Christina Patterson: How has the designer handbag become the symbol of Britain?

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

There's nothing wrong with a handbag. Mine was 50 quid from Camden market, and it is, though I say it myself, quite nice, and sometimes other people say it is, too, and I feel I should pass the compliment on to the Chinese factory worker who probably made it.

It doesn't, to be honest, look as though anyone has spent too long agonising over its shape, which is rectangular, with two straps, and two little pockets, one, maybe, for an Oyster card, and one, maybe, for a phone, though I'm not sure anyone should spend that long agonising over the shape of a handbag.

But I do find it just a tiny bit depressing that, 20-odd years after it became the symbol of a very bossy, cost-cutting prime minister, who would not, I think, have recognised the necessity of any kind of design, the handbag appears to have been selected as a symbol of the pre-eminence that Britain would like to have in the world. This week, in China, our Prime Minister, who is married to a woman who once designed a handbag which cost nearly 20 times as much as mine, and which she named, perhaps because it therefore felt almost as precious as life itself, after her daughter, announced the appointment of a woman who designs handbags, and who also happens to be a friend of his wife's, and who also happens to be the former boss of the woman he has just appointed, at the taxpayer's expense, to manage his wife's image, as a "business ambassador".

The idea, presumably, was to persuade 1.3 billion people to swap their annual salary for a "lacy shoulder" in "soft, distressed leather", or a "Milton", which, it turns out, has very little to do with Paradise Lost and a lot to do with faux leopard skin, and which could even have been made in a factory down the road. It's not entirely clear whether meetings about handbags took place before or after lectures on human rights and before or after meetings about shoes. Because our Prime Minister wouldn't want the Chinese to think that the only thing we could offer them was handbags, or that designing them was the only way that a woman could be something important like a "business ambassador". Oh no. We could also offer the people of the People's Republic high-heeled, "designer" and extremely expensive shoes, because he had appointed another "business ambassador", and another woman!, who ran a company that made them.

It's possible, I suppose, that the people who make Anya Hindmarch's Milton bags, and who made her bags that said they weren't bags, and who make the Jimmy Choo shoes for Tamara Mellon which Jimmy Choo doesn't himself get to make, all make them in smart industrial spaces, with swanky gyms attached, which they travel to from gorgeous loft apartments in a silver Toyota Prius, but it's also possible that the conditions of the people who make these things are more like the conditions of some of the people who make things for Philip Green, who is not just a "business ambassador" for the Government, but also advises it on inefficiency and tells it, for example, to not pay people for as long as it's legal not to.

Philip Green knows a lot about efficiency, because he knows that if you want to make a lot of money, which is another way of saying if you want your business to be successful, then you tend to pay the people who make it for you as little as you can. But you don't really have to go to China to tell people that, because they know it already. The proportion of its GDP that China has been spending on wages has been shrinking for the past 22 years, but you don't get to be the world's fastest growing economy by paying people high wages, just as you don't get to fly 100 of your closest friends to your birthday party in the Maldives by paying people higher than necessary wages. You get to do that, as a Channel 4 Dispatches report revealed this week, partly by using a supplier which pays people half the minimum wage and crams them into a sweatshop, while your company (in this case Bhs) is still a member of something called the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Once you've made your money, the important thing is to keep it. So you might, for example, when your wife says that she wants to live in another country, which is entirely understandable, agree that it's an excellent idea all round. It also turns out that you can stash up your money, which is now her money, in little piles that nobody in the country you still live in, and in particular nobody who might want to build a road or hospital or school, can touch.

While some might think it's a bit strange that some people choose to live in a country full of people who seem to like their money more than their spouse, their family or their friends, other people think it's a normal condition, like breathing air, and they think that living in the same country as your friends and family, but where you might have to pay a tiny bit of tax, is like having to stagger around in an oxygen mask, and that, at a time when lots of people are losing their jobs, and lots of people are being thrown out of their homes, they're doing those people a massive, massive, massive favour by still breathing the same air as them, even though they have to breathe it through an oxygen mask. And so, when David Cameron lectured the Chinese on human rights, big British bank bosses lectured him on tax. They told him that it was very important that they should still be able to get more money as a bonus than most Brits earn in a life. If they couldn't, they would rip off their mask and go.

The Chinese, by the way, have so far remained silent on matters relating to handbags. They've remained silent on matters relating to high-heeled shoes. But they have, apparently, ordered thousands of our pigs. Well, there are plenty more where they came from, and a lot of them are wearing pin-striped suits.

At long last, I've become Gadget Girl

Earlier this week, I wrote about Britain's wasted talent. It's now clear that, to quote a man whose talents are extremely well hidden, I misunderestimated it. Britain isn't just talented, it's exploding with technological genius. How do I know this? Because practically everyone I see is clutching an iPhone.

Finally conceding that it might be a good idea to have access to the internet on the rare occasions one wasn't actually shackled to one's laptop, I decided that the time had come to swap the mobile that bush-dwelling Zambians sneered at for something a little sleeker. And after credit checks geared more towards a Great Train Robber than a woman who has meekly paid a lifetime's bills on time, I was handed the little box that would, I thought, make me modern.

But being modern, I now see, means being born with some telepathic instinct that tells you, when no leaflet does, that you have to uncurl a paper clip and do some Freudian thing with a hole, and release some secret shutter that was entirely invisible until you, in desperation, Googled a diagram, and it means somehow knowing that when something on the screen is tiny then opening your fingers like a crab will make it bigger, and it means that you can tap away with a thumbnail on a keyboard the size of the carved ivory miniatures popular in the Middle Ages, and what appears will not be in Serbo-Croat but in intelligible English, and it means remembering all kinds of passwords and typing them in without watching them evaporate before your eyes.

I could practically have brought up a child on the care I've lavished on this ghastly gadget this week. I only hope parenthood is more rewarding.

The very model of a Scandinavian monarch

It was a big moment in the Patterson household when King Carl Gustaf of Sweden married a woman called Silvia Sommerlath. My mother took us all up to the Swedish church in London to watch the wedding on a big colour telly and to eat slices of Swedish cake. Queen Silvia looked, we thought, a bit like our Auntie Lisbeth. King Carl Gustaf looked a bit like Bjorn from Abba. But you don't have to be handsome to marry a beautiful woman when you're a king.

You don't, it turns out from a book published this week, have to be handsome to have sex parties, either, or dinner parties where your guests turn up wearing only fur coats, or to hang out at clubs with gangsters. The king, known to Swedes as a quiet family man dedicated to children's charities, has said that he wants to "turn the page and move forward". He's certainly made sure that Scandinavian royals are no longer best known for their cycling.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/queenchristina_

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