Sellout! Notes Reflecting on Retail Island

I’m at a stage where promoting my writing feels beyond me, and I certainly don’t expect there to be a plethora of reviews and interview requests surrounding the publication of my new book, my first proper work of fiction and first output of any sustained length in a full five years. This explanation, apology, dissective reflection, whatever it may be, is likely to be as close to getting under the skin of a book that developed in two distinct but equally difficult phases as will happen.

Not so long ago in real terms – two years ago, maybe – I was working on three projects simultaneously: a concise but monograph-length academic work on postmodernism, a long, long exploratory novel, and a story that was partly inspired by JG Ballard’s later works, but primarily by the bleak landscape surrounding the office space my job had recently located to. Within a few months of the relocation, the inspiration for the latter work proved to the cause for all three projects to ultimately halt.

The venue depicted in Retail Island as The Orchard Carvery was the place where a number of sections, particularly in the early stages, were written, and the mind-numbing dialogue I found myself transcribing in the name of making art that was credible and close to life proved to be a major contributor to my creativity – such as it was – drying up. Having transferred from a town-centre office close to my home, to an out-of-town office in a location almost identical to that in which the book is set, a full hour’s journey away, I found my mornings starting earlier and my evenings starting later, but, worst of all, whereas I had once had access to pubs and coffee shops where I could write, there was only the carvery as an option for lunchtime writing. Increasingly, I found myself either walking to Asda or WHS Smith or Sainsbury’s for something to do over the course of a 20-minute lunch break, or otherwise failing to leave my desk or taking any kind of break at all.

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At what point does enlisting a friend to help cross the boundary into an abuse of power? This was a question I began asking myself after I received a promotion. Finding myself managing a team, I charged one of my staff with the task of making sure I took a lunch break. Was it wrong? This question would ultimately resurface in the writing, which, in hindsight, only became possible once enforced lunch breaks came into effect. I’m aware that assigning ‘tasks’ is in a different league from parading one’s cock, but in a climate whereby I’ve been subjected to the opinion that performing a piece about suicidal self-loathing without a trigger warning is more or less the same as committing rape, I’ve found myself questioning even my most basic assumptions. Given the graphic nature of some scenes – and again, given events over the course of the last few months – I even began to doubt whether it was right to publish. But the function of art is to challenge. Art that does not challenge is merely entertainment. As such, I make no apologies.

Retail Island is in no way autobiographical. I cannot stress this enough. As with many of my works, it’s an exercise, and an idea taken to its (il)logical conclusion. A serious, Ballard-influenced dystopia set in a parallel present on the one hand, it’s also rich in irony and parody, and is not a work designed to be taken as seriously as its surface suggests. The ‘love interest’ strand is simply my exploiting convention, and the apparent lack of irony in its execution is, in fact, a double irony.

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Initially, my new job made writing impossible. I was exhausted, anxietised, immersed in the job. The new role brought with it a lot more stress and anxiety for minimal financial reward. With lunch breaks resumed, I ultimately returned to writing, both lunchtimes and evenings, and the project which had stalled at around the 3,600 word-mark began to flow, and I chiselled out the remaining 27,000 words in under three months. During this time, I found myself again, at least to an extent. I stepped back from the precipice of being a corporate machine, and reclaimed my mantle of being a writing machine. But the elation of production was tinged with the guilt of advantage.

On resuming writing, I remembered that I tend to work best when I have an audience, someone – or some people – I can sling chunks of text to by email, as they emerge. It’s less about feedback (and certainly not about validation) than about targets in some vague way. Most of the books I’ve written have been produced to tight, self-imposed, constraints. THE PLAGIARIST had to contain 200 pages of text and be completed inside three months. Because. A number of other works evolved because I promised – half-joking – to send various people either a page of text or 500 words a day. Perhaps it ties in with my other jobs, as a corporate whore and a music reviewer: give me a deadline and I’ll work to it. And I’ll deliver. So, on finding a willing recipient for regular instalments of my work-in-progress, Retail Island grew quickly. I spent less time thinking, and more time writing. And more time writing meant less time focusing on the causes and symptoms of my stress and anxiety – something else which fed into the book as the protagonist finds himself increasingly tormented by anxiety.

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This again is something that’s played into my daily life. I’ve suffered from stress and anxiety. I still do. It’s become apparent that a number of people I now manage do, too. I’m increasingly aware of everyday mental health issues, and I’m also one of the worst at dealing with my own. But, moving on…

Retail Island is in no way autobiographical, but the characters and locations are real. Or versions of people and places which are real. I find it easier to write people and places I can visualise.

A large portion of my posts on various websites, including my own, as well as on social media and the sites of lit zines who interviewed or published me in the past have disappeared without trace over the last decade, but those that remain will likely attest that I’ve long advocated the practise of ‘write what you know’. This isn’t a stance against imagination: it’s just that personally, I find it easier to acquire details of a dismal office location while working in a dismal office, and to decorate a low-budget, lowest-common-denominator carvery with detail while frequenting a low-budget, lowest-common-denominator carvery.

