(AA) ++ The City of Standardised Consumption - 8th June 1996

esperanto (lingvoj@lds.co.uk)
Sun, 9 Jun 1996 02:51:26 +0200


A lthough the rot had begun when Nicholas
Budgen stole our Post Office. This
pleasant carefully preserved sixteenth century
building, with its Georgian frontage, had been
a real pleasure to visit with a helpful and well
informed staff who knew their job and
apparently enjoyed sorting out our problems.
There was little economic gain from its
closure. The building was still needed for
parcels and various backstage Post Office
activities. But the main counter service was
now located at the back of Budgen's store
presumably to catch the pensioners and Giro
recipients on the days their pittances became
available. It is staffed by Budgen's own
ill-paid and pressurised staff who simply
hadn't the time to be helpful in the same way
and would probably be sacked if they tried.
We muttered, we grumbled, we got up
petitions but a minor consolation of age, the
enjoyable social intercourse of a visit to the
Post Of fice, had gone. It was the first sign. The
next thing to go was an old fashioned
electrical shop where every fitting no matter
how obscure could be obtained, and where the
proprietor was prepared to mend things rather
than insist on selling you a plastic
replacement. The process began to speed up.
Now, in a little town which the egregious John
Gummer puzzlingly declared to be suffering
from rapid expansion, six charity shops in the
main thoroughfare indicate the ruin of six sets
of hopes and the loss of six sets of services.
This week, as the news came through that
Colin Ward had been sacked from the new
Blairite New Statesman I found that the local
w@n@ nd our corner shop have both sold
up. It may not be the end of civilisation as we
know it but life will be a little less civilised in
this part of the world, a little closer to the
capitalist ideal of a City of Standardised
Our corner shop was one of the wonders of
the region. Twice failed, it was built up about
ten years ago by a family who talked to their
customers, gave small amounts of credit
where needed, and responded to every need
no matter how small. Their food selection was
so good they were beating the hypermarkets
at their own game, their range of newspapers
was magnificent, their variety of goods
unbeaten anywhere in the country. It was the
best all purpose general store I ' d seen
anywhere in the world. Now it has been
bought by a company who will make more
short term profits by cutting back the range of
goods. And the customer base they have built
up will return to the supermarkets.
The wine bar was one of those idiosyncratic
places that really should have failed in true
blue Woodbridge. It fact it was popular with
an extraordinary mixture of local dissidents
and blue rinse stalwarts of middle England.
Slightly shabby, it was run by an aggressive
four feet- tall North Londoner and a wife who
sounded like a Sloane Ranger with an
Australian accent. Stroppy, irreverent, and
opinionated, they were on a quiet day always
good for a bit of intemperate argument At
busy times the tape machine played Lester
Young, or Ben Webster or Mozart, not the
plastic rock we have come to expect of such
places. He provided the Guardian and the
Times. Those wanting other papers were
directed to other establishments. You couldn't
buy chips or a sandwich. The atmosphere was
quite distinctive and it was a place where you
could arrange to meet a friend of any sex
without worry if you were late.
The wine bar has been purchased by a
hotelier who believes in deference and looks
to the carriage trade. The corner shop has been
bought by one of those all purpose trading
companies. Woodbridge has moved a little
closer to the regimented rural wasteland that
industrial agriculture, hypermarkets, and
retail chains are making of the villages and
small country towns. Not a great deprivation
to set besides the horrors of the Balkans,
Africa, or the Americas. Or some of the ghetto
housing estates of Britain. But a little more
individualism is lost and we are all diminished
in the process.
Colin Ward has often written of the
importance of localism in the positive sense.
Of local people operating local services
flexibly, changing and responding to local
needs in a way that had social significance as
well as market exchange value. All very well
but local support is needed too. The problem
we face is that many people like the
standardised product. The success of
McDonalds, or the Little Chef, like that of Joe
Lyons in my youth, was built on providing a
standardised product in a standardised
atmosphere. And people still argue that
Safeways or Sainsburys is cheaper, without
counting the cost of the transport needed to get
to these consumerist shrines. The initiatives
from below that produced the heroic age of the
Co-ops don ' t always occur when
institutionalisation and capitalist competition
have ossi@led the original creative impulses.
There are hopeful signs though. The
Grameen Bank in Bangladesh now operating
effective schemes in some of Americas most
poverty stricken ghettos. Food and goods
exchanges in Scotland and the North of
England appear to be successfully
re-inventing the co- ops. The growth of Credit
Unions in Britain filling the gap left by the
High Street banks branch closures in the
poorer areas. The problem is how long the
now triumphantly rampant capitalist
economies will allow these initiatives to
continue. They just might be getting worried
about things. The massive casualisation of
jobs and the mania for 'downsizing' have
begun to have results that are worrying
capitalism's chief gurus. Stephen S. Roach,
the economist chiefly responsible for the
theory of downsizing, has decided that he got
everything the wrong way round and that the
pendulum will swing back from capital to
labour. "Tactics of open-ended compression
are ultimately recipes for extinction," he is
saying. "I was responsible for the myth and I
was wrong," he goes on. As the Independent
on Sunday tartly pointed out he has admitted
he was wrong. "An act unlikely", that vastly
lmproved paper concludes, "to catch on over
here yet". Meanwhile if the new poor and the
newly insecure are really building firm
institutions of self-help let us hope that this
time they will not be so easily surrendered to
facilitate government initiatives, as Tredegar
and the Peckham Health Centre were to the
National Health Service.
Jeremy Seabrook, noting that Marx once
argued that we would have socialism or
barbarism, has recently suggested that
barbarism has arrived, with the rich
withdrawn behind guarded frontiers "leaving
the poor to fight over such resources as remain
after privilege has taken its pick". Maybe.
That does appear the way things are going. But
if he is right then the new initiatives to create
a better society than the techno-feudalism that
is developing will come from an ability of
these marginalised groups to organise and
create for themselves. It will come from those
who look for something beyond the
standardised material that is presently as
eagerly embraced by the lumpen bourgeoisie
as the lumpen proletariat. Which is why my
corner shop and local wine bar are important.

John Pilgrim