Winter Blunderland in a Nation of Shopkeepers

The weather has disrupted much of the United Kingdom’s normal traffic and services, so why make this blog an exception? I’m interrupting the series of posts about accents, planning to pick it up again after a few holiday-themed pieces.

Animatronic figures in a seasonal display at the Wellington Shopping Centre, Aldershot, Hampshire

Snow and ice began to shut down much of Great Britain again on Saturday. The post (mail) didn’t come, but the milkman came early, before the snow fell; we woke up to several inches of snow unmarked by any footprints, so it seemed like the sack of bread and cheese and milk must have been delivered by magic—or possibly by a milkman with a jetpack, though I don’t think the local dairy distributor has that kind of technology.

Feeling smug because our groceries had come and we didn’t have to go out, we switched on the radio to hear that Gatwick had reduced the number of flights going in and out, Heathrow had cancelled all flights, and the Brent Cross Shopping Centre in north London had closed early. Huh?

This is the national news. Okay, it was the last weekend before Christmas in a recession year in which much depends on what is spent, as they say here, “on the High Street” (which means the major retail chain stores that appear on the main streets of most towns), but it still seemed odd to put the closure of one shopping centre right up there with cancellations of flights at some of the world’s busiest airports.  If a shopping center in Washington DC or in New York were to close, I don’t think it’d be national news, but it’s different here. The British may comment negatively on American consumerism, but from where I sit it seems the British themselves put significantly more emphasis on consumption than do the Americans I know.

Britain’s reputation as “a nation of shopkeepers” dates back to the 18th century. (Napoleon famously said it, but the economist Adam Smith got there first.) It follows that England is also a nation of shoppers; it would have to be, since the nation of shopkeepers hasn’t yet ended in a country-wide going-out-of-business sale. A poll not long after we moved here seemed to clinch it: over 50% of British people surveyed listed shopping as their favorite leisure activity.

I do not consider shopping a leisure activity. I consider shopping a necessary evil, made even more trying by the fact that the cost of living here is remarkably high and I have to watch my pennies like never before. Put the high cost of goods here together with the fact that salaries tend to be lower than in the US, and it’s no surprise that consumer complaints and consumer protection are big topics. Anyone found “contravening the Trades Descriptions Act”—cheating the customer—is considered low-life scum by all Right-Thinking People. At least three BBC TV programmes expose fraudsters—Watchdog, Weekend Watchdog, and Rogue Traders—but the first line of legal defense for consumers is the Trading Standards Bureau, which investigates complaints and may eventually see that fraudsters are prosecuted.

And so the 2010 festive season brings the news that the court case against the proprietors of a Christmas-related scam from 2008 has just opened–or at least an alleged scam, as the owners of Lapland New Forest are innocent until et cetera.

First, for Americans, some explanation of that name: The New Forest is an area in the south of England which is relatively unspoiled—as much as any area can be in a country in which forest clearances began in the Bronze Age. And more importantly, you have to know that while