Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tesco/Burchill/Winterson

Julie Burchill is an odd thing but a good one. A New Statesman piece I wrote almost exactly a decade ago explains. Her key virtue is that, even when wrong, she sees to the heart of the matter. In The Guardian today, she trashes Jeanette Winterson for being nasty about Tesco, which, says Burchill, is wonderful. As usual with Burchill, the piece fades badly - the end is devoid of any intellectual punch. But, as usual, she gets to the point. Winterson had spoken of wanting shops that offered 'passion, commitment - something more than a transaction.' To which Burchill responds, 'Maybe I'm lucky, but personally I find I get all the validation passion and commitment I need from my family, friends, religion and voluntary work; that I might go looking for proof of my worth over the wet fish counter seems quite eye-wateringly daft.' This is rhetorically brilliant. She is here calling the bluff of the clever and the smug. It is a given among the bienpensants that shopping for food must be a time-consuming quest for authenticity and self-actualisation. Prigs, who are really snobs, delight in saying this is what you must do, it is an act of religious observance. Burchill outflanks them all by claiming a much more serious list of authentic pursuits. After all, no matter how you tart it up, shopping is still just shopping. This is a perfect confrontation between incommensurable conceptions of authenticity. Burchill has, once again, seen to the heart of the matter and made me happy.

24 comments:

  1. Shopping is a chore. They could lay out a red carpet for me, shower me with rose petals, have someone push my trolley, play my favourite music, give me a neck massage at the checkout and shopping would still be a chore. However, if they could read my mind, obviate the need for me to go there, and deliver precisely what I wanted to my door, unpack it, put it away and make me a nice cup of tea then it would be slightly more bearable.

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  2. Well, I don't know what Winterson said in her piece but my experience of Tesco makes me believe I might agree with her.
    Julie Burchill flies below my radar...

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  3. Miserable puritans! You can make shopping a pleasure or a misery. On the continent people get and give sensual pleasure from shopping(particularly for food) which the British just don't seem to understand. Oh, they rave about it abroad, but that's because they can only enjoy it on special ('naughty')occasions, like holidays or at Christmas. At all other times sensual pleasure is tied up with guilt. It flows from the depressing British pelagian/manichean belief in the disconnection of the body and the soul and the fundamental wickedness of earthly things.

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  4. well I've read both articles now - which appears to be at least one more than Burchill did. There was no mention of Tesco in JW's piece but I agree with the sentiments anyway.

    now I'm going to follow JB's erudite advice and learn to love Tesco or 'get a life' - not!

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  5. I bet Nigella shops, or at least has someone shop for her, at places that offer 'passion, commitment - something more than a transaction.'

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  6. It's all a game of stereotypes. Only on the nuttier TV programmes or perhaps in the Sunday Times is it suggested that shopping for food "must be a time-consuming quest for authenticity and self-actualisation". JW is a little too keen to let slip that she has a few bob and knows all about the Cotswolds, but she's right that small shops make a community and offer many things that supermarkets don't or won't. JB is on the side of the harassed and the short of time but her sentiments are so right on with the People's! Values! that she is the smug one by a long shot. Yes, supermarkets are useful and for some a godsend, but they are also predatory and invasive, and if given the chance will suck the life out of a place. They take, but they don't give, except maybe for loss-leader alcohol sales the consequences of which they refuse to accept.

    You'd have to be in a bad way to think either article is remotely balanced.

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  7. Call me a misnathrope but it's the very anonymity and solitariness of supermarket shopping that appeals. Shopkeepers - and, still worse, market traders - in this country tend to be intrusive, hustling ripoff merchants. Left to browse alone and unimpeded, you can get exactly what you want with the minimum of trouble. Seems good to me.

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  8. I've just read JB's article; it occurs to me that it's all about JB amusing herself, with very little concern or insight for anything beyond herself. It's a shame she hasn't learned anything beyond her own amusement. Doesn't her article come down to an assertion that supermarkets amuse JB therefore they're a good thing?
    'Post-modern' narcissism, or what?

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  9. You are bang on about Birchill. I have clumsily tried to explain this to several incredulous friends who seem to think she is some kind of demon, but I have never quite got my finger on it and now I can just point them to this. Birch is often incredibly wrong and sometime offensively silly (her ramblings about Stalin and the Anglican church, for example) but she is never stupid or borin, has nothing of the herd mentality about her and she writes beautifully.