For me, life will inevitably inform my art, and it was ever thus. So, for better or worse, a number of characters – a couple in particular – resemble people I know or otherwise work alongside. Their physical characteristics and various quirks, not to mention other details only they will recognise, have been woven into the fabric of their fictional counterparts. This is something I have done throughout my writing career, and no, the subjects aren’t always aware, often for reasons apparent. But Retail Island is a sci-fi novel, at least in the Ballardian sense. As such, the characters are largely ciphers and cardboard cut-outs: they are vehicles and tropes, and not designed to carry emotional resonance. As such, even those based on people I know and like are subject to a distancing, a detachment. These are not the people I know: these are characters, and delineated, two-dimensional ones at that.

To return to the question of power and its abuse: this has long been a topic of interest: having never had any tangible power previously, I’ve always been at the receiving end of any abuse – not ‘bad’ abuse, but the kind of abuse which keeps a person down. I now have a small degree of power. I’m mindful not to abuse it, but there’s always a risk – especially in the current climate – that an off-the-cuff comment could lead to trouble. What do you do?

For the record, I do not work at a pharmaceutical company. But I do work in an office, and like any office, it’s riven with sexual tension. This, paired with the power debate, prompted one of the narrative threads before the whole Harvey Weinstein thing broke. I don’t know if it now looks like I’m trying to cash in on the zeitgeist here, or simply being exploitative. But some of the interactions I have witnessed – none nearly as extreme as the majority of scenes depicted in Retail Island – have made me scrutinise what goes on in workplace environments, and what people accept despite feeling uncomfortable.

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I have a broad guideline for writing: observe everything, then leave 85% out. I adhered to this while composing Retail Island. The omissions provided space for the fiction. And beneath a more serious, genre-sculpted work than my previous efforts, all of the elements which featured previously are still present, just in a different form.

The use of repetition is much more subtle than in several of my previous works: instead of replicating phrases and scenes wholesale, a la Stewart Home (in turn appropriating Richard Allen) the repetitions are more narrative-based, with scenes and ideas seemingly looping, with a view to creating a sense of temporal dislocation. Think Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps. In keeping with the way the central character, Robert Ashton, feels he is constantly stonewalled and making no progress, so the narrative continually returns the reader to appoint of stasis and frustration.

As with all of my works, despite possessing a linear narrative and adhering broadly to many literary conventions, genre trappings and all (I’ve completely avoided any form of cut-up here), the ultimate aim of Retail Island is frustration (to a greater or lesser extent). But hopefully, the brutal violence, gratuitously detailed sex scenes (which are actually integral to the plot as it happens), and explosions will provide enough entertainment to counter the frustration.

Retail Island is published by Clinicality Press on 1 January 2018. It’s available to order now via THIS LINK.

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Easter, Christianity and the Big Corporate Con

I lost count weeks ago how many times I was asked the question. “Are you doing anything nice for Easter?” people were wanting to know. Family, friends, work colleagues, they were all asking… I hadn’t really given it much thought, but after a half dozen Easter cards from various family members had dropped through the letter box, and I found myself at the checkout queue behind a guy making the most of their three for £10 offer by filling his trolley and bagging 50 quid’s worth, I started to wonder if perhaps I ought to get to thinking. What was everyone else doing?

Days out, egg hunts for the children, generation-spanning family gatherings for roast feasts, couples splashing out on super-sized deluxe confectionery for one another. Clearly, doing nothing was not an option unless I wanted to position the Nosnibor household in that minority bracket of those who exile themselves from society by refusing to participate in any kind of festive activity. In the week and a half before the Good Friday holiday, social networks were aclog with images of fluffy bunnies, cutesy chicks, lambs (all thoughts of slaughter completely dispelled) and people gurgling about their imminent trips away. No, doing nothing was not an option. To do nothing would be to miss out. But on what? And why is Easter such a big deal?

Flick on the news and the BBC New Channel are cutting live to York, where the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was busy waterboarding some zealots in the street in front of the Minster. Fair enough, you might say: Easter is after all a Christian festival – arguably the most important. The birth of Christ may be cause for celebration, but it’s the crucifixion and resurrection upon which the religion is built. Why not take the opportunity to reinforce the Christian aspect of the religion’s major festival when it’s under threat of becoming just another excuse to cut loose and enjoy four consecutive days off work (unless you happen to work in retail) by revisiting the Middle Ages? Well, the fact that Easter is another example of the Christian religion superimposing its own calendar over the preexisting pagan calender – specifically the pagan holiday of Ēostre – in order to obliterate the worship of ancient deities and nature is one very good reason.

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A picture speaks a thousand words, especially when you can’t speak because you’re drowning in the name of Christ

 

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Grinning Christian sadist with a beard and the Archbishop of York reach the apex of spiritual ecstasy while drowning a young girl in the name of God

 

For a full and unbiased report, go to the BBC.

