It's true, that to gain perspective on something, you have to leave it. I really had forgotten how much the British class system provides an infrastructure in this country. Picking up a textbook on teaching English here, lo, there's a whole chapter on how you deal with the issues of regional pronounciation and, well, dialect. "Her, what lives round my road, is a mingin' bitch". Is it wrong? Is it my place to say so? God knows, but jeez it tells us so much about the world someone comes from, the way they speak. And that's only the start of it. Clothes, interiors, gardens, food, cars, telly. They're all convenient shorthand, or cultural signfiers that charter the social landscape in this wonderfully rich, diverse nation.
Of course we know all this. But what is interesting, is how the significance of these signposts varies for different people. Would any self-deprecating middle-class (which of course they would never admit to being) Brit wear a shell suit, put nets up in the window, buy pizzas from Iceland, drive a souped up Fiesta or admit to watching Emmerdale? No, but dressing their children in mini Boden, fresh flowers on the sill of an open window, quality local produce, an Audi and indulging in toe-curling property programmes are far more likely to describe this world. Thing is, they're the only people who are likely to give a toss, or even notice. Which begs the question, over whom does the class system in Britain really have the greatest control?
It is six years since I lived and shopped in Britain. Returning for a summer soujourn I'm struck by the creeping and shifting presence of retail in people's lives. And it was poignantly illustrated by two experiences from my first week on English soil. Contrast? Let me tell more.
Nestled in what appears to be classic English country side (but is actually blue chip stockbroker belt to London) is the Cross Keys public house in Wheathampstead. A typically mixed crowd meets here on weekends to down more than the recommended number of daily units and share their stories of the week. Positioned in the large garden is a wooden hut with an array of recycled houshold treasures spilling from its doors. Rummage is a part-time shop that is opened by a local lass on weekends and holidays when pub trade is brisk. Stock is pre-loved, practical and individual. I'm straight in, of course, and soon emerge with a wonderful pair of 1950's green Wood's Ware serving dishes, casserole dish, a vintage china hen for storing eggs and a practical cotton pinny (all for under fifteen pounds). Soon to set up temporary home in Suffolk these items launch our nesting with their irrisistable charm.
The next day practicality reigns and we grit our teeth and prepare for 'proper shopping' to acquire school uniforms and other essentials. Nearby is London Colney where lies a vast retail precinct including a cavernous Marks and Spencer, directly beside a similarly guargantuan Sainsbury's. These British brands, for me, conjure characteristics of quality, personality, friendliness and heritage. Here, not so. Granted it is a bank holiday, but the place is heaving with robotic family units, bickering as they race to the checkouts with as much stuff as they can pile in their trollies. Shelves groan with multiple product lines in each retail category. The market drivers appear to be choice, choice and more choice. As we gratefully drive away we pass a rubbish tip for local residents to conventiently dump their unwanted household items, en route to their next leisure shopping experience.
Such experiences could not be more different, the first feeding the soul, the second, consumer addiction and landfill. Being a consumer in the 21st century means the latter is a necessary evil, for most of us (especially if a parent). But could a love of recycled and preloved goods ever manage to penetrade the mainstream consumer psyche - opon which these monster brands depend on for success? Er, unlikely.
Gotta confess though, very happy with a lovely tailored pair of grey school trousers purchased for a mere three pounds fifty. Now just how do they do that? Best not ask...
So, imagine you are under ten and your parents tell you that Saturday is to be spent at an auction house sitting through the apparent selling of numbers to a crowd of bored looking people. Seeing a Modern Design auction day on the calendar of a local auction house promising stack of mid-century bargains got my pulse racing, however the children (aged seven and nine) decided otherwise. Reluctantly, with large helpings of moaning, bickering and general pissedoffedness, we drag them along early to trawl the piles of gorgeous ceramics, furniture and retro junk with which we love to fill our house.
Displeasure abounds, until my daughter spots a lovely little ceramic sausage dog (early 1970's made by Bitossi) and we agree it would be a welcome addition to the family. Dubiously I point out to her that this lot is a long way off, but no, she insists it must be hers. And wait she does. For two hours. Through endless teapots, german lamps, leather swivel chairs, barkcloth curtains, teak sideboards, midwinter crockery. Finally the dog's number is up and hurrah, for twelve British pounds he is ours.
Combined with a great bacon sandwich and some bright spring sunshine this day of dread turned into a winner all round. Trundling home with a sofa on the roof and the dog in careful clutch we all agree that against our better belief, shopping really can be a great leisure option. Which goes to prove, sometimes the things we fear the most often turn out to be really rather wonderful.