The Essay: Hey, big spender

Always buying things you don't need? It's the only way to counter the boredom and uncertainty of modern life, says self-confessed shopaholic Douglas Kennedy
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
A confession: I own nine fountain pens. They aren't cheap ones either. I have a Dunhill, a Cross, two Lamys, a Rotring, a Waterman, a Parker, a Pilot (with a retractable nib), and a Mont Blanc. I also own four upscale rollerball pens: a Dunhill, a Recife, a Links and an ultra-flash Jorg Hysek. The total cost of these writing implements is just under pounds 1,200. Of course, I have accumulated this collection over the past five years - which means that I have probably spent around pounds 240 a year on pens. Not exactly extravagance on a major scale - but it still bothers me.

I own five watches: a Cartier, a Tag Heuer, a Dunhill, an Emerish-Meerson, a Swatch. The total investment here is around pounds 2,250 - and the watches were purchased over the past decade. What's more, I bought the two most expensive timepieces as rewards for two big book deals. In short, I didn't exactly break the bank. And yes, they are good investments. And yes, the Cartier will be handed on to my son one day, blah, blah, blah. But the idea of spending so much money on a bunch of watches still bothers me.

I have four pairs of spectacles and three pairs of prescription sunglasses. I have a collection of 3,500 compact discs - many accumulated free of charge when I used to write about classical music for a variety of newspapers. But though I really don't need to buy another CD, I still find myself drawn into Harry Moores, or the nearest branch of the Music Discount Centre, or any other emporium of recorded classical music, rifling through the stacks of CDs searching for that reissued Erich Kleiber recording of Der Rosenkavalier ... even though I already own four other recordings of the same Strauss opera.

I have five designer suits, three leather jackets, four raincoats, a dozen pairs of shoes, a half-dozen pairs of trainers, two dozen T-shirts and (until space forced me to sell half of them) about 3,000 books. I have accumulated all this booty, all this stuff - and I continually ask myself why I have this need to keep on buying things. And yet, when I articulate such feelings of consumerist guilt to my friends, they generally laugh at me - and call me a latent ascetic, not to mention an anhedonist (someone who cannot enjoy himself).

"Shopping is fun," I was told recently by one such chum. "Shopping is therapeutic. Anyway, you can afford it. More to the point, as shopaholics go, you're truly minor league. I mean, how much do you spend a year on clothes?"

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe pounds 1,000."

"A thousand quid?" he said, laughing. "That's all?"

"It's enough."

"Oh, please. You sound like an Augustinian monk."

"But I've got enough clothes already."

"Then give some away to Oxfam ... and start buying more."

"You can't be serious," I said.

"What the hell is wrong with shopping?"

"It's empty and pointless and addictive."

"But you do it."

"I know - and it really bothers me that I like it so much."

"We all do it."

"But why do we shop so much?"

My friend considered this question for a moment, then said:

"Because it passes the time."

Passing the time.

It's an ongoing, universal preoccupation - how to fill the days, the hours, the minutes of this temporal construct we call life. Sleep and work consume most of our time; they are followed closely by domestic and familial obligations. But then we come to that chunk of the clock which is now devoted to leisure ... better known as the hours in which we must find ways of amusing ourselves. For a handful of latent Victorians, leisure is a segment of life that is there to be used for productive self-improvement: whether it be learning Mandarin Chinese, practising Bach partitas, reading Proust, doing charitable works among the mendicant classes, or taking brisk, bracing walks through brisk, bracing landscapes.

For those new-fangled gymnosophists (the sort of folk who, among other things, probably believe in that oft-quoted dictum of Pascal: all of man's problems stem from his inability to sit alone quietly in a room), leisure is a time meant strictly for contemplation ... for spiritual introspection, meditation, rumination, lateral thinking, and (for the truly Californicated) a little bit of freelance channelling to boot. If life is an ever-winding river, meandering fluvially through the cascading rhythms of time (to quote the late Sonny Liston), then leisure is that moment of reflective stillness during which we take stock, masticate on such chewy issues as the fundamental inexplicability of everything, and also read the tea leaves.

But for the rest of us slobs, leisure is a synonym for both entertainment and narcissism. By and large, we fill the time passively: watching television, watching movies, surfing the net, leafing through newspapers and magazines, eating and drinking, and maybe doing something truly retro like reading books. Even allegedly "active" diversions such as "working out" can be filed under amusement - as gyms and health clubs these days package themselves as centres of leisure and pampering, not to mention places where you can never be alone with your thoughts (as piped music and/or blaring televisions attempt to keep your mind off the sheer brain-dead dullness of slogging away on a stair-climber).

Of course, we are constantly told that we now have far more leisure time than in the recent past. But I would argue that our lives are far more contracted and time-fixated than those of our parents. After all, they inhabited that post-war world where a job was usually for life; where global corporatisation had yet to exist, and where its engulf-and-devour side effects (mergers and acquisitions, downsizing, and assorted other "economies of scale") didn't result in widespread professional insecurity. Indeed, when it comes to work, we now live in The Age of Anxiety: an era when there is no such thing as career security; when the strain between professional and familial responsibilities is deeply acute; and when time is, verily, money.