But all of this notwithstanding, what’s curious is the massive upsurge in the popularity and commercialisation of Easter in recent years. Could it really be that the economic downturn that began around 2008 prompted a bunch of cynical marketing companies representing big-money commerce decided the best way to boost revenue was to promote Easter-themed products in order to spur a cash-strapped society to part with their limited disposable income on things they neither needed nor wanted? And, on seeing a bandwagon rolling, the rest of the business world decided it hop on board for fear of being left behind? Well, quite probably.

Could it equally be the case that, depressed by the general shitness of life and working conditions – for those fortunate enough to still be in employment in the wake of the credit crunch – the majority of the population decided that actually, they were drawn by the mass-marketed idea of a celebration that happened to coincide with the slow emergence from a dismal winter marked by long, dark days, even longer, darker nights, destitution and flooding, and thought the antidote to their malaise could be to indulge in a colossal bout of retail therapy? Quite probably.

 

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Multicoloured fluffy chicks: what’s not to love about Easter?

The celebration of spring is noble and something I’m keen to get behind. The springing of new life, the longer, warmer says, the buds, the blossom. It’s truly profound, remarkable, something far greater than human comprehension or existence. And far beyond the great capitalist con. Since when did spending money you don’t have on shit you didn’t need to make yourself feel better enter any kind of spiritual equation? Is this what life’s about now? And yes, that’s a rhetorical question.

Corporate Easter cash-ins? Just say no….

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

The Changing Face of Consumerism: Public Opinion, Booze Culture and Bartering

The local newspaper recently ran a front-page headline about proposals to open three new pubs in York’s city centre. Two local breweries – The Leeds Brewery, formed as an offshoot of the York Brewery, and the Ossett Brewery, had submitted plans to take over vacant premises – one a former cafe, the others retail units, previously an estate agent and an army surplus store.

The objectors raised all of the concerns you’d expect them to. Predictably, there was concern about the city centre becoming a mecca for drinkers, that having such a concentration of licensed premises would send a message that York promoted the already endemic booze culture that is, we so often told, a leading problem in Britain that causes the taxpayer billions, and that the opening of these three new hostelries would encourage an even greater influx of stag and hen parties and cause violent, alcohol-fuelled crimes and other such sordid scenes to soar.

But these aren’t the kind of places rowdy stag and hen parties would frequent. we’re talking about traditional ale houses that would also serve traditional pub grub. The kind of places tourists – particularly those from America and Japan – flock to in their thousands in order to experience a slice of culture they simply do not have back home. As a historic city, visitors to York want to see and sample tradition. They also want refreshment.

Other critics argued that it was essential that the city preserve retail premises for retail when conditions improve. Will they ever? This is also the same council that approved another out of town retail park, which objectors – not least of all local business owners – have opposed on the grounds that by taking the retail trade away from the city centre, the place is slowly dying. It’s a complex argument, not least of all because the major chains and small independent stores serve different markets. Nevertheless, they can’t have it both ways, by encouraging more retailers to move out of town and then complain that there is an abundance of vacant premises once occupied by retailers, especially in the middle of a lengthy economic downturn. Remember the words ‘credit crunch’ and ‘recession’? For some reason, people seem to think things are improving just because the FTSE’s up and more houses have sold in the last 6 months – never mind the huge numbers of redundancies announced by large employers like Aviva, Co-op and HSBC.

There is of course another angle to this, namely, if everyone’s redundant, they’ll need nice pubs to sit in and while away the hours as they drink their redundancy pay-offs and dole cheques.

The same day I read the article, I was walking home through the city’s pub-packed centre when I ran into musician, poet, diarist and rambler Mark Wynn, a man who’s inspiring in his complete disregard for any kind of consumer trends or capitalist-led operating models of industry. As ever, he’d been travelling the length and breadth of the city, the county and the country, playing poorly-paid gigs in pubs of the very sort the Leeds and Ossett breweries run and giving away most of his CDs for nothing or in exchange for a beer. It’s something to be applauded. he’ll never be rich, but in sharing his art, he never goes thirsty. Moreover, his approach represents the epitome of the punk ethic: he’s out there doing it himself on zero budget and building a fanbase from a grass roots level. that’s what I call sticking it to the man!

We exchanged pamphlets: I had the very last copy of my Liberate Yourself! pamphlet folded in my bag (there are now 100 copies in circulation, and having been left on trains, in pubs, inside self-help books in WHS and who knows where, their whereabouts and readership I haven’t a clue) while he had a batch of a new A5 publication called Dirty Work containing some selected highlights of his spectacularly off the wall and very funny tour diaries and, stapled inside the back page, a PVC wallet containing his last album. Arguably, I was up on the deal, but these things always balance out over time (some weeks later, Dirty Work 3 would see the light of day, containing more rampant ramblings and a new CD EP by Mr Mark E Wynn with additional text by Sam Forrest of Nine Back Alps and The Sorry Kisses, and myself). The important thing was, we had traded our art with one another, we’d both received something we wanted and what’s more, the cash-free barter had taken place on the street. Retail outlets are just so last year.