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  10. I remember being in a supermarket in Virginia where there were peels of thunder and flashes of lightning to announce the 'rain' water that made the g-m veg shine. This is of no relevance at all to your discussion of shopping. At this time of year I combine it with lunch with an old friend who's obsession is Christmas. We'll be in the fire sale of Christmas decorations at Selfridges this afternoon. Makes me suicidal, but I try to humour him.

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  11. Its all a question of how much money you have - I have always liked the idea that cheap things are available in special forms at incredible expense is a mind trick to convince rich people it was worth all that work.

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  12. Julie Burchill??? She has an irrational dislike of Irish Catholics (which is 3/4 of my family). This puts me off her a bit. She speaks up for chavs and Jews, which is a good thing. But she is bloody erratic and insists that the Soviet Union wasn't really that bad. Bit of a contrast to Marilynne Robinson, Bryan. I never understood why she made in big in journalism. I always thought she must have been giving editors blowjobs in the Groucho Club back in the day.

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  13. A good writer is someone you read and take pleasure & instruction from even when you disagree with them. Harold Bloom, when he's on form rather than just repeating his usual 'Hamlet is God' line, is such a writer for me, as is Roger Scruton. Surely better to read for stimulation rather than to passively accept 'facts' or a party line.

    At the risk of sounding gushy (!), the fact that your (Bryan) blog's readership is so varied, and so many seem to vehemently disagree with you, but keep reading, suggests you too are a good writer; otherwise they'd stop coming back.

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  14. The only person I take instruction from when I disagree with them is the wife. I've found it's the easiest option.

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  15. Is Bryan a writer? Like Jeremy Clarkson and Bill Oddie?

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  16. I agree with Bryan and Burchill. Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda, Marks and Sparks - I think they're all brilliant. Shopping snobs are preposterous.

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  17. JB has to write beautifully because she sounds like a piglet.

    I think Winterson is only saying what Bryan was essentially saying when he told about buying a threaded stud from his local ironmonger, comparing it, I imagine, with chain-store DIY. It's better to go where people care about stuff they sell and the folk they sell it to.

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  18. They say Bryan actually IS Jeremy Clarkson but it could be the other way around. i know he's not me because my socks aren't that great but more than that i cannot judge.

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  19. What, what? Jeannette "Sexing the Cherry" Winterson? A Burchill of Ashberys -- er, strawberries -- can't measure up.

    I feel some randomness is desperately needed. As for shopping, I generally loathe it, unless I have lots of time and I'm shopping for ingredients to make a gourmet dinner. Then it becomes an aesthetic experience and I go to our one posh ("organic") store. The usual experience, though, of racing through the big grocery chain to grab milk, toilet paper, bread, and Diet Coke just ain't fun.

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  20. True, it's surely not fun, Susan - but then how much of routine life could be so described? So long as it's not positively painful/ acutely annoying, I reckon we're doing all right (especially if we live in London).

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  21. Amnong many other things one could say about her, Jeanette Winterston owns an organic "deep experience" type of food shop in London - one of those "back to the community roots" things. She's written about it in her Times columns. I imagine this is relevant to her views on the type of shopping experience that she feels people could or should have.
    Supermarkets started out providing "lowest common denominator" food but after about 20 years of this they began to diversify, so now you could go to your local superstore and be Jeanette W, Mrs Mopp or John Malkovitch, and your needs would all be catered for.
    And while you are all at it, I shall be saving 3 hours a week by using Ocado -- the odd cracked egg or squashed strawberry is a small price to pay for that.

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  22. As chance would have it, I read that profile of Burchill while idly perusing your archives yesterday, Bryan. Were she to attempt her autobiography today, the title "Often Wrong but Neve in Doubt" suggests itself. She can be quite entertaining, though.

    Most of those I know who rail about the evils of giant supermarkets still frequent them or their equivalent because only an idiot with more more money than brains would pay 50% more for mass-produced daily-use items like toothpaste and toilet paper just because the old lady behind the counter at the corner grocery is sweet and occasionally recalls their name. As the old man or woman behind the counter usually does not possess a sufficient working knowledge of the English language to make genuine conversation possible, whether or not they have passion about, or commitment to, anything but making a profit is open to debate. Those who don't sneak into the chain supermarket for cheaper essentials still buy a lot of things like books, CD's, electronic goods, TV's, computers, and even soap on-line from impersonal behemoths such as amazon.

    BTW, here in the US, the organic community is in something of an uproar because the much-despised Wal-Mart is about to become the single largest supplier of organic food in the country after only a year of semi-serious effort.

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