A Bad Taste in the Mouth…

Hmmm, now where was I? Oh yes: Grayson Perry’s In the Best Possible Taste, middle-class angst, Tunbridge Wells…

Hem Hem. I ended last week’s post on the ‘Kings Hill’ part of Grayson’s programme with an apology to the town’s cup-cake makers. I’ll start this week with a pre-emptive apology to those who might buy or sell at Vintage Fairs or Farmers’ Markets. Of course, I can’t prevent people taking personal offence, I can only offer assurances that no personal offence is intended, and that in the larger scheme of things (or even the smaller scheme of things) my opinions count for very little. And that’s probably an exaggeration.    

From reactions on Twitter it seems people had mixed feelings about Grayson’s insights into the lifestyle and values he encountered in ‘The spiritual hometown of Middle England’™. While some felt he had failed to capture the cultural diversity of the town, others thought he’d revealed something of the ‘wankyness’ that outsiders seem to see when they cast an eye in our direction, and the underlying narcissism underpinning that wankyness.

I think both camps have points to make, but would suggest to those in the first camp that any cultural diversity actually existing in the town and surrounding area is very poorly reflected within the infrastructure of the town, where ‘haves’ are certainly far better catered for than ‘have-nots’ and any attempts to cater for the have-nots (like pound shops or retail outlets and eateries suited to the more budget-conscious members of the community) are looked down upon. Taking that into consideration, I think Grayson very accurately reflected what he saw, particularly as the focus of the programme was, by definition, on those very aspects of life in TW, and that he actually went very easy on us.

The opening scenes of Grayson’s TW odyssey were filmed at a ‘Vintage Fair’ on the (yawn) Pantiles, and the artist, come TV presenter, come TV seemed somewhat baffled by the whole concept. I’ve got to say I’m with Grayson on this one, because I can’t for the life of me see the logic or appeal in paying over the odds for old tat. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against old tat – I’ve a home full of the stuff – or against people buying or selling it, but the commoditisation of old tat into objet dart is, like aspirational cup-cakes (see previous blog), something that not only goes over my head but actually troubles me, because it seems to include by extension the commoditisation of poverty.

Vintage fairs are nothing new; it is only the name that’s been changed, along with the locations they are held in and the make-up of the people buying and selling at them. Back in the day they were called ‘Jumble Sales’ and were held in village halls, with trestle tables replacing ‘pitches’ and elderly WVS volunteers replacing micro-entrepreneurs (gak). Most importantly, IMO, they were places where the poorest people in a community could go to buy things they might not otherwise be able to afford, where a few pence could provide a raggedy-arsed kid with a new pair of school trousers or a battered Eagle annual and an impoverished mum with a ‘new’ dress for her Friday night bingo session at the local community centre. Money raised from these events generally went to those in even greater need; starving children in Africa being the most popular, but perhaps the elderly or the disabled or the homeless too.

The most ironic aspect of it all would seem to be that the very people Jumble Sales used to raise money for are the very people who lose most through vintage fairs, because it is the charity shops set up in support of those people who provide much of the stock the micro-entrepreneurs (gak2) sell on, with profits going straight into some yummy mummy’s already very healthy bank account rather than to grain and water projects for the starving and dying. And of course, every nice dress sold to a micro-entrepreneur ‘stocking up’ is one less available to the potentially equally yummy but less well off mummy who actually needs to shop in charity shops.

Of course, that’s something of an over-simplification; the WVS laydees in the charidee shops don’t really know the value of what they’re selling so wouldn’t know how to market it effectively anyway, and they are getting something for the poor, because the dress the ME (from now on I’m not going to type ‘Micro-Entrepreneur’ but abbreviate it to ME – which while my original intention was labour-saving seems somehow very apt!) sells for £200 did cost her £2.00 from Cancer Research in the first place. Another angle would be that the buying and selling of Vintage Tat is really no different to Antique dealing, and Antique dealers have been ripping off charity shops (and the people dependent on charity donations) for decades.

These are very good points, but being a bear of very little brain who tends to see things in black and white I can’t help but feel that as far as profit margins go there might be more moral ways of going about the ME business – i.e. advising the charity shops on what they have and working on a commission basis, perhaps? And while there’s certainly some truth in the accusations levelled at Antique dealers, the inherent problem with that argument as a justification is that it’s built entirely on the premise of two wrongs equalling a right, which I fundamentally disagree with.

Later on in the programme Grayson went back to the (yawn) Pantiles for the Farmers’ Market, where people queued to pay over the odds prices to people in waxed jackets who assured them that their products were ethically and/or organically farmed or handmade by an artisan butcher/baker/candlestick maker.

Again, markets are nothing new – they’ve been around for centuries and were, in fact, the traditional way for farmers, together with artisan butchers, bakers or candlestick makers, to ‘market’ their wares to potential consumers. The difference with a Farmers’ Market, however, is that while traditional markets operated to market forces, ensuring that punters didn’t pay over the odds and perhaps even walked away with a bargain, Farmers’ markets operate on perceived value; something which, in a town like TW where the need to be seen buying the ‘right’ thing seems often to outweigh all other considerations, can lead to prices which are frankly ridiculous.