 

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Shops? Who needs ‘em?

 

And if you’re loving my work, The Changing Face Of Consumerism – the book – will be out some time in June.

A Total Groove: Record Store Day 2013

Record Store Day has become an insanely big deal, and while it’s something of a double-edged sword for both stores and collectors alike – a debate I don’t feel the need to cover here – the fact is that I like RSD, and I’m certainly not alone.

While I have, in recent years, spend a lot less in record stores than I used to – partly because the opportunity isn’t there, partly because I simply don’t have the disposable income I once did and partly because I get sent a lot of music to review that I would have historically paid for – I do still put money into independent record stores whenever I can. I do so not out of a sense of dutiful charitability born out of sympathy (although there may be an element of that), but because they’re the places that tend to stock the stuff that I want.

Of course, larger independent stores still usually carry more stock than smaller ones, and have more buying power when it comes to things like Record Store Day. For this reason, I could have easily been tempted to make the trip to Leeds, raid Jumbo and Crash and return home with an armful of vinyl from my ‘wants’ list plus another armful of stuff to flog on at three times the price, thus covering my own expenditure, plus train fare and even potentially leaving me with a near profit.

Instead, I stayed local and hit The Inkwell. Why? In recognition of the fact that it’s a great little boutique shop. In recognition of the fact it’s my local record store, the one I drop into and invariably leave with something cool whenever I have any spare funds. In recognition of the fact that it has a community vibe. And in recognition of the fact that Paul, the owner, asked his customers for suggestions, recommendations and requests for items to order from the RSD release list. That’s a cool thing to do. Not having the budget to get a rack full of everything, it made sense. Moreover, look after the regular customers, and they’ll look after you.

I arrived for opening, and left happy with a clutch of singles, including a copy of the Twilight Sad 7” I’d recommended (one of only 500 numbered copies) and The Fall’s single.

In the afternoon, I went back to check out the two live acts who were playing: the ubiquitous and prodigious Mark Wynn, and purveyors of tinnitus-inducing garagey grunge, …And The Hangnails. Again, although scheduled as part of the RSD goings-on, The Inkwell hosts shows from time to time, either for the launch of local bands’ releases or just because, which is another reason stores like this (not that there are many stores quite like this) deserve support.

Mark and I exchanged goods: I traded him a hot-off-the-press print copy of This Book is Fucking Stupid for a copy of his new vinyl pressing, Social Situations, a split release with The Sorry Kisses. He proceeded to deliver one of his marvellously idiosyncratic performances, interspersing songs of social observation and gloriously off-kilter anecdotes with banterous ramblings that are awkwardly hilarious and hilariously awkward.

…And the Hangnails weren’t as loud as I might have expected and were nowhere near as loud as Swans the other week, but for a room with a standing capacity of 20 or so, the powerhouse 2-piece were pretty fucking loud. The shop got extremely warm and I began to worry the vinyl might melt (although by this time, only four or five RSD exclusive releases remained). Some kids looked uncomfortable and left, probably because they couldn’t hack anything as gritty and authentically rock ‘n’ roll as Hangnails (they’re certainly not White Stripes or The Black Keys), but the rest who stuck around really dug it. …And rightly so.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is rock ‘n’ roll. And this is what Record Store Day is really about.

 

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…And the Hangnails crank it up to ten and a half in a confined space

 

Check out The Inkwell here.

Check out …And The Hangnails here.

Check out mark Wynn here.

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibr.co.uk

The Changing Face of Consumerism XI: Back Down on the Street, or, Going for Bust

So a mere matter of days after my last piece on the struggling high street, I woke up this morning to more news of high street stores experiencing a drop in like-for-like sales in comparison to the same time last year, with HMV delivering particularly disappointing figures marked by sales being down 8.2% in December 2010. It is disappointing, too. Of the bigger chain music stores, I always preferred HMV (although Andy’s records had the edge for a while both in terms of pricing and range). First and foremost, they carried a broader selection with less mainstream releases sitting alongside the chart material. And, while a tad pricey, their range of back-catalogue titles was far superior to Overprice / Virgin.

But rather than work to their strengths and make a virtue of their difference, HMV followed the template of its competitors and having killed off the (albeit limited) vinyl section in favour of calendars and games, continued over a lengthy period of time to reduce the music stock – to make room for more games, DVDs and gadgetry. When the music occupies the smallest portion of a music retailer’s floor space, you have to ask questions. HMV’s struggling is an example of how diversification can be counterproductive, and rather than appealing to a broader customer base, can serve to alienate the one already established. How can a music retailer seriously expect to compete in other markets already dominated by specialists. More often than not, gamers will head to somewhere like Game for games, just as you’d probably go to a clothes shop for clothes, a bookstore for books, an electrical store for electrical goods – unless, of course, they go to the supermarket for the whole lot. After a while, I stopped asking questions and also stopped going in, because each time I did I found myself leaving empty-handed and frustrated because they never had the title I was after in stock. I’d invariably end up purchasing my music on-line because I couldn’t source it anywhere else.

