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.

No comments:

Post a Comment