I started writing this piece with the intention of keeping it short and snappy. As usual, it ended up being too long. My solution was simple: to break the bugger in half. The second part shall be available in my new (as yet untitled) book, due for release later this year. Something for you to look forward to, eh?
The world of retail and commerce has wreaked more havoc with the British calendar than the switch from Julian to Gregorian. (A switch which, incidentally, meant that, in order for the transition to go smoothly, people went to bed on Wednesday 2nd September 1752 and woke the following morning on Thursday the 14th, having lost the best part of a fortnight. Worse still, nobody had the foggiest as to when to put their green bins out.) We’re in a right old mess: Christmas starts in August, with the arrival of religious-themed cards on display in the corners of charity shops; Easter starts on Christmas Eve, as shopkeepers nationwide tear down the bunting and whip out the boxes of Malteser bunnies; Father’s Day drops the day after Mother’s Day; Black Friday starts on the Monday. Where that leaves Pancake Day is anybody’s guess.
As further illustration of this calendar meddling, take the fact that the ‘Sales’ used to be widely called the ‘January Sales’; this was until, like most other annual occurrences, they slipped further and further back to the point where they collided messily into the Christmas shopping period. The result of this is that the word ‘January’ has been eased out of action as seamlessly as the 1 from ITV1 and is now used only by people who still say things like ‘the wireless’, ‘hand us an Opal Fruit’ and ‘on the never-never’.
I didn’t watch the evening news on Christmas Day this year, but if I had, I am sure that – other than the annual clip of the Queen waddling up the path of the St Mary Magdalen, Sandringham, accompanied by warm applause – I would have seen a report about people spending their Christmas evening camped outside Selfridges in the hope of saving 89p on a tea towel. These features about ‘expectant shoppers’ are as much a part of the festive TV fixture as The Snowman and those Morecambe & Wise documentaries in which minor celebrities pretend to laugh at sketches they’ve seen a thousand times before. (Just so we’re clear, I love Morecambe & Wise. But if I have to see that clip of Angela Rippon’s legs one more time, or, indeed, a clip of her reminiscing about her legs, I might actually cry.) My general reaction to the shots of queuing crowds is to tut, sneer and wonder, often aloud, whether these soggy parasites couldn’t wait at least a week before getting back into spend-mode.
But this year, instead of slagging off the Sales shoppers, I joined their throng. Granted, I waited until the 27th of December, and not Boxing Day, but I was just as bad as them. What had caused me to sell out? It was the fact I needed some new trousers for work. That was it. That was all it took to become one of them.
Previous memories of clothes sales had alerted me to the fact that items for the, ahem, larger chap, tended to be snapped up quickly. I had to get in on the trouser action fast. (It’s one of life’s ironies that us fat bastards only ever seem spring into action when there’s a chance to pip one another to a comfy-fitting pair of kecks.) Thus I donned my winter regalia and headed to the big smoke: Norwich. (Actually, Norwich is something of a small smoke, as smokes go.)
The trip to the big (small) smoke started badly. Christmas commuters aren’t the same as regular commuters. Regular commuters come prepared. They have systems in place. Their hand luggage fits neatly into their laps. They have podcasts and paperbacks to entertain them. Their monthly passes are encased behind transparent sheafs in leather-bound wallets, ready to flash at their good friend, the conductor. They slip into their seats like Russian dolls, nodding knowingly at one another by way of saying Hello. Christmas commuters, on the other hand, are a hungover and boisterous lot. They drag rhinoceros-sized, bottle-clanking suitcases behind them on wheels and stuff over-stuffed travel bags into overhead compartments. They slow the conductor down with questions about Paddington Station’s toilet facilities and requests for group savings on off-peak tickets to Truro. They spread their legs and talk loudly to one another across the four-seater tables, steaming the windows with their festive discourse.
The train was loaded with Christmas commuters from the off. And acquired many more at each station along the way. By the time we approached the city, it was anarchy. People were hanging out of the windows and sitting on the roof. It looked like one of those grainy films of the Calcutta peak-time service. What was distinctly unlike Calcutta, though, was the weather. Orange and purple clouds swarmed overhead, whipped into action by the fiercening wind. All in all, things were going great.