I don’t for a second mean to suggest that I’m responsible for HMV’s declining sales (and I certainly played no part La Senza, the purveyors of slinky lingerie, being called into administration with a loss of 1,300 jobs, prompting headlines such as ‘Lingerie firm goes bust’ etc.), but while my musical tastes may be ‘minority’, there are many other minorities just like me, and collectively, they represent a substantial market.

As mentioned in passing in my previous piece, it’s not just music that I have problems tracking down, and it’s not always obscure items I struggle to find in shops either. As if to prove the point, only this week I decided I wanted to get a desk lamp. As my desk also happens to be the dining table and space is of a premium, I figured a desk lamp that clamps onto the shelves to the side of the table would be the best bet. But could I find one anywhere? Working out of time, my choices on a lunchtime were limited, but there is an Argos superstore and BHS Home Store (yes, British Home Stores Home Store) which specialises in goods for the, er, home, rather than home and clothing. A quarter of the store is given to a lighting department, but unless I wanted a lime-green desk-lamp with a regular base I was out of luck. That is, unless I wanted a ludicrously glitzy lamp shade with dangling glass bits all over it, which I most certainly didn’t. Argos carry a much more substantial range of desk lights, from bendy to angle-poise, but the only clamping ones are LED lamps, which just don’t give off enough light. I’d still need to put on the main ceiling light to see my screen, which defeats the purpose of a desk light I can angle in my corner without illuminating the whole room. Really, how hard can it be to find a simple item like a clamp-fitting desk lamp that takes a proper, regular bulb?

The answer is that it’s not hard at all. Five minutes on-line and I found I was spoiled for choice. Even so, on-line shopping is no substitute for real shopping as it’s often hard to get a sense of the precise dimensions or appearance of an item – you can’t ‘feel the quality’ from a description and photo, however detailed. Thankfully, it transpired that a local independent store I pass on my way through town after work had the best selection of all. Once again, hooray for the independents!

 

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A clip-on desk lamp, earlier today

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

The Changing Face of Consumerism X: Down on the Street

Only just a few days into January and already the sales reports from the high street are beginning to filter through for the run-up to Christmas. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone will be surprised by the fact that broadly, sales have been rather poor and substantially weaker than hoped, and that as a percentage of retail sales, online transactions account for a larger proportion than ever before.

Sky News report, ‘There is one factor common to the trading statements from Next and John Lewis – an increase in online sales that has propped up the overall results.’

The on-line article continues, ‘In the case of Next, it’s [sic] Directory service recorded a 16% increase between 2010 and 2011 for like-for-like sales. Sky News has been told that online sales account for roughly 90% of this figure. With regards to John Lewis, online sales for the five weeks to December 31, 2011, were 27.9% up on last year.’

Apart from exemplifying the kind of statistically-dense reporting that’s likely to bamboozle the average reader and providing a practical demonstration in the kind of journalism that uses a proliferation of numbers in lieu of meaningful analysis, what we are supposed to extrapolate from this is that the figures speak for themselves. Of course, this is patently untrue, because the figures, bald and devoid of context are in themselves virtually meaningless. The scant analysis offered by the unnamed reporter does little to shed any real light on the implications of the figures when they ask ‘What can we learn from this? Well essentially that we, as shoppers, are inherently lazy and becoming increasingly more so,’ adding ‘There is nothing wrong with that. If we can shop without leaving our desk or home then we are choosing to do so.’ Really? There’s a lot wrong with being inherently lazy, on so many levels, but of more importance here is the fact that shopping from one’s desk (something many employers would surely disapprove of, and which could constitute misuse / abuse of company systems) or home does not necessarily equate to being lazy. I would contend that lethargy has nothing to do with it, and that the laziness of consumers is nothing in comparison to the laziness of the journalists proffering such poorly-considered evaluations of the ‘facts’.

For starters, the article fails to take into account the fundamental fact that high-street (or out of town) shopping – real-life shopping – is hell. Never mind, as was mentioned in the BBC’s TV report, that the opening hours of high-street retail outlets are both limited and limiting, and that on-line shopping affords the convenience of 24/7 open hours, which are handy for those who work sociable hours (I say this because those work work anti-social hours aren’t stuck in an office or other place of work between the hours 9am and 5pm, when shops are open, and if you’ve ever tried to do any serious shopping within the confines of a lunch hour Monday to Friday, you’ll appreciate that it’s not only nigh on impossible, but more hellish than Beelzebub’s oven).

