I am having that ephemerol experience again today. My train carriage is heavy with people talking on their mobile phones, each one doing a business deal, offering possibilities of being moved up to a premier account, swearing at warehouse managers who have mislaid a crate of Santas, checking everyone they know is “on the same page”, informing people of new “relationship managers” who will deal with their accounts. They are all seeking “solutions” .The monkey surprise that signals are intermittent on trains speeding through tunnels seems as surprising as the first time.
“Oh look at the adverts saying do it, do it, do it. And don’t do it. You’re bigger than that…Don’t fall for what they sell you. be open and take of the free things – the air – and make your life your own good way” Ray Gosling, preface to 2004 reprint of Sum Total.
I don’t do very much modern shopping. My consumer life includes bakeries, grocery shopping, record stalls and charity shops, but most outlets (are they shops or outlets now, I’m not sure) on the high street and in the shopping domes doesn’t get touched by me. This means when I do find myself in this scenario, I have that poisoned gut spasm that I have when I see garish primetime television that has an extreme chumminess approaching hostility. I don’t experience either of them with enough regularity to become ambivalent to them. Each time I experience them, my skin prickles and my hands clench as if I was in a dentist chair.
When my computer was crashing and I was forced to an Apple Store in Westfield, I left the station head down and striding to get straight in there and straight out, the hundreds of shops that were within metres of me, each one offering me an experience or facial scrub or lifestyle, did not create the remotest sense of intrigue. I like a sense of surprise. Each great big chain shop will offer an approximation of the same desires, shoes that are slightly different colours, mass produced mugs that are reproductions of something crockery that was once idiosyncratic, but now can give us all a sense that we have outsider taste, but without the bother and paranoia that your taste my bring on the possibility of derision or arched eyebrows, it has been passed by the arbiters and is in that catalogue that fell from your new newspaper or Radio Times.
In the last 24 months, I have had to face one labyrinth of modern consumerism, the phone shop. Each time I have unavoidably had to enter the shop, I feel as if I am entering the Turkish bazaar of some Boy’s Own story where the confident sellers will see my eyes squinting in the UV light and know they have another catch. Another sap to bamboozle and wring out to dry, as I sign a contract with EE like it’s a deal with Mephisto.
Last year, I was persuaded to get a modern phone. “You’ve been with us so long, you can choose anything in the store.”
“but I like a phone that’s a phone”
“oh sir (obviously she didn’t call me sir, that’s just for this dreamt scenario), imagine the worlds that will unravel with this Blackberry.”
I never minded the derision I received for my Mivvi sized phone that rang like a phone and worked like a phone and was a phone.
“You can’t even get the internet on it”
“I have minutes, sometimes hours, when I can manage without it”
“No no, you are living a lie. You are rejecting the future that must be. If people were all like you we’d never have penicillin, nylon or NASA”.
And so, under the duress and confusion of modern shopping, I caved in for convenience and said, “ok”.
For a day or so, this new world had novelty, but by the end of the week it was necessity and another way of making the world inescapable. Within the year, this handheld piece of the year 2525 had broken. Being more complex than my Mivvi lump of hello/goodbye, one feature that was essential jarred and jammed, and so the whole thing became inaccessible. All my information was there, but in a phantom zone that could only be prised into if I was a suspected terrorist, and it didn’t seem worth carrying rucksack of weedkiller about the streets of London in the hope of accessing a few photographs of odd shop window displays and a few phone numbers. Having learnt nothing about saying no when under the harsh lights and gum chewing of salesmanship, I got the new iphone-y sort of Blackberry and, after a six months or so, that became a blank screen. Then, I went through the usual hoopla of customer service when that service offers no financial gain for the salesman. The EE shop in Sheffield offered a useless diagnosis that was clearly wrong. For some reason, the insurance on my phone didn’t cover any replacement when the goods they had sold me ceased working, so I bought another cheap Mivvi. They paid a little more attention once there was a sale, later it appeared that I should have been covered for a replacement, but knowing that few people can be bothered to go through the paperwork and phone calls to reclaim the lost cash, it is best to feign ignorance and apologise later. This is a sales technique which combines their greed with our lazy complacency, it’s all sleight of hand without the joy of a show or an “oooh, how did they do that magic thing”. I won’t bore you with the further errors and unneeded delays, I am sure you have your own story, so just replay that in your mind if you’d like to.
All of these conveniences should be joys, instead each one just a new way to stress the impatient commuter. Technological advance falls so easily into our hands, it is just an expectation not a delight. But I’ve said all this before. You don’t say, “bloody hell, I have the internet in the palm of my hand on this moving train”, it’s “why is it so bloody slow, life may be lost if I do not see this youtube video of a pink faced boy attacked by penguins NOW….(best not use any form of earphones, I imagine this silent carriage what the sound of screaming and stub winged flapping, selfish not to share it)”.
The tools to ease our life somehow become a yoke, but it is a yoke of our own making, a necessity that is really a frivolity, but don’t tell anyone that, or we’ll all stop shopping.
2014 tour is now on sale – Shambles shows with Josie Long and Grace Petrie in January – a northern leg of Lancaster, York, Hull, Leeds plus London, and then my new solo show on minds, brains and madness at Salford Lowry, Leeds City Varieties, Nottingham and plenty more. All details HERE
The boring story with words not said by sales assistant, but those words were hovering nearby.
“hello, I wondered if you could find out about my phone repair”
“have you had a text?”
“no but I was told it was a maximum of 4 weeks and now it’s 5”
“oh, you do know there is no money in this for me, but i supposed I’ll have to check”
some time later
“no, not there”
“well, could you find out why it’s taking so long”
“there is a number you can call there, I am not making nay money by helping you”
“so you can’t check even though it’s your store dealing with this”
“there is no money in this for me.”
“I’ve rung this store three times and no one replies”
“yes, that’s because there is no money in it for us”
Walks street, rings phone company.
“yes, it was delivered back to the store 3 weeks ago”
Returns, talks to manager. manager successfully hides derision for middle aged man, apologises etc. Middle aged man scowls at gum chewer across store smiling at customer who must spend money to get what they want.