problems in the shops and the website’s usability failures. Bear in mind that this conversation is taking place on a money-saving forum where people are supposed to be helping each other buy less unnecessary crap.

And yet the media keeps bringing up the myth that “consumer confidence” is a factor in Woolworths’ failure, that this hundred-year-old chain could have been saved if only we’d bought more. The thing is, it will be saved. It will be bought up (probably by Hilco) and it will continue to make us jump through hoops in order to buy things we don’t really need or even want.

On my last trip to Woolworths, I had a lab-rat’s pride in negotiating the maze that had been set for me. By combing the shop I managed to find two items that were part of the same deal. I bundled them into my arms, joined the queue… and waited. I waited with a line of people ahead of me and a crush of people surging forward behind me. Checkout assistants blipped purchases through and mumbled totals before sitting, arms folded, waiting and watching without lifting a finger while customers packed their own shopping. They would start blipping the next customer’s purchases through while the previous customer was still standing there, struggling with plastic bags and stuffing change into their purse. Each customer was set up to fail in their task of promptly packing their bags, because almost all their purchases would be blipped through before the previous customer had got out of the way.

After ten minutes I was bored of watching this display of contempt and I was no closer to the front of the queue, so I put my boxes of chocolates back and left the shop without buying anything. But most people in the shop had already invested too much time and mental energy in their purchases to give up at this stage. So they remained, waiting patiently to hand over their cash.

An Englishman walks into a pub…

October 30, 2008

An Englishman decides to go on holiday to Wales. He chooses to visit North Wales or mid-Wales rather than South Wales, because he wants to go somewhere rural and different from his city home in England.

In other words, he chooses to holiday in a part of Wales well known for Welsh nationalism, anti-English sentiment and high levels of Welsh-language fluency.

Then he walks into the pub. Or the post office. Or the village shop. And suddenly we’re in a Wild West tableau. Everybody else in the pub (or post office, or shop), who had previously been chatting away happily in English, falls silent. Then they resume their conversation – in Welsh. He feels excluded yet gratified. He goes home and tells his friends, “I walked in… and they all started speaking Welsh.”

But this story is part of another story. The bigger story is about a Welsh person who’s moaning about the stupidity of the English. He or she tells the straw-Englishman’s story as part of their own story, which is about English ignorance. Google for “they all started speaking Welsh” and you’ll see that none of the anecdotes are from English people complaining about Wales. They’re all from Welsh or pro-Welsh people complaining about English people complaining about Wales.

I’m not saying that you don’t get real anecdotes ending with the words “… and they all started speaking Welsh”, and I’d be interested to hear about any spotted in the wild. I’m just saying that to tell those stories is to position yourself, unwittingly, inside someone else’s story.

I have heard a genuine version of the “I went in to the post office…” story, but it was a dramatic variation on the usual one. An English friend of mine said that he walked into a post office in North Wales and heard people speaking Welsh. But as soon as they spotted him, the counter staff realised he was English and switched to speaking English out of courtesy. He was very surprised because he’d always been told it was supposed to happen the other way round. He thinks the surprising politeness was because he’s black.