Supermarket Blues

Last night I listened to a programme on Radio 4 celebrating the anniversary of ‘Ways of Seeing’, a provocative and influential arts programme which appeared in four episodes back in the seventies.

The original presenter of that show, John Berger, spent some time discussing the artistic nature of advertising (to which he referred as ‘publicity’) and pointing out the difference between old master paintings and these new adverts. Paintings were commissioned to announce the status of their subject, depicting his property and family members. Adverts accuse the viewer of being deficient, and go on to promise that material and emotional fulfilment are only a shopping trip away.

Which reminded me that I tend to call in every morning to buy my lunch from a local supermarket on the way to work. There is something fascinating about these places: the brightly coloured tins and packets in regular arrays, creating a landscape of choice and opportunity. I wander through the booze aisle, and a long-forgotten conversation springs to mind: ‘Do you remember when you couldn’t buy wine in shops on a Sunday?’ My colleague replied that she remembered when you couldn’t buy ANYTHING on a Sunday!

But our splendid temples to shopping now offer too much choice. Once, we had fabric softener to use in the washing machine; now we can struggle to choose between fifteen different varieties including summer breeze, ylang-ylang and crushed emerald, or Wild Ocean. And there are dozens of different types of shampoo, or toothpaste, or dog food, or pasta sauce, or potato crisps, or household bleach, or air fresheners, or deodorant, or hair gel/mousse/wax/spray. It’s nice to have a choice; but this is ridiculous.

All this behaviour was analysed by John Naish (Hodder & Stoughton 2008) in his book ‘Enough’. Apparently our brains are still hard-wired to respond to situations as our cave-dwelling ancestors would. Theirs was a world of scarcity; when food became available, it had to be hoarded against the impending famine. And so we now have people obsessively buying items and keeping huge chest freezers full of food, when the supply of that food is just twenty minutes away. This behaviour extends to other areas; we have MP3 players which can hold thousands of songs (I bet there is nobody in the UK whose i-Pod carries Martinů’s fifth string quartet) and e-book readers which can carry hundreds of novels.

I even know one lady who has several big jars of (expensive) freeze-dried coffee in her cupboards, even though she herself doesn’t drink the stuff.

This is madness. Getting and spending, we do indeed – as Wordsworth said – lay waste our powers. We have adopted a warehouse mentality, where the value of our lives is measured by accruals and achievements. We need to find new role models, new ways of thinking ways of seeing; the defining statement of life should be ‘I am’, not ‘I have’.

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