When Is Enough, Enough?
"You'll hate it" said my friend Derek, and he wasn't far wrong. Bicester Village is a "retail outlet", which seems to mean an awkward place to reach where manufacturers sell off cheaply their over-production. It is very "designer". I realised quite early on after meeting HL that one difference between us was that his clothes had labels on the outside, and mine on the inside, if at all. But needs must, when the Devil drives, as they say.
The devil driver in question was my mother, who had, with her friend Lynne, braved the journey to Oxford for the first time since my father died the April before last. She's a perfectly good driver, she's got the how, but she likes to be told the where. She asked me to find them a guesthouse nearby to us here in Barton - I found a nice clean one in Headington, 10 minutes' walk away - and to book a place for a meal, and to brace myself for a trip to Bicester Village, which Lynne is very fond of, the next day. I booked a table at what is now a gastropub in Old Headington, but when I last lived nearby, twenty-odd years ago, was a dire dive. It's called "The Black Boy" and the pub sign is a horse's head. It wasn't, twenty years ago. The fact that it has been discreetly changed to reflect modern sensibilities would have amused my father immensely, as would the fact that the taxi driver who took us there was Asian. This was part of the point. It might count as dark humour. The manor houses of Headington - of which there are a surprising number within a relatively small area, bourgeois retreats, rather than the hub of landed estates - were places where once a "black boy" would have been something of a status symbol in the household. Times, fortunately, change.
After dinner, Mother and I went for a walk along the road to view Ruskin College, where I am a schoolboy once again, based in yet another of Headington's manor houses ("The Rookery"), but with what Prince Charles would call a "monstrous carbuncle" on one side, but one which we both agreed was, despite its very different style, in keeping, curiously, with the original Georgian building, whilst having an integrity of its own. Lynne didn't join us for a walk. She is an enthusiastic driver, and so has lost the use of her legs. However, we'd had a lot of chat over dinner about the genealogical work I'd been doing on her parents - who had been babysitters for my mother years ago, and honorary grandparents to my sister and me as we were growing up, so while we walked, at least we felt we had left her plenty to contemplate until the taxi returned.
So, we went from an evening of talking about our roots, the workhouse, the London and Kentish poor, Irish peasant farms, the energy and hopefulness of immigrants, and briefly about Ruskin, set up to provide educational opportunities for those denied them by the class system and the oppressiveness of toil, to set off the next morning to a temple of Mammon for the rich, and those who would ape them. It is a measure of the success of our lowly forebears that we were able to be comfortable in this succession of lavish emporia, and disdainful of much that was on show at reduced, but still obscene, prices. I had a crash course in the mystery of the handbag. Lady Bracknell had a point. I must have seen over a thousand handbags this morning, at an average - reduced - price of £150. Mother found one that delighted her (for rather less than £150), and said rather pleasedly "AND it's made in Britain".
There's no question that this spending creates work, and the work makes wages, and wages make spending, and spending makes the economy grow. But I couldn't help wondering who can afford these things at any price, never mind the full one. And who would, if they could? And then I saw a Waterford cut lead crystal vase. It was marked down from £1,000 to £650. If I were a rich man, I might, just might, have splashed out. I spent more this summer getting a second-hand car repaired, and repent every penny of it.
And so, just as every person has their price, so too we have our values. My first lodger in Seven Dials, Louise, of Louise Burger fame (you'll have to wait for the book to come out) worked at the National Gallery, and said of things of beauty that one way of reckoning their expense was to value at £1 every glance at them that gives you pleasure. I spent her first month's rent on a Persian rug which has returned a rate far in excess of that these last twelve years.
What I wonder is how permanent the cult of shopping can be? Can the planet really sustain a custom of endless re-invention? My rug, and, if I'd bought it, that vase, would be in my will. But some people go shopping every week. Does there come a time when enough is enough?
23rd November 2013