Discounting the Sartrean hell that is other people momentarily, there’s the fact that comparing the prices different retailers charge for the same item is considerably more straightforward and less time-consuming on-line than on foot. And of course, time is money, supposedly. Undoubtedly, that time is the most precious commodity an individual can have is part and parcel of the hectic technology-driven lifestyles that facilitate both on-line shopping and global commerce. If workers do spent time at their desks shopping on-line, it could be that they’re time-wasting skivers, but could just as readily be because they’re too busy to take a proper lunch break in which to hit the shops, which have probably relocated to an out-of-town shopping precinct.

According to the Sky article, ‘The trick for retailers is how best to facilitate that and how they combine an online store with their high street shops whilst keeping both profitable.’ No kidding. By making your presence as a business prominent via the most channels available, with particular emphasis on those where the most customers are, then you’ll fare better than if you don’t. The adage ‘Location, Location, Location’ still has merit, and applies to the virtual world too. As for keeping outlets profitable, that’s surely how business works, period.

Sky’s report concludes with the observation that ‘Both Next and John Lewis know their customer base well and play to it with success’ (fine, except according to the figures, Next’s overall sales are only fractionally up, and its high street sales have dropped dramatically, a point that provided the focus of The Guardian’s reporting of the same information, with Zoe Wood writing, ‘Analysts estimated that like-for-like sales in Next stores fell more than 5% in the last two months of the year, resulting in a worse than expected 2.7% decline for the six months to 24 December. That weakness was offset by a strong performance at home shopping arm Directory, where sales jumped nearly 17%. Together the divisions delivered growth of 3.1% which was in line with guidance given to analysts in November’).

The reporter ends their piece by opining that ‘Retail is Darwinian, the survival of the fittest. Success and survival comes to those who change and adapt. The old adage is the true: the customer is always right.’ This is blatantly untrue, and blindly propagates the myth that markets are consumer driven. As I have bemoaned variously, I feel largely uncatered for as a consumer. It’s not even the obscure items, that I would expect having difficulty with, that present the biggest problems. If I want something unusual, there are niche stores – granted, usually on-line – that stock them. I’m talking about specific books, records, storage solutions, brand footwear at prices I’m willing to afford (£95 for a pair of DM Chelsea boots is obscene however you look at it) homebrewing equipment and other such items. But try finding something simple, like decent oven mitts, a ceiling-mounting light for the bathroom designed to work with a fitting that runs in conjunction with the wiring for an extractor fan, jam jars, etc., and you’ll probably struggle. I can’t be the only one seeking these items, and can therefore only conclude that others make do with whatever alternatives and close matches are readily available. How does this indicate a market tailored to the consumer?

Moreover, if I find myself making an increasing number of purchases on-line because I frequently return from town empty-handed, having been unable to find the specific item I was searching for, how is that an example of consumer lethargy? Again, by failing to cater for my needs, the high-street stores have failed their (potential) customers and driven them on-line. If retail is Darwinian, surely the survivors are the ones that stock the items that consumers actually want. After all, it’s only possible to convince people that they want what they get and that they don’t know what they want until they see it up to a point. If I need a new stylus for my turntable, it won’t do to tell me that vinyl’s outmoded and that I should get myself an iPod and docking station instead, and similarly, if the styli in stock aren’t compatible with my turntable, I won’t be buying one – or a new turntable for that matter, at least for as long as there are other stockists who carry compatible styli. It’s really not that hard.

High-street shopping is tiring and laborious. Some people love it and will spend days trailing round shops trying on shoes and clothes and all the rest. Yet even those than enjoy such shopping expeditions will often make their purchases on-line, not through lethargy but because of the price. No-one with half a brain is going to buy an item in one place they can purchase for a third less elsewhere, especially when they know it’s the item they want having already tried it on or out. On-line stores don’t have the overheads of physical stores: fact. They don’t have to pay out-front assistants, cleaners, heating, lighting, or, most significantly, rent on the floorspace. This is precisely why Amazon can undercut Waterstone’s and HMV so dramatically (and why HMV, with their Channel Islands based tax-loophole savvy on-line arm can undercut its own physical stores, a retail model also known as shooting oneself in the foot). Of course people are going to go and buy their goods on line for less. It’s simple economics.

Another piece of simple economics is that anything that isn’t growth is considered recession, but to expect endless growth is unrealistic. Sure, the world’s population may be continually expanding, but that doesn’t mean they all want to buy the same products. Certain markets have limited potential for expansion, even mainstream mass markets. Therefore, to declare ‘flat’ sales or lower than projected growth a complete disaster seems unreasonable. Yet many companies will lay off large numbers of their workforce in light of such ‘disappointing’ results, and blame the recession while contributing to it and exacerbating the problem further.

But perhaps the biggest major omission in these reports is that people aren’t spending because they simply don’t have the money. There’s a global financial crisis going on. The fact that the figures for Christmas 2011 correspond with those for 2008, only with the decreases in overall sales and the erring toward on-line sales more dramatic, reminds us that we’re still in a slump. The words ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ still hang over financial reports like a black cloud. Look at the most recent unemployment figures: they’re still on the up, not just in Britain, but in the US – and the US economy is the global economy.