An issue with the conductor’s ticket machine – which had possibly exploded after trying to process a request for group savings on off-peak tickets to Truro – meant that when our huddled masses finally arrived at the station, we were ticketless and not allowed to exit through the electronic gates. We were penned onto the platform like Ellis Island refugees. We had to form four lengthy, confused, single-file queues and wait as members of Greater Anglia Ltd staff slowly – very, very slowly – sold each passenger their ticket on little handheld machines with slow – very, very slow – internet connection. Babies wailed. Mothers tried to soothe. An elderly man sang a shanty about the old country. From somewhere came the low, melancholy hum of a fiddle.
‘Can’t you just let us out?’ a woman protested. Her question was met with a measured shake of the head from the official by the gate.
‘This is a bloody outrage,’ shouted a man. ‘We’ll be here half an hour! I’d like to make a complaint.’ The official rolled his eyes, knowing full well that Customer Sevices was the other side of the gate. The babies wailed harder.
Whenever I’m trapped in such a position, where my time is literally being wasted, I like to torture myself further by imagining what I could have been doing instead. In this particular instance, I imagined myself watching the next episode of Detectorists on Netflix. At home. By the fire. Digging into my Snickers selection box.
‘Have you had a good Christmas?’ the staff member said when it finally came my turn to buy a ticket to freedom. She was the sort of woman who might describe herself as ‘bubbly’ on her online dating profile.
‘Up until now, yes,’ I barked, then walked away feeling guilty at my surliness. She was too nice to be mean to. The sense of guilt, however, was eradicated when I reached the electronic gate and watched the machine spit my ticket back at me. Madame Bubbly had sold me a dud. I looked back at the queue. Somehow, it had lengthened. Somehow, it had grown more desperate. The fiddler tuned his D-string as the old man’s shanty ran into its fourteenth verse.
They say, don’t they, that a large number of homicides are the result of totally normal people being pushed over the edge on any given day. A perfect storm of ill wind causing them to snap. I think I was in the eye of such a storm. My hackles were rising like those on a cornered dingo defending its young. I was on the precipice. A stubbed-toe away from being headline news. Fantasies entered my mind about just how much damage I could do before they arrested me.
‘You’ve put the ticket in the wrong way,’ whined a bespectacled buffoon in a grey Greater Anglia home kit, barging through the crowds to collar me. He was the sort of man who might describe himself as ‘wet weekend’ on his online dating profile.
‘No I haven’t,’ I snapped. ‘These tickets never work. Don’t try and pretend they do.’ I knew I was truly angry because I normally only think these things rather than say them.
He grabbed the ticket from my hand and put it into the machine the ‘right way’. It was spat back at him. He exhaled a swear word then slid his special card into the machine, releasing the gates.
I was a citizen once again.
Walking uphill into the city centre, the morning’s drizzle crystallised into icy pellets. The wind whipped the hood of my coat back and forth like Jayden Smith’s hair. At one point I came up against a gust so strong that even the ghosts in Norwich castle must have clung to the walls for fear of being relocated several miles south. Its roar held me in place. The streetlights wobbled at its might. The whir and scream of the wind were enough to make me wonder if Donald Trump had read a particularly annoying tweet and decided to push the button. Meanwhile, cars sped past, hosing my jeans with crisp jets of puddle water.
There was little yuletide revelry on the city streets. There was little anything on the streets. Everybody was inside. Spending. The shops, of course, had already removed any mention of Christmas from their windows. In their stead were red banners promising up to 50% off across many items in store. Occasionally buses rattled past with their headlights on, lighting up the white ripples of rainwater being blown along the road. I’d considered going in Primark until I looked in the window; it was the retail equivalent of the last days of Rome. Clothes were everywhere: strewn across the aisles, hanging from the ceiling fans, piled into mountainous heaps near doorways. The sign in the window announced ‘Further Reductions’. It was hard to imagine how Primark could be cheaper. It’s the only shop in the country where a bag-for-life costs more than a multipack of socks. No, I was done with Primark and its shoddy gear. With its t-shirts that are never quite long enough to tuck into your trousers; with its jumpers that bobble and contort after one wash; with its jeans that are either too tight, too short or too loose. I’ve bought so much misshapen shit in there over the years. Nearly all of it has ended up in the bin. (Primark stuff is so brittle and cackhanded that it’s an affront to give it to charity shops.) In the long run, it’s cheaper to pay more. Buy cheap, buy twice, as they say.
With that in mind, I powered through the rain to the other side of town. To the small smoke’s department stores. Where, naturally, an altogether finer clientele amassed and things would finally start going right…