Monday, 6 December 2010

How the other half lives

Several weeks ago, Lord Young was pressured into standing down from his position as David Cameron's enterprise tsar, having commented (somewhat tactlessly) that most Britons have "never had it so good". Seemingly oblivious to the widespread impact of the recession, Young was basing his assertion on the idea that low interest rates meant cheaper mortgages for many.

Although he's right in that regard, his comments showed a fundamental lack of empathy for the other financial pressures faced by ordinary people. Pressures which show no signs of letting up, especially with Christmas just three weeks away. 

After all, Christmas is a time for remembering those less fortunate than yourself - people like Charlotte Metcalfe, who told her Bob Cratchit-worthy tale in the Mail this weekend. Her harrowing memoir begins: "Less than five years ago, Christmas for me meant leisurely afternoons in Harrods buying a pretty embroidered cushion, some bath oil and a toy or two here, some smoked salmon and a box of chocolates there." 

Tragically, the three properties that she and her partner snapped up during the property boom haven't held their value, saddling the unlucky couple with negative equity. The TV production work has also dried up, leaving Charlotte "lucky if I earn £500 a week as a writer."

Those happier days, when Charlotte "thought nothing of spending £45 on a pot of gold-lidded lusciously scented body cream as a Christmas present for a distant cousin." are long gone. Now she's worrying about how to buy the family's Christmas presents, when even "Boden, that reliable stand-by of well-to-do mums in the Home Counties, is now looking too expensive".

Although she's not oblivious to how her 'Nouveau Pauvre' misery might irritate some readers, she soldiers on, investigating the bargains in Poundland and Tesco like some kind of post-modern anthropologist. She remembers the days when her grandmother used to provide "tin upon tin of home-made mince pies and a Christmas cake" and laments the fact that she would love to bake, but simply doesn't have the time. Although I'm not sure why, since she's already pointed out that the freelance work has all but disappeared.

Rather depressingly, Charlotte's article is nothing new. In fact, as Enemies of Reason pointed out yesterday, the Mail regularly runs these "Gosh, I wondered where poor people buy their scrunchies from" stories. Only last week, a similar feature popped up in the Evening Standard, where Deborah Collcutt wrote about "A weekend eating Poundland food" as though she was forced to chew on a kangaroo vagina as part of a bushtucker trial. Without a trace of irony, she even comments that she's glad to exclude her daughter Dory from the experiment, fearful that "if she saw the pink label Heinz Barbie pasta in tomato sauce she would never eat broccoli or quinoa again."

All of which begs the question, what on Earth are these articles attempting to accomplish? If they're attempting to portray the harrowing impact of the recession on the papers' beloved Middle Class, perhaps they shouldn't have mentioned the fact that someone's Christmas has been ruined because they can no longer justify spending £50 on velvet and silk wrapping ribbons from VV Rouleaux. If anything, they simply serve to illustrate the incongruity of the Mail's worldview when compared with most people's day-to-days reality.

What's also apparent, is the fact that shopping in Poundland is one of those behaviours, like becoming a WAG or getting a tattoo, that was only ever intended for the underclass. The writers might try to put on a brave face and celebrate the bargains they've been able to snag, but their message is loud and clear - "I don't belong here. This isn't for me."

It seems that class warfare is alive and well. But perhaps, just for a moment, this might be the consumerist version of the Christmas truce. Two opposing sides downing arms for a moment, and bonding over the cut-price bargains in the no-man's-land of the 99p store, if only for a moment. We can but hope.

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