Context counts, then, and against a backdrop of financial uncertainty, rising inflation, etc., etc., people are spending less money because they have less money. It’s interesting to note that these reports appear on the same day that homelessness charity Shelter made public the findings of a survey they had recently conducted, which revealed that one in seven Britons has turned to credit such as a payday loan or unauthorised overdraft to help cover their rent or mortgage in the last year. Surely this is all the evidence required to establish the reason behind reduced spending. I’ll say it again: people simply haven’t got the money. But then, perhaps they never did have the money. The difference now is that neither do the banks, and so they’re not lending it out. And if people can’t get credit, then they can’t spend the money they don’t have on things they don’t need. Better to spend the money they don’t have on the things they do need, like accommodation. It’s a slippery slope, of course, and where it ends is anyone’s guess. But then, that’s what economists do….

 

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The Changing Face of Consumerism IX – Real, Real, Real

Just as the nature of consumerism has changed dramatically during the course of the last decade – not to mention the last half-century – so the nature of industry has also metamorphasised. In so-called ‘developing’ countries (it’s a questionable term. Technological advances could be seen as development, but an exponential increase in fossil fuel consumption and an insatiable need for unsustainable resource is rather akin to ‘developing’ a 40-a-day smoking habit coupled with some heavy drinking), Industrialisation has caught on, dragging them into the global marketplace. By this, of course, it simply means that large corporations can circumvent domestic legislation in favour of giving workers rights and exploit an fiscally impoverished workforce even more ruthlessly. Driving costs down is good for business, as it increases profits, and the shareholders and the City love that.

As more manufacturing has been ‘outsourced’ to developing countries, the nature of employment in the ‘developed’ countries has moved toward tertiary service industries. Collar colours aside, the most fundamental difference between service and manufacturing industries is the tangibility or physicality of the product. The closest you’ll get to seeing or holding your insurance or shares, for example, is in the form of a certificate or other printed document. When you think about it, these objects which represent the thing in itself but are not in actuality the thing in itself – i.e. the signifier to the signified – you’re buying a concept more than an actual product. Of course, this is simply how money works: the ten-pound note in your wallet is not actual money, but a physical symbol of money. The balance in your bank, if you’re fortunate enough to be in the black, does not mean there’s really £500 that you own just sitting there. This is common knowledge, but it’s hard to separate the concept from the reality. You do not have any real money. No-one ever sees ‘the money’. Tom Cruise could yell till he’s blue in the face, he’s never going to be shown the actual money, just more printed paper that promises to pay the bearer a designated sum on demand. But try making that demand and all you’re likely to get another sign or representation.

We live in a virtual world. In his writing on ‘The Political Unconscious’, Frederic Jameson theorises that one feature of postmodernity is a reality that is infinitely deferred. This theory is now the reality as we exist in our virtual worlds projecting ersatz avatar versions of ourselves into the ether. It becomes impossible to distinguish the real from reflection, not only for others, but for ourselves. Do we become the identities we project, or do they become our real-life selves when the layers of the onion that is the multi-faceted personality are peeled back one by one?

On a personal level, my real-life self and virtual self are indeed separate but given to occasional and significant crossover. And so it is that we both like music and books with a passion, but struggle to get to grips with the modern trend for downloading. It’s ok: Deleuze and Guatarri convinced me I’m ok because a schizophrenic mindset is the only sane response to the postmodern, late-capitalist society I find myself in.

Stumbling around the house trying to avoid the partially organised and rather precarious stacks of CDs and books in the office and groaning each time I try to accommodate a new purchase onto the shelf or rack, I can completely understand why people would want to declutter, to reduce their lives. Yet try as I might, I find myself unable to separate the intangible – the music or the words – from the tangible, the physical – the record or CD or the book.

Nevertheless, I like my intangibles to present a physical form. The way I respond as a reader to words contained in the books I read is a complex process, which, while admittedly develop through conditioning and personal experience, is nevertheless intertwined with the act of reading. An audiobook may contain exactly the same words, but will not cause me to react in the same way. On a purely personal feel, the act of reading also entails the turning of the page, the look, feel and smell of the book. The quality of the paper, however poor, the print, the formatting, the cover, while peripheral, are all integral to varying degrees in combining to create the experience as a whole. Even the process of sourcing books is a part of the relationship I have with it: memories are made in the locating of a book in a little secondhand shop while on holiday just as much as they are of recalling where I was when I read the book, and how I was feeling at the time.