Once again, the logic here defeats me. While I can totally see the appeal in buying meat or fruit direct from a farmer or bread from a baker I can’t understand for the life of me how cutting out the ‘middle-men’ makes the products more expensive. From the farmer’s point of view it makes good sense to sell direct if the situation is that the supermarket will only give him 3p for a field of kale and then sells it at £1.00 per 500g. Assuming the field nets, say, 40,000 or so bags, that’s £39,999.97p for the supermarket and thruppence for the farmer, which of course is totally immoral. But if the farmer goes to a Farmers’ Market and sells each bag at £2.00 that’s £80,000 profit straight in his bin on a crop that has in the non-farmers market got a market value of half that at retail prices and only 3p at trade prices – and that’s totally totally immoral! Don’t hold me to the math, but if there’s a flaw in my logic I’d be happy to hear it, ‘cos I just don’t get this.

Looking at Farmers’ Markets and Vintage Fairs in tandem, it strikes me that both seem to operate along similar lines to the business model favoured by a certain tailor employed by the Emperor in a story by Hans Christian Anderson. He also made a killing on ‘perceived value’. I think that tailor could probably do a roaring trade in TW, and the place would be a hell of a lot more interesting on a Saturday night if he did choose to relocate here. J

Final word on Farmers’ Markets: I took my son recently to the (yawn) Pantiles for the food fare (fayre?) there. Got to say I’ve never seen such a fine array of oversized olives! Like golf balls, some of them – got me wondering whether there might be some positives to genetic modification after all 😉 *whistle*.

After wandering around and buying a few ‘bits’ I noticed son was looking a little bored, and asked him what he thought of it. He said ‘well, it’s just like the farmers’ market in Tonbridge, really, only bigger and three times more expensive’. Now if a fourteen year old autistic kid can work that out, what does it say about the good people of TW?

Something else Grayson had to say about the people of TW – and which largely they concurred with – was that they seemed to have a ‘desperate need’ to be seen as ‘good people’. This seemed to underpin every aspect of their existence, dictating what they did and with whom they did it; what clothes they bought and from where; what food they ate and what they cooked it in or if eating out where they went to eat it; where they shopped and how much they spent and even how they furnished their homes.

Sadly, none of this came down to personal taste or preference – it was just a case of getting it ‘right’, with the biggest struggle of all being how to get it ‘right’ enough to satisfy everyone else while still maintaining a small shred of individuality and originality. I hate to think that would extend to personal integrity too, but suspect for some that it would.

Grayson, rather rudely, IMHO, was judged to have failed to get it ‘right’, despite the guidance of one of the town’s vintage fashion gurus who, presumably, would have moved in the same circles and helped some of the other guests with some of their fashion choices from time to time(?). I think in reality Grayson’s failure to impress had more to do with him being a rather butch bloke in a frock, and while I can understand that response on one level (but wish I was a better person and didn’t) I also feel that if you knowingly invite a rather butch transvestite to your dinner party you shouldn’t really criticise them for turning up looking like a rather butch transvestite!

Grayson may not have been particularly graceful, but he was certainly the most interesting and individual of the dinner guests, and I’ll take content over style any day of the week. He can come and eat from my tagine any time he wants (and that is NOT a euphemism, and I’m not even going to dignify the suggestion with a response. Other than that response I just responded with, obviously…), and I wouldn’t give a flying fuck whether he turned up in a dress or a suit or a bin liner.

My final thought on the people of TW is a rather unsettling one: What lies behind that ‘desperate need to be seen as a good person’? Just who are they trying to convince, and why? Two immediate possibilities spring to mind, and neither of them are very reassuring.

For my own part, as a life-long resident of TW who for various reasons has not been very socially active for the past decade and a half, I think the town has grown closer towards its ‘Middle England’ stereotype rather than away from it, and that it’s to the town’s detriment. Somebody pointed out to me the other night that this is probably a reflection of the country – or at the very least the S.E. – as a whole, and I suspect he might be right.

Without banging on too much about nuclear families and the ‘I’m alright Jack’ culture that has developed from the political agendas of the fifties through to the present, I think the social ‘angst’ of the Middle Classes probably has its roots in an inability to consolidate their idealism with the reality of their lifestyles. On the one hand they want to save the planet for their children, but on the other they’re driven by an unrealistic sense of entitlement and a nagging sense of underachievement to grab more and more for themselves. They are ‘comfort consumers’, buying Jamie Oliver cookware, honking great 4×4 cars and honking great golf-ball sized olives to assuage their sense of emptiness and longing.

Saddest of all, it seems to me, the bigger the gap gets between the haves and have-nots the greater that anxiety becomes, because the have-nots, whether they’re those who want a few more quid to keep up with the Jones’ or those who want another few hundred thousand to keep up with the Barrington-Jones’, are always going to outnumber the haves.

Fortunately for them, most of the real haves seem to lack any sort of social conscience whatsoever and to care not a skool sossage for the good opinion of others, and they leave it for the daft buggers in the middle to do all their agonising for them. So you’re unlikely to see any real entrepreneurs queuing up at Vintage Fairs and Farmers’ Markets, though chances are if the profits get big enough you may well see them investing in them… 😉

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