I have had something of a checkered past, in terms of work and personal relationships, that is. No fiddling of expenses, or LIBOR-fixing, or invasion of privacy, or “extraordinary rendition”. Not anything that might lead to prison, or more likely promotion. Also, I have had my fair share of bad luck, exacerbated by bad management, and I have never been what could be called “well off” in British middle-class terms.
However, although I have also missed a fair number of meals at one time or another, I have never missed a meal because I had no money and I’ve never been without a safe and comfortable place to live. These days, I have a pretty good life, in a good relationship, living in a comfortable house in a safe neighbourhood with all the material benefits that are commonly desired in the First World. Possibly unsurprisingly, this leads me to look outward rather than inward
I have had an uncomfortable relationship with Christmas for most of my life and I suspect I am like a lot of people and love it and hate it at the same time. I look forward to the event and the family gatherings, but the hard sell really pisses me off, and I do not like the way that the retail calendar increasingly dictates our cultural festivals. However, I have no problem with people indulging their children and themselves at Christmas, me included.
For the last two years I made a very conscious effort to shop local rather than global, and buy Christmas presents from Sheffield-based, or at least UK-based, producers and not launder my money quite as directly through the Cayman Islands.
Like many others, I watched the 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert on Thursday 6th November after it had been released online, and I can’t deny that I found it quite moving, even though I am savvy about some of the heart-strings that were being pulled. What’s more, it is superbly produced and tastefully composed in CinemaScope proportions to give it that cinematic feel.
Although I do not work in advertising, I am a filmmaker of sorts and I know a good production when I see one, and this is absolutely flawless. Even though it is just an advert. The last advert that I admired as much is the “We Built This City” #singitkitty, although I genuinely cannot remember what that one was advertising. It’ll come to me.
Anyway, the Monty advert should be good because it cost £1 million to make out of John Lewis’ Christmas advertising budget of £7 million. Sounds like a no-brainer but James Cameron spent $500 million on “Avatar” (2009) and that script was a bag of shite, so quality does not necessarily follow money.
The annual John Lewis Christmas advert has caused quite a stir and, year-on-year, they have been raising their game to the point where their Christmas campaign advert is now considered an “event”. Via Facebook, I stumbled across this online item from Matthew Champion in The Independent.
This brief item has a link to John Lewis’ website where you can buy an actual cuddly Monty The Penguin (“As seen in our TV advert”) for £95. No, really, £95. And this is where it all goes penguin-shaped.
I have no particular axe to grind about John Lewis. It’s just a chain of shops that I have used myself on many occasions in the past, and all they are doing is trying to sell you more stuff. Because that’s what they do.
However, this is a grotesquely cynical piece of manipulation, inspiring unattainable desire in children that can then be transmitted through their parents’ credits cards and into the bank accounts of John Lewis. This Christmas advert was released on the 5th of November, so we have got seven more weeks of this patronising, middle-class, mid-Atlantic, mawkish commercialisation to put up with.
If you look at the photograph of the cuddly Monty the Penguin that you can own, it’s not even all that well designed or well made. I’m sorry if that is unfair on the Chinese of Indonesian children that made them, but I would expect something more than “plush” to yank a ton out of my pocket.
I suppose it’s the lack of proportion that bothers me, the sheer cynicism of it, and here is my response, costing somewhat less than £1 million.
We all have a choice. If you don’t like what goes into McDonald’s food, then don’t eat there. If you don’t like the way Amazon treats its staff, then don’t shop there. If you don’t like the wages that Nike pays its workers in foreign sweatshops, then don’t buy their over-priced shit. If you don’t like the number of worker suicides in factories that manufacture Apple products, then don’t buy them.
That last one is a habit that I have yet to kick, although I bought my mum flowers for Mother’s Day. I have just about weened myself off Amazon, I don’t buy Nike and I haven’t eaten in McDonald’s for about 25 years (although I have had the odd beverage). I can’t claim to be in any way pure in my shopping habits and I am sure I still buy things that are made in China by children, but not so much.
Anyway, this year I decided to go one step further than buying local and make most of the presents destined for my family, those of whom still speak to me, and the rest of my inestimable disposable wealth would be shared amongst the poor of the parish.
In plain words, I decided to donate to the Homeless Christmas Shoebox Appeal, organised by the local Archer Project charity. The Archer Project provides year-round support for homeless people in Sheffield and each Christmas they appeal for people to donate a shoebox full of some of life’s essentials, wrapped up as a present.
The charity has a recommended list of items to include in the boxes on their Facebook page and this is what I included in mine:
Soap in a plastic box.
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Disposable razors shaving gel (for the men)
Facecloth & Nivea cream (for the women)
Notepad & pen
Chocolate and sweets
They also ask you to include a greetings card and wrap the box like a proper Christmas present.
So why did I have to over-achieve and make ten? Surely five would be good, and one is better than none, but ten?
Well, I thought of a number and having thought of it, any less would have been a failure. What’s more, I thought this number might ameliorate my middle-class guilt for not having made any last year like I meant to. And in the end, I quite enjoyed making my boxes for the homeless in Sheffield, so much so I wish there were more of them.
Not really, but I suspect there soon will be.
For the amount that I spent (which I can easily afford) I hope that I am helping ten people who genuinely need help, and all for just a little more than the cost of a single plush penguin from John Lewis.