How to be free: Supermarket suffocation
1st June, 2008
I have to confess I've been feeling thoroughly gloomy about the state of the nation lately, and I blame a certain supermarket chain that I shall call 'Blank'Although possibly they are all just as bad. In one village near us in Devon, the excellent butcher has recently closed down because none of the locals used him. He now works for Blank. Another local shop says no-one buys her rice because they order it from Blank home delivery. In another nearby village, the one shop and post office is probably going to close next year, again because no-one uses it. The owner of the shop, which sells everything in a tiny space, says that in actual fact he is no more expensive then Blank, that in fact his Kit Kats are cheaper, but nearly everyone in the village drives to Blank or uses the home delivery service.
It seems people have become fearful of going shopping in the old-fashioned sense. We would rather wander lonely through the aisles or sit alone at a computer than talk to someone.
On a recent trip to London, I was wandering around in a pit of despondency, brooding on these sorts of issues, when I saw the Evening Standard headline: 'Blank Profits Soar'. This means that the money from local communities all across the country is getting sucked into London and into the pockets of the already rich, the big shareholders.
One rumour says only one in three Blank vans is branded. The rest are anonymous in order to prevent the public from seeing the true extent of Blank's horrifying omnipresence.
A friend, meanwhile, a highly educated and very successful radio journalist, was recently offered a job in Blank's PR department at a giant wage. To his credit, he turned it down, but the story demonstrated to me the importance Blank places on its marketing: it will pay spin doctors £150,000 per year while the artisans in its shops are paid £14,000.
And this is the key: advertising and repetition and brainwashing. When you hear a Blank spokesman on the radio, he or she will always say, in a tone of exasperated innocence: 'Look, no-one forces people into our shops. They go there because we provide good products and cheap prices. They like it.'
They like it because they have been conditioned to do so. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the people are conditioned from birth. As the toddlers lie in their beds, they are broadcast the same aphoristic bons mots something like 76,000 times. Repetition works: if you are told enough times through advertising that Blank is cheap and convenient, you will believe it, and no amount of articles such as this one can do anything to change that. Blank employs the country's finest brains to carry out its brainwashing and mind control for it, and spends giant fortunes on marketing.
We have also been conditioned into a kind of squeamishness, again a defining characteristic of Brave New World: everyone is terrified of blood and pain and mess. Squeamishness is a form of seperation from nature: no blood, no slugs, no entrails, no shit, no mud. Blank removes messy nature and wraps products in clingfilm. Some locals didn't use our local butcher because he was 'unhygenic'. No, he just had blood on his apron. He's a butcher!
I noticed a squeamishness also among our friends when they saw the uncut bacon from our pigs: accustomed to wafer-thin rashers wrapped in plastic, they were shocked to see me hauling a slab of meat with black skin from the fridge (our pigs were Saddlebacks). No matter that our pigs' lives had been incomparably more enjoyable than the lives of those whose flesh they were accustomed to eating.
Whichever way I look at it, Blank is pure evil, and I now consider it morally wrong to shop there at all, ever. Anyone who does is, in George Orwell's words, 'sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England'. Instead, we need to wake up and explore the plethora of alternatives, whether markets, local shops, wholefood collectives, small suppliers or simply the wonders and delights of your own back yard. And while I find that the rise and rise of Blank depressing in the extreme, it is also true to say that good things can grow out of bad. Breaking out of the Blank habit is an enormously enriching experience that brings you into closer contact with other people and, ultimately, with yourself
Tom Hodgkinson is the Editor of The Idler and author of the book How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008
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