Liz Fraser, 9th November 2009
Something is afoot in Cambridge. People are talking in hushed, excited tones; groups of women gather in coffee shops nervously fingering their credit cards and discussing how they’ve arranged to leave work early tomorrow and offload their kids onto anyone who would take them, to ensure they ‘get there on time’; teenage girls appear more than usually giggly and hyped; and on more than one occasion I overhear the word ‘stampede’. Stampede? Crikey. That’s not very Cambridge.
When something is as afoot as this, I like to know what it is. What, I wonder, can merit such mass whispering, bunking off work, child-abandonment and buffalo-like behaviour? Have the boffins of this city discovered the cure for cancer? Are they offering cut-price masters degrees? Is Bruno Tonioli selling off his excess hyperboles?
On Friday morning I have my answer. Cycling back from town mid-morning I see an ant’s trail of people stretched out across the park as far as the eye can see, all carrying their badge of honour: a Primark paper bag.
Yes, dear reader, Primark has arrived in town.
As news spreads, as it does with alarming speed round these parts, so my daughter’s friends get wind of the arrival of the Shrine of Cheap, Sparkly Material Ecstasy. And three nanoseconds later the news of what is being billed as the most exciting thing to have happened here for four hundred years (Crick and Watson really should’ve got a PR person to sex it up and capitalise on the teenage gossip network when they discovered DNA…) reaches my daughter too, despite my taking the phone off the hook, banning all email, averting her eyes from passing busses and throwing all the local papers in the bin presto pronto.
The secret is out. And now I’m in trouble.
I’m in trouble because I know immediately that I will have to take her. And I don’t want to do this for a number of reasons. First up, I hate shopping. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I realise this makes me barely female, but there you go. Secondly, I have an anti-sheep mentality. If everyone is going left, I turn right. Where the rest of the world likes to flow with the current, I battle upstream like a loony. If everyone is going to Primark, why on Earth would I want to go there too, and dress the same as them?
But I’m also normal enough to be curious about something that everyone is talking about, and to want a peek at the action. I’m normal enough to know that when you’re eleven years old, being different is NOT what you’re striving for. You want to be as the same as humanly possible as your mates, from the clothes you wear to the music you listen to, to the annoyingness of your mum.
Cloning would be ideal, but failing that, a trip to Primark is the next best thing.
So off we go. Sunday. Late morning. Me and my two girls. And 85% of the population of East Anglia.
Entering the store is like walking into Hades, only slightly hotter. Swarms of adrenalin-fuelled shoppers, eyes wide with fear of missing out on the last shiny Xmas party number a size 16 and mouths wet with the taste of a good bargain fill every inch of this vast, barely-glorified shopping trolley. There are guards on duty to ensure fights don’t break out over the £1 knickers. On the ground floor we pass a queue of eighteen people waiting to join the real queue of fifty six, each holding several netting bags weighed down with utterly bargainous and unnecessary items of clothing – but, curiously, all looking thoroughly miserable.
Upstairs, a further seventy two people are queuing to do the same, and in the children’s section on the top floor – yes, Hell comes in three illuminated floors here – I count sixty eight parents lining up to get their brown paper medal of consumerism. And that’s to say nothing of the accompanying twenty-odd toddlers all strapped mercilessly into their buggies, screaming as they slowly overheat into a coma in their buttoned-up coats, and the thirty odd boyfriends/dads/husbands who stand about doing a convincing impression of a depressed corpse.
As the three of us wander about from rack upon rack of £2 T-shirts to ceiling-high displays of hair extensions (£1 a pop – how can you not?) holding hands for dear life through this heaving human embarrassment, it hits me that I feel two things in equal measure: disgust, and desire. I hate everything I see, I abhor the obscene wastefulness, feel sickened by the smell of underpaid workers wafting off every hanger, and saddened that all these people can think of nothing else to do on Remembrance Sunday than consume as much as possible and think only of themselves. But I love some of things I see, and I want them. Quite badly.
I am appalled but enthralled…and it disturbs me. Because however principled you are, however hard you may try to buy ethical and not but what you don’t need, a rack of gloves at £1 for two pairs (2 pairs!) and pretty tops for less than the price of a coffee are almost irresistible. I really don’t want to buy into all this, but the ‘Buy Me!’ message is getting a tighter hold on me with every escalator.
As a mother of three I have to watch my purse constantly. Kids grow out of their clothes, rip them or lose them in a term, and I’m just not sure if I can resist the lure of an entire replacement wardrobe for £20.
Local shops must be quaking in their boots. Competing with this is going to be like fighting off a tsunami with a manual pump. The fact is that even if the quality is lower, an £8 party dress is an £8 party dress, and only someone I’d not like to hang out with very much would prefer to pay £49.99 in Monsoon instead, only for their six-year-old to spill Ribena on it at a party. There’s being principled and there’s being a nincompoop. Debenham’s was handing out free coffee leaflets right outside the door, and I sure wouldn’t want to be the manager of Next right now.
As for my daughters, well, they are fairly blown away by what they see, never having been in a place like this before. We don’t buy ‘fashion items’ which last one season in our house (well, OK, sometimes we do, but as a rare treat): clothes are bought when needed, looked after and handed down. We throw away nothing. So to see such rampant indulgence is quite something for them. But, because they are normal kids with normal desires, they manage to ignore the grimness of it all, and just love it.
This whole experience also leads us to have an important chat about developing countries, and the cruel importance of these dreadful sweat-shop jobs to those for whom it is their only source of income and escape from an even worse world of prostitution and disease. I could see my daughters struggling to come to terms with the dreadfulness of a life spent between a rock and a very hard place, while they argue over such trivia as who has the bigger slice of pizza.
In the end we buy nothing, we’ve learned a thing or two, and I come away with a shopping list of ‘please, please pleaaaase may I have’s for next time.
And what am I going to do with it? Well, my theory is this: I’ve laid down the basics early and they know about appreciating things, waste not want not and all that. Most of the time we are Good People. But every woman who remembers being a teenager knows that fashion is a massive part of growing up, and I know I have to shut up and let the reins go a little – no, quite a lot actually! – in the coming years and let my eldest play with what suits here, what she likes to wear and where she fits in.
And if that means walking across the park with a brown paper bag like all the other ants in town once in a while, then so be it. Just not every weekend, eh…