On smugness at the sales

The January sales make me feel queasy. I was brought up to be parsimonious and remain careful with money, so I like a bargain as much as anyone, but there’s something about the fetish of Christmas shopping followed by the excitement about the sales that proclaims dysfunction. Especially in a country where houses are cramped and we’re all chronically short of space and consuming books and programmes about ‘de-cluttering’, more stuff really isn’t helpful. It’s like over-eating in December so you can purge and starve in January: there’s a cycle here that looks oddly easy to avoid.

Even so, I went into town, mostly for fruit and veg from the greengrocer (we live in that sort of town), taking a child whose behaviour suggested a need for fresh air and exercise as a guard against additional shopping. I couldn’t help seeing the shop windows, and when I happened to see a dress I’d admired a few weeks ago discounted by 50% and popped in – leaving a disgruntled child outside the shop – I didn’t feel entirely compromised. It wasn’t as if I had bags full. I’d thought about buying it full price. It’s not, I said to my husband later, that I don’t want stuff as much as most people, I just think it’s undignified to get so excited about buying things. We had a reprise of the Black Friday conversation, and he added that he’d seen in The Guardian an account of a security guard reporting that he’d seen a mother using a pushchair as a battering ram to reach some desired object in a shop. (Quite a lot of what passes for adult conversation these days consists of us telling each other things we read in the Guardian.)

That brought me up short. Not because I was particularly shocked by what the Guardian reports of the huddled masses, but because I recognised the rhetoric. When I was a proper academic doing proper research in eighteenth-century literature, I read and wrote a lot about gender and material culture, looking particularly at the way that era thought about women, money and consumerism. I still think of the 1770s-1780s as the beginning of our own era, with the majority of the British population moving into cities, a mass obsession with celebrity fuelled by new media (print journalism for them), rapidly increasing mobility tending to fracture place-based identity, widening professional and economic opportunities for women, or at least well-educated upper-class women, romantic ideas about country life celebrated mostly by an urban elite…

Anyway, I made a particular study of the way late eighteenth-century journalists and readers worried about what happened when women went into town. They went shopping, that’s what happened. They despoiled their families by lavishing money they couldn’t spare on stuff they didn’t need. They couldn’t stop themselves buying fancy clothes and cosmetics even if their children were malnourished and their husbands sick from over-work. Working-class women’s greed for stuff was why there was no point in trying to feed the poor, because whatever you did they wouldn’t eat cheap, nourishing bean soup (some things never change), because they’d spend every penny on flashy consumer durables. It was a stupid, classist, misogynist rhetoric that constructed the virtuous middle-class mother, devoted to her children’s health and welfare and justly sheltered from the rigours of economic activity, as the opposite of the feckless parasite who lived hand-to-mouth and ignored her children as she grasped for more stuff. Nothing’s changed, or at least, whatever changed during the twentieth century seems to be changing back again. These are the stories that justify ignoring poverty, the lies that tell us there’s some correlation between moral worth and bank balance. Well, bugger that. I’m going to put my blood oranges and my organic kale in a pushchair and use it to take out anyone who gets between me and a pair of entirely unnecessary boots I’ve been ogling since October.

Oh, but I’m too late. Someone less smug with feet the same size as mine got there first.