Saturday, 19 November 2011

Fortnum and Mason

Last weekend I went to Fortnum and Mason. We'd taken the Jubilee line to Green Park, and I was responsible for piloting a good friend and his raging hangover across Piccadilly after we'd spent sufficient time staring listlessly into the window of the UK offices of the airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The window theme (of Fortnum's, not IranAir) was vaguely Cabaret/La Cage aux Folles-themed, and, as always, they were playing the kind of faint music that they like to play out of speakers above the vast windows, music I've always found slightly disquieting. A siren-song, whispering, "come, spend all your money; it'll make you feel really good."

Now, this is a line that capitalism has been trotting out for a good couple of hundred years already. It's no surprise to anyone, nothing at all new. And, as always, we're absolutely eating it up - in the case of Fortnum's, literally. There are plenty of people who disagree with such luxury establishments, such as these protesters, but to dismiss Fortnum and Mason as "Tory Scum!" (amusing as I find this) seems somehow reductive. Sure, they're purveyors of fine and expensive things that rich people love to cram in their faces, and they've held a dear part in the hearts of the last 150 years' worth of monarchs, but to call them Tory scum and be done with it doesn't strike me as a particularly useful or interesting act of cultural criticism.

What I found much more interesting when I visited last week, for the first time in a couple of years and maybe the fourth or fifth time ever, was the overwhelmingly touristy clientèle. Again, not surprising. But it did make me consider the phenomenon more deeply. Tourists come to buy a small souvenir to take away (this is reflected in the selection of branded tea, sweets and chocolates, the smallest examples of which are fairly reasonably priced in the grand scheme of trying to buy status, clustered around the inside of the door) and to have a look at "how the other half live". The main problem is with this is that the other half don't live there any more, if they ever did. And anyone who claims to do (or actually does) their weekly shopping there is as desperate to buy status as any of the huddled masses crowding around the inside of the main doors, trying not to show how out-of-place they feel and reminding themselves that they, too, have money - the great leveller - in their pockets. The only differences are that those who feel they've earned the right to buy everything they ever want to eat from Fortnum's are a) disdainful of the tourists as people who they believe don't truly belong there, and b) vastly more deluded.

Maybe it was the better part of a bottle of Waitrose vodka - I, too, am an elitist - that my liver was trying desperately to purge from all my cells which was doing the talking, but I felt for the fifteen or twenty minutes that I spent inside as though I were a free party, unconstrained by either of these status anxieties (I'd urge anyone who hasn't read Alain de Botton's excellent treatise on this subject to do so). Of course, I received the usual glares from the shop assistants and the security guards; in my battered Soviet coat and with a large rucksack, I looked, if not poor, then at least like a student. But I didn't care. And I think this is an attitude that has the potential to be healing for both the tourists who feel as though they'll never belong and the people who do all of their shopping there (or in Harrods, or in the Selfridges food hall, or in Harvey Nichols). It's a case of trying to unpick the hierarchical, class-and-status obsessions with which we endow our public spaces. It's fine if I'm standing in Fortnum and Mason on a Sunday morning, and it's fine if you are too. It shouldn't make a bit of difference what we're wearing or what we're buying; you've no need to cower, and you ought not to sneer.

There's a lot of money to be made out of encouraging everyone to feel bad about themselves - this is, after all, one of the central tenets of modern capitalism and advertising - and even if it's impossible to prevent on a fundamental level, there's still the chance to exercise free will. I'm not going to apologise for going to places like this, and I'm not going to apologise for not being rich while I'm there, either.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

On the Buses

I spend a fair bit of time on the bus. It's my preferred method for getting to work (I hate my bike), and £40 a month for an Oyster card-style bus pass seems like a pittance when I get the incredibly luxury of an hour a day of reading time. I mean, I'd pay £40 a month to have an hour each day in which to read even if I didn't get transported to work as part of the bargain.

The buses of Cambridge, however, leave a lot to be desired. Stagecoach's promise of "up to every 10 minutes" rarely holds true, and their copy is both poorly written and thoroughly offensive to any adult who does not enjoy being spoken to like a child. As the bus stop near our office is the end of the line, though, I've had a lot of recent experience with something that is even worse than this: the perverse and seemingly willful obfuscation of what the hell is going on.

It's very similar to the way that First Great Western used to run their trains about five years ago (thankfully they've come a long way since then) - long delays and absolutely no information about the cause or likely resolution of said delays on the part of the train manager. It used to be that FGW trains would not announce the expected time of arrival at each station along the way, or even suggest how long they anticipated it would take to get from the current staion to the next one. This used to endlessly frustrate me - it takes very little effort on the part of the train announcer to say, "Our next station stop will be Castle Cary in approximately twenty minutes", and, luckily, they have indeed taken to doing this of late. But to omit such information looks a lot like purposefully keeping passengers in the dark, and that's both inconsiderate and unnecessary, especially when the relevant authorities are in possession of the relevant details. In fact, it's always struck me as something of a power trip.

The buses of Cambridge are worse, and seem to follow neither rhyme nor reason in their scheduling and departures, especially at the route terminus. Take this as an example: a week or so ago I left work at around 17.30 and went to the bus stop. A bus (which I will call Bus A) was waiting in the bus bay, totally empty and with its lights turned off. The driver of this bus, Driver A, was stood outside at the back of the bus, staring down the road. A crowd of 12 or 15 people formed. Driver A offered no explanation as to why we couldn't get on the bus or why the bus was sitting there with its lights off. We waited for 2o, maybe 25 minutes. On at least four occasions I was on the verge of asking the driver what we were waiting for, or if he could at least turn the lights on and let us sit in the bus (bonus reading time), but I found myself holding back out of a sense that it was not my place to question this increasingly bizarre-seeming decision. None of the other people gathered there asked either - we were all too reserved, too British, perhaps, to ask for what was under the circumstances very reasonably information.

Finally another bus turned up with another driver. The insane and pointless mystery was solved when it turned out that Driver A was waiting for Bus B so that he could drive it back to the depot, whilst Driver B switched to Bus A, turned all the lights on and finally let us on board. Again, at no point were we offered an explanation. I realise that the bus company probably has very good reason for making this kind of thing decision, but I don't see any need for it to be so perversely shrouded in mystery. Once again, it feels as though the people who hold the power (and information is very much power in these situations) use it as leverage over the people who have to stand there waiting for 20 minutes to get on a bus that has also been sat in the bus bay for the same amount of time.

Sometimes a bus will come and the driver will say that it's only going as far as the centre of town and not to Addenbrooke's. This, like the above incident, is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of the bus company. Scheduling buses is their prerogative (and whether or not they could do a better job of it is neither here nor there), and I have no problem whatsoever with them making these decisions. And I'm not advocating the kind of information overload that Grahame has experienced on public transport in Japan. But I do think that giving as much background as possible in these situations is the best way of empowering passengers in a situation over which they have essentially no control and which otherwise has the potential to make them feel entirely powerless. It's frustrating and unnecessary, and perhaps another symptom of the "let's treat our customers like children" mentality which similarly seems to motivate most of their on-bus copy.