Monday, January 24, 2005

shopping for an identity
One of the things that I find the most amusing about living abroad is what I see when I go home. I can sit for hours in the streets watching people, figuring out what they think of themselves and what they want other people to think about them.

A friend of mine who lives in an affluent area of London stuffed with Audi driving professionals laughed with me recently as we discussed this sort of stuff. He told me that before Christmas he saw a big flat back delivery lorry driving down his street in Clapham. Stacked up in the back was a small forest of christmas trees, their pungent and prickly pine branches wrapped tightly in plastic netting. The lorry stopped first at a pub, and dropped off a good numbers of the trees which before long were lined up outside behind a sign selling them as 'Traditional Christmas Pines', 20 each. The lorry made a second stop in the road, about 50m down at a Chinese takeaway. The enterprising restauranteur had decided to capitalise on his street front to make a Christmas buck, and he was seriously undercutting his rival up the street by selling those 'Xmas Trees' at only 15 pound each.

Now you'd think that the guy selling them outside the Chinese would have cleaned up. But my friend told me that he walked down the street a day later and saw that the outside of the takeaway still looked like some strange urban forest against the bricks and graffiti. On the other hand, the pub had managed to flog all of their trees except a couple of the scruffiest, and this despite the fact that they were the same trees delivered by the same company, being sold on the same street, at a price a third more expensive than the nearest rival.

As you can tell from this little story, the people of Clapham, as with the people of many other parts of London and the world, are known to be very image conscious an more than a tad materialistic. I can just imagine Mrs Adrienne Brake - barrister, Range-Rover driver and mother of 3 - seeing the two offers for trees on her street. In her mind she will 'paying a little more for something better', something 'more traditional', something of 'higher quality', all characteristics she is hoping to pin to her lapel like badges saying 'This is me - better, legitimately established, higher quality'. But she doesn't know our little secret, the secret that makes all her consumer rationality look like the entertainingly superficial ego wanking it really is. It's the same sticky tree as the one down the road, and her ego just cost her a fiver and exposed her prejudice.

Anyway, this story reminded me of an article I read in The Guardian a while back. It's about what our choice of supermarket says about our position in the British Class System. Now it seems to be a bit of a national myth that the Class System doesn't exist anymore, but one read of this should convince you that it is still live and kicking. I find two aspects of the article fascinating - how we manage to accumulate such intricate self-images in relation to other people and to material objects, and how we walk around blindly allowing ourselves to be manipulated by calculating marketeers who've got us pegged right up in tight into their demographic pigeon holes. And this doesn't apply simply to our choice of Supermarket. Cars, newspapers, mobile phones, brands and styles of clothing, furniture, the location of our house... for almost any category of material thing you care to mention it's possible to grade each article in the category in relation to where it puts its owner in the Class System. Go on, if you know the national newspapers of Britain, put them in class order. I bet you can do it in less than 30 seconds.

And as for me, I shop mainly at Sainsbury's. According to the article, "the most likely Sainsbury's shoppers are Ben and Chloe, the 'urban intelligence' archetypes, who represent 7.2% of UK households. Young, well-educated, cosmopolitan in their tastes, liberal in their outlooks and unlikely to have children, many Bens and Chloes live in inner-city areas and have high levels of disposable income".

Please excuse me while I go and stencil 'Mr Urban Intelligence' on my forehead.

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