The same is true of music and many other objects – objects that now clutter my home, but collectively tell a version of the story of my life. This isn’t to suggest in any way that I am my possessions, or that my possessions own me and not vice versa. Nor would I really describe myself as a materialist in the conventional sense.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I want to feel as though I’m actually buying something when I part with my money. Yes, I know that in reality that it’s the production – the recording, the creative process – that is where the bulk of the cost actually lies. The physical object – the CD or the book – coat pence each to manufacture. A CD may cost in the region of 49 pence to produce, but paying the artist a wage of some descrption, that allows them to eat while they record the album, for which it’s necessary to hire (and pay for) a studio, engineer., etc., soon becomes a substantial expense, and one that must be recouped – usually before the artists gets paid, too. Then there are the designers, the PR people, and all the rest. So, the difference in production cost between a CD and an M3 version of an album comes down to the medium. However, this is only partly true: depending on the size of the manufacturing run, the cost of producing a CD is in fact negligible, and the same is true of a book. Yet as a consumer, I don’t really care about these matters: it feels like the difference is a yawning chasm that spans half the universe.

It’s not just the sound quality (I know the sound of Mp3 files has improved enormously in the last few years, but even if an MP3 isn’t compressed to fuck, it’s still inferior to the digital spectrum we were once sold as being the glory of the CD, which in turn lacked the vibrance and depth of vinyl. Forget clarity, that clinical crispness strips something from the recording that can’t be substituted or compensated, and the MP3 is the CD’s poor cousin, lacking the physical presence and lyric booklet in much the same way that a virtually turning page is not, however hard it might pretend to be, a fair substitute for an actual page.

I’m aware of the issues of storage, perhaps more than most. 1,500 or so LPs and 12” singles, 600 7” singles and in excess of 2,000 CDs are a real bastard to house in a two-bed terraced property, and to move when it comes to relocation. But at least I know where my money’s gone and what I need to insure. Picking up a storage device no bigger than an audiocassette knowing that it contains not only my entire music collection, but also music to the value of something in the region of £30,000 is almost inconceivable. The same is true of a virtual library. The fact that a fire tearing through the house would – or could – have the same effect regardless of my choice of ‘file’ type is really beside the point.

It’s curious to note how times have changed: time was when an extensive library of books and an expansive record collection were perceived as accomplishments. They inspired respect, even awe. Now, the owners of large volumes of material possessions are considered to be simply behind the times, information dinosaurs plodding a Luddite land of clutter that’s cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Why would anyone want a 10-volume encyclopaedia when mankind’s entire learnings can be obtained on-line via Wikipedia (or other sites if more specialist knowledge is required, but why would you want that, really, unless you’re a real nerd)? In fact, what’s the point of a space-hogging PC base unit and monitor when you can have everything you need on a tablet? A music collection and library that not only occupies considerable space, but cost a fortune and took a lifetime to accumulate seems entirely redundant beside a small, flat piece of digital kit that costs around £300 and can be transported anywhere. And I suppose if you’re happy or able to accept a life of precarity, instability, endless mobility, that’s fine, but it’s not for me.

In fact, for many, owning music seems superfluous when you can stream it all via Spotify. It frees up funds to purchasing other ephemeralities and experiences. Again, the idea of a life recorded on Facebook is one that doesn’t appeal to me. The public nature of the medium aside, I struggle with the concept of a reliance on something that may disappear at any time. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our world of rapid development is that technology attains obsolescence at an evermore speedy rate. There was a time, believe it or not, when the 8-track, the cassette and the videotape were all cutting edge. Betamax, laserdisc and minidisc were all the future, yet despite the qualities these media offered, early adopters were left out of pocket and out of style, not to mention out of the technology loop. CD was supposed to supersede both vinyl and the audiocasette – yet strangely, the MP3 killed both CD and tape while vinyl hangs in there, with a whole new wave of audiophiles sustaining a market that previously didn’t exist. I digress: the point is that Facebook could be next year’s MySpace, and a life on line is only a transient representation of real life: it’s a history that can not only be easily misrepresented and misappropriated, but one that could even more easily be erased. Obviously, nothing’s forever, but the physical – especially if backed up, duplicated somehow – has a greater capacity to be futureproof than anything that relies purely on the intangible (but then I find the idea of playing a virtual guitar while playing at being in a virtual band equally abhorrent and not just a little strange Step away from the console, pick up a real instrument, learn to play and form a proper fucking band if you have any interest in Rock Stardom!).

I’m not doing technology down as such – at all, in fact – but can you imagine future generations, instead of looking through albums and biscuit tins of family photos and shoeboxes of postcards and correspondence, gluing themselves to a screen and reminiscing about the day that prompted that romantic email, the wonderful day out to the coast captured magnificently in 6 megapixel digital colour, or even the idea of returning to that book you so loved in college and forwarding your friend or child the Kindle download to read and share the wonder? In all of the streamlining, the decluttering, something has been lost. An on-line playlist is not a direct or equal substitute for a lovingly-compiled mix-tape with lovingly-written, hand-scribbled notes on a piece of paper torn from an exercise book and inserted, tightly-folded, into the plastic case. If, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, the medium is the message, what sort of message is a medium that’s so theoretical say about our times and its users?

The bottom line is that if I’m spending money on something, I want something to show for it. I’m not suggesting that it needs to be big to justify the expense, but in a world where so little is fixed, stable, reliable, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it real as a means of keeping it grounded, and as a way of keeping it accessible in the future.

 

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