Why is it that every time a lockdown crawls to the finish line we suddenly have the need to mock people standing in a quiet orderly line outside a clothing store? What is it that gets our judgmental juices flowing? If the picture were of people queuing outside a book store this morning, there would be nothing but praise: “Look at the wonderful people, so desperate for books!” Authors would be sobbing grateful tears into their morning coffee.
Later on today we will no doubt see people lining up outside a beer garden. We will cheer them on for sitting in their coats, a light dusting of snow surrounding their wine glasses, because they want to be with their mates again. Newspapers will print happy smiling faces of punters waiting for their chance of a plastic table and some outdoor crisps – but anyone lining up to shop in Primark will incur only mockery.
So, what is it about the sight of ordinary people standing quietly outside a shop known for cheap clothing that makes some people react this way?
This may come as a shock to the scornful, but some people in our country just don’t have the money for expensive clothing shops. Some are poor – and the vast majority of us could no more line up outside a sample sale for Gucci, than fly to the moon.
We can’t all afford to shop in expensive boutiques in leafy parts of London – and the fact is that most people in this country shop on the high street in chain stores that actually (whisper it) provide great value clothing for money.
We can argue about the impacts of fast fashion and our global responsibility to the world to buy better and shop less, but the fact is many people don’t have that luxury – so why do we mock them? Is it poverty itself that we fear so much?
I grew up in a council house – at times we didn’t have toilet roll. We had food, but on occasion, when we ran out of spare cash, my mother ripped up pieces of newspaper and nailed them on the toilet door.
As a schoolgirl, I had to use local authority vouchers to buy my uniform in cheap clothing stores, and it wasn’t the end of the world. I didn’t die of shame, even if I didn’t much like it very much as a self-conscious teenager. People can live in that world and have happy lives, regardless.
Poverty is all around us. But just as stark as the nation’s poverty is the irony of composing worthy tweets about hungry children and homeless people, and in the next breath, sending out a zinging mockery of people waiting in the street for a shop to open.
This snobbery hides a deeper fear – that of being ordinary. Who are you if you can’t wear nice things with fancy labels sewn on to them? What if (god forbid) you lived the kind of life that meant your family needed you to go and line up outside a high street store in the early hours of the morning? Oh, the horror!
But let’s get real: our economy has suffered hugely over the past year. Businesses have struggled to survive, and we only have to look at the list of casualties on the high street or walk through our city centres to see the boarded-up shops and “closed” signs.
With shops reopening today, many ex-retail staff who had regular wages, a bit of a discount off the goods and happy lives will find themselves out of work. Topshop is gone. Debenhams is gone. Thorntons is gone. The list is long – and if we don’t want the other shops on the high street to join them, then make no mistake: we all need to get out there and start buying things as if our society depended on it. Because guess what? It does.
So, we should be cheering people who are lining up to spend their hard-earned wages at the moment – and yes, that includes people sitting in a freezing beer garden, sharing a drink with mates they haven’t seen for many months.
This has been a hard time for all of us. We have lost time, some of us have lost loved ones; many people have lost their jobs. We want so desperately to get our lives back on track and look forward to doing all the things we love again.
We need to get back out there safely and we need to start shopping. So the next time you see a picture of people lining up outside Primark, just have a word with yourself. And rather than the snarky tweet you were about to post, how about cheering them on? Because those quiet ordinary people standing in a line are the ones saving our economy.
Julie Owen Moylan’s debut novel THAT GREEN-EYED GIRL will be published by Penguin Michael Joseph in April 2022. It is available for pre-order from all good book stores
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