My father, for example, was always a corporate man - but he never found himself working constantly until nine on a week night, or vanishing to the office on the weekend (as many of my City friends are now forced to do). Nor was there any creeping fear about one day showing up at work and discovering that his company wasn't there any more, as a competitor had taken it over and snuffed it out.

"The only way you could get fired during the Fifties and the Sixties," my father recently noted, "was if you got caught screwing the chairman's secretary on the boardroom table. And even then they'd probably let you off with a warning ... though they'd undoubtedly get rid of the table."

More tellingly, my father was a product of the American Depression of the Thirties. He was a Brooklyn boy - the son of a naval officer, who grew up in a shabby-genteel Irish-American neighbourhood near Prospect Park. Though he later prospered as a businessman, he never had a gnawing need for material objects. To this day, he's still wearing the same watch he bought in the early Sixties. Because, after all, one serviceable watch is enough to get you through life. He has 30-year-old pairs of shoes in his closet - re-heeled and re-soled over the years, naturally, but still in good condition. He has never spent more than $500 on a suit ... and continues to wear a couple of classic, sedate Brooks Brothers numbers he bought when Lyndon Johnson was president. And he's never spoken openly about having an avaricious desire for a little red sports car, a yacht, or the sort of high-end stereo system which allows you to actually differentiate between the third and fourth double basses in the string section of the Berlin Philharmonic.

No, he's not Francis of Assisi - and I'm certain that, like most people, he's entertained certain material fantasies over the years. But like so many members of his generation (on both sides of the Atlantic), he came of age in a time of deprivation. And even though he made money in the era of plenty that followed the war, he could never accept the idea that you really needed more than you needed. Or, to put it another way, when I bought him a fancy designer briefcase a few years ago, he was hugely touched by the gesture, but he asked me to take it back because: "I've already got a briefcase."

"But Dad," I said, "I've got three briefcases."

"Well, that's dumb," he replied. And, of course, he was right.

Though my father's generation was materially conservative (despite living in a time when job security was high), they were surprisingly laissez- faire about their health, their alcohol intake and their attitude towards child-rearing. After all, back in the Fifties, women happily smoked and drank through pregnancy. The three-Martini lunch was a commonplace event. The gym was a place strictly for bodybuilders. You could light up a cigarette anywhere. And drinking and driving was not yet considered a Satanic act.

Who the hell ever talked about cholesterol levels in the Attlee or Eisenhower years? Or worried about excessive salt in one's diet? Or the need for ongoing colonic health? Over lunch with a university friend recently, we got talking about family holidays in the early Sixties. She told a splendid story about setting off with her two siblings and her parents on a summer vacation to Cape Cod.

"Mom got us seated in the back of the station wagon, then Dad emerged from the house with a thermos flask of gin Martini - which my parents got through on the four-hour drive to the Cape."

My friend's father was no Deadbeat Dad, either - rather, he was one of the leading corporate pioneers of American television. These days, of course, if you were caught drinking gin Martinis in a moving vehicle (with your kids in the back seat) the DSS would descend upon you in a heartbeat. And perhaps one of the more curious ironies of contemporary life is this: though we've all become materially extravagant, we've simultaneously embraced social conservatism with enormous zeal. We can spend ourselves and our families into financial ruin ... but don't you dare blow smoke near my child's pram.

Of course, nowadays we are all beholden to a basic economic concept called "market forces". We can't simply be good at what we do, we must also show profitability. There is no such thing as paternalism in professional life anymore. What have you done for me today? is the modus vivendi of our times. In this age of moronic celebrity, we worship success ... even if it is without content or substance. Because, of course, success is now seen as a bulwark against that encroaching fear we all grapple with: the idea that in the great corporate scheme of things, we are all expendable.

Given that insecurity is the great undercurrent of our times, it's not at all surprising that we find ourselves in a state of constant dissatisfaction. This discontentment propels us forward, making us seek out antidotes to our intruding sense of boredom and personal futility. Of course, this state of existential ennui is nothing new. Pascal himself, writing his Pensees in the mid-17th century, wittily hit the metaphysical bullseye when he noted that: "Human beings are so unhappy that they would be bored even if they had no reason for boredom, simply because of their nature. They are so vain that with thousands of legitimate reasons for boredom, the slightest thing, like tapping a billiard ball with a cue, is enough to distract them."

But a distraction holds our attention only for a limited segment of time. Once we tire of that distraction, we find ourselves grappling with boredom yet again. It's a grim, constant cycle: boredom begets distraction begets boredom begets distraction begets ...

Well, you get the idea. How then do we break this enervating cycle, a cycle which fuels our general sense of despair? Pascal himself came up with the following deft, sly solution: "Anyone can spend a life free from boredom by gambling just a little every day. If every morning you give [people] the money they would otherwise win, on condition that they do not gamble, you make them unhappy. You will say perhaps that they are looking for entertainment not the winnings. Make them therefore play for nothing; they will not become excited, and get bored. So it is not simply the entertainment they are looking for: tame, uncommitted entertainment will bore them. They have to become excited and deceive themselves, imagining that they would be happy to win what they would not want to be given on the condition that they did not gamble. They work this up to a frenzy, pouring into it their desire, anger and fear of the thing they have created, like children who take fright at the face they have just created."

Were Pascal alive today, I've no doubt he would have seen parallels between gambling and the act of shopping. Because, at heart, both gambling and shopping are forms of self-deception. And self-deception is, in turn, yet another way we attempt to grapple with the pervasive dread of boredom which stalks us throughout our lives.

Gambling, of course, is really all about the pleasure of loss. All right, there may be a few professional card sharks out there who make a living at the blackjack tables. But for most punters, entering a casino is essentially about giving in to that common need to be defeated. Loiter with intent in any house of games, and you will see people running through hundreds, thousands of pounds in an evening. Most of the time, these players aren't the beneficiaries of Gulf oil money, they're ordinary working stiffs - the sort of people who probably think twice about taking a cab home if the tube is still running, but are still prepared to blow that month's mortgage payment at the roulette wheel. Because - as any serious gambler will tell you - there is something so damn edgy, bracing, and out there about playing the game (even though, in reality, the game plays you). For a few hours, it amplifies one's sense of personal drama. In this sense, the confirmed gambler is related to the sort of guy who always goes after the most complicated woman in the room. He knows that, ultimately, he's going to get badly burned, but he still needs the theatricality of the encounter because getting hurt (emotionally and/or financially) tempers the mundanity of existence. For an hour or two, anyway.

Similarly, shopping is also about drama. We know we don't need that pair of designer shoes. We know they cost pounds 300. Credit cards are dangerously over-extended. Even if our credit situation is favourable, do we really need to drop all that cash on a superfluous object? Of course we do. Because there's a thrill to buying the unnecessary; to spending money we don't really have - or which we should be using sensibly elsewhere. Anyway, we're all going to die, right? Fuck mortality, here's my Visa card ...

And then, when we return to the humdrum place we call home, the shoes suddenly seem less shiny, less stylish, because they have been removed from their theatrical setting. At home, there is no artificial construct. At home, there are dirty dishes in the sink, and faecal stains in the toilet, and children's toys strewn on the floor. At home there is mess. And the shoes - which struck us as so much larger than life, so desirable in the shop - are suddenly reduced in size, because the drama of the purchase has ended, and you have re-entered the realm of the prosaic. You've been seduced ... and abandoned.

Talk to anyone who designs "retail outlets" for a living, and they will tell you about the need to seduce the potential customer - to draw them into the image which the retailer is trying to foster; to make them want to embrace that image; to buy into the lifestyle and/or state of being which the product attempts to represent.

We buy image. Emporio Armani makes us believe we can all epitomise Milanese chic. Gap peddles a stylish representation of family life (among the professional middle classes), and also suggests that even 40-year- olds can still dress like students. Timberland and Caterpillar sell us the sort of heavy-duty footwear suitable for hiking in the Rockies, even though most of us will never wear them beyond our local high street. The Conran Shop makes us believe that life is a loft. Nike gives us delusional notions of street cred, not to mention a whiff of athletic accomplishment. Even food is now packaged as an important affiliate of lifestyle - with items such as extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and rocket leaves becoming requisite articles for anyone who wears the badge of metropolitan sophistication.

And, of course, what we're really purchasing are the disparate identities that material goods afford us, because we are constantly seeking new ways of defining ourselves - especially in an era when self-image has been so dented by the sense that nothing is durable, that things really do fall apart, and the centre does not hold. Did you know, for example, that at the dawn of the Sixties in the United States, only around 4 per cent of all marriages ended in divorce? Nowadays, the figure is closer to 50 per cent (statistics that are similar in Britain as well). The idea of permanence - in relationships, in business, in communities - has been fractured. And so we shop - in search of a sense of validation we can't find in others, let alone within ourselves.

No wonder they call it retail therapy. No wonder most serious shopaholics admit that the urge to buy is at its most frenzied when sadness besieges them. And perhaps one of the supreme ironies of our time is that, although we live in an age of job insecurity, we're still currently fuelling the biggest consumerist boom imaginable. I spend, therefore I am is the prevailing dictum of the time. And we all embrace it. With a vengeance. Because what else is there to embrace nowadays? The great 20th-century ideological battle is over. The developed world is, largely, free of pestilence and disease. Assorted notions of the Almighty are available for those who need that sort of spiritual succour - just as there are plenty of cults, spurious lifestyle doctrines and an Everest of self-help literature for those seeking a structure or formula to the inexplicability of life. "Family values", of course, has become a fashionable concept (especially among the politically minded) - because these values imply a return to so-called "basics", to social solidity and order. But since every second family is being cleaved by divorce, the family itself is an endangered concept. And as for all those wonderful, old-fashioned social democratic ideas about the common good, well ... we may still have an emergency version of the welfare state in place, but the one true unifying global belief de nos jours is: the market decides.

"Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness or ignorance," wrote Pascal, "men have decided for their own happiness not to think about it."

Especially when we can shop.

Comments