Belfast Telegraph

Are rich making a panto of poverty? Oh yes they are

By Harriet Walker

The recession, and its attendant woes, brings with it all manner of socio-economic stereotypes: the impoverished, angry student; the unemployed state-sector worker; the bombastic banker. We might not be happy about it, but we fall back on the received mores that were set in stone the last time everyone realised things were heading down the Swanee.

The one thing that seems particular to our current slump, though, is the strange and self-righteous fiscal fervour afflicting, on the whole, the upper echelons. It's hard to decide whether it's to be applauded as a much-needed cultural overhaul of our ingrained profligacy and material neediness, or whether it's part of the periodic ebb and flow of a moralising tide designed by the haves to wash over the have-nots.

In the run-up to Christmas, the biggest and least tasteful explosion of consumerist gluttony since subprime mortgages, we see the new and thought-provoking trend of faux-austerity taking hold. Here, a newspaper article about making the change from Waitrose to Poundland; there, a glossy magazine recommends austerity presents for under a tenner. The verdict? That Poundland is an unholy cesspit of tinned goods and arcane oddities, like Saxa table salt, that might upset little Tarquin's overly cosseted stomach lining. And that it is possible to pay £6 for two pencils in the shape of drumsticks. Two pencils, fellow bargain-hunters, for £6. I suppose it's better than just one.

There is something odious about playing at poverty just to see how it feels or because it's trendy. And the new brand of thrift-tourism is all the more hateful given the spend-spend-spend culture it is being held up against. I don't decry those who flash their cash and splurge on special occasions whether or not they have the funds to do so. I am no paragon of virtue either - just ask my bank manager. But encouraging the commercial cult of Christmas with one hand while sniggering behind the other about how rubbish it is to be, you know, actually poor, is hardly the way to encourage thoughtful, or at least careful, spending among any demographic.

The latest cuts target - and seek to somehow re-educate - those who have run up, in the words of George Osborne, "unsustainable debts". Personally, I don't know of a household that hasn't, but that's probably more indicative of the no-good types I hang around with than of the wider nation's grip on their purse strings. The fact is everyone, apart from those who own oil pipelines and yachts, has less money at the moment and doesn't stand to lose much from learning how better to make it go further.

So the fact that Poundland sells well-known brands at what is often a third of the usual price elsewhere is the reason it has become a destination for those more familiar with the wide, airy aisles of Waitrose. Shopping there for basics is a decision that makes sense. Unfortunately, in terms of social convergence, it's reminiscent of cohorts of bankers buying up holiday cottages in those funny little villages with hanging baskets - and driving up the prices beyond the means of local inhabitants. Fortunately, Poundland's USP is indicated in its name; hopefully, the arrival of the middle classes won't mean it becomes TwoPoundland, or even Five Poundland.

But it isn't the imitation poverty that rankles, although such widespread and glossy coverage of it feels somewhat distasteful; it's the disassociation from the real situation that sticks in the craw. Christmas is a time when people run up vast debts beyond their control for the sake of a marketing mirage. In the cold light of January, there will be scrimping and repossessions.

And there will doubtless be the lucky few who return to Waitrose because pantomime season is over and they're sick of not being able to find edamame beans among the Saxa.


From Belfast Telegraph