Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Great British Institutions
There has been much talk this week about Britishness, Chancellor of the Exchequer - and soon to be Prime Minister - Gordon Brown has been talking about the need to teach Britishness to potential new citizens of the UK. I thought I would take the opportunity to examine some of the things that the British do.
A slight increase in my mobility has meant the opportunity to get out, so out we went - shopping. So we'll start by examining one of the great bastions of the British way of life: Marks and Spencer. Because I do not have optimum shopping mobility I had the opportunity to dispassionately observe what makes Marks, as we fondly call it, so special (some may argue that the role of dispassionate observer is the default setting for a male shopper).
Our choice of Marks is a large out of town affair, on a large retail park accompanied by an Ikea, Toys 'R' Us and a B and Q. In addition to its other merits, the one level layout suits me at the moment. Our shopping strategy was well thought out; V. parked me on a thoughtfully placed chair by the door while she went on reconnaissance to identify potential purchase targets.
Sat in the poor-mobility seat it was easy to observe fellow customers and form some idea of what makes Marks. My crutch and Frankenstein's boot marked me out as an object worthy of sympathy, this delivered by way of indulgent smiles, nods and encouraging comments: "You won't be buying socks then".
That was the first thing that defined the Marks' experience: people are so nice - and that is the, very British, word that sums up the Marks and Spencer experience: nice; like a good cup of tea is nice, or a day out at the seaside is nice; understated, comfortable and pleasant, just nice.
But these nice people seemed quite narrowly defined. Their clothes may well have been the result of the last trip to Marks'. For men: shoes not trainers; trousers not jeans; shirts not tee-shirts. For women: smart trousers or skirts; if jeans are worn they are designer jeans (not Marks' jeans interestingly; though if men wore jeans I think they would be Marks'). The women have nice make-up and nicely cut hair - not obviously stylised, but nice. Both sexes wear good coats rather than waterproofs.
The whole experience of Marks and Spencer is pleasant, no music just the click and swish of coat hangers on rails; and muted conversations as people have relaxed discussions with good diction about possible purchases. There are accents but they are accents with rounded edges.
Yes, shopping at Marks and Spencer is a distinctly comfortable experience, there is non of the subliminal aggression you get in town centres, where groups of lurking youths bristle with latent menace making passing shoppers feel uneasy. Dissatisfaction with anything at Mark's is expressed with with a polite reprove or mild sarcasm. There is no pain in shopping at Marks - and here is perhaps one of the clues to its character - there is no apparent worry about spending, no anxious checking of price tags - shopping at ease for people at ease.
Wandering around the purchase targets V. had identified made my foot ache so, while V. tried on a couple of selections, I sat again. This time I perched on the edge of a display, it wasn't until I had been sat for a few seconds that I noticed the smiles and looks of fellow shoppers - I was sat beside three slender manikins wearing only lacy lingerie (size 10 - I checked). I must have made an amusing sight - an apparently benign middle aged man, obviously lame, sat beside these teasingly dressed dolls.
And perhaps that is the overriding feeling of the Marks and Spencer shopping experience, safe and benign: nothing bad can happen, women can be sexy but in settled relationships; men are not racy or dangerous, it's all so very nice.
I was left wondering though, whether this niceness doesn't extend into smugness; and I wondered too about what happens when people who are not 'Marks and Spencer' people wonder in with loud voiced mobile phone conversations and vulgar manners.
A British icon but, perhaps, not for everyone.