‘I had not thought death had undone so many’, said TS Eliot in his poem "The Wasteland", talking of the crowds that flowed over London Bridge, and Shakespeare had ‘The sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman Streets’
I was reminded of both these disturbing and vivid images as Elena and I dodged and wove our way up Oxford Street on the first day of the big ‘Sale’. We were looking for bargains and late presents and heading up from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and John Lewis department store.
Shopping is an unpleasant chore for both of us at the best of times, but the gloomy half - dead river of corpses that flowed against us provoked reflections on the state of the times, here in London and the consumer world at large.
What could be more human and natural than to trade, to shop, to watch others buy and sell and to buy ourselves?
So why is shopping at Christmas or during the sales, nowadays, such a depressing experience?
There are some obvious reasons for Londoners to be depressed - there is a recession and people are fearful of their debt carrying capacity. The credit cards are used more hesitantly, and the Closing Down sales are a reminder that what was once thriving may not be there tomorrow.
It is, perhaps, more than coincidence that a popular WW2 Government slogan, designed to keep up flagging civilian morale during the dark days of the Blitz, is popular again on T-Shirts and crockery : -
But there is, I speculate, a profound unhappiness at the heart of our consumer culture which distorts and disfigures what should be a pleasant and necessary ritual of attendance at the market to buy and sell.
The root of this is that we are buying and selling what we are sick to death of, things which we all know we not only don’t need ( a little luxury is a necessary break from the daily round and we accept this happily enough ), but which we are secretly appalled by precisely because we have gorged ourselves on them.
It doesn't matter that the trinkets we buy look different, on the surface, to the ones we bought last week, or that we do get at least a momentary rush of comfort and joy when we pick up the store bag with our new piece of kit or clothing safely stashed, anticipating the satisfaction of tearing open the packaging like an infant at it’s first Christmas, it doesn't matter much because deep down we can feel our soul tissue rejecting the notion that we need any more of anything.
We are full, stuffed, replete, gorged, we've had enough, but we just don’t know what else to do so we keep calm and carry on shopping.
And our clothes give us away - we are all dressed in mourning, black, we are all grieving over something we've lost.
We've lost our souls, our taste buds for life are no longer sensitive, we can’t hear the birds sing in the trees because our i pods are switched on always, we can’t hear the chatter of those different from us because of the elevator muzak everywhere and we can’t see the stars shine in the night sky because there is too much electric light down here.
We are always on, and always off, dead and depressed, only laughing if someone presses a button or shows us a smiling emoton on a screen.
With these sombre thoughts drifting through our heads we pushed in to John Lewis, the Department Store that once represented a fusty middle class of accountants and solicitors, worthy but dull and reliable, never knowingly undersold, but which has given itself a makeover with the Selfridges painting set, turning itself into a theatre of brand experience, with all the flash labels and fake luxury of the so called luxury brands and their representatives, who don’t know anything about the rest of the store but everything about their ‘brand values’. But John Lewis have hung on to their fusty but pleasant past in their cafes which they operate themselves and from which they have banned piped muzak- you can actually overhear the chatter of the other customers and get a glimpse into their lives thereby, which must be good for all of us.
And there is a perfect view of Oxford street.
Actually, John Lewis was as pleasant an experience as it was possible for it to be, given everything I have said earlier.
If you are going to stuff yourself, you may as well do it somewhere that keeps the cutlery clean and where the staff pretend to like you.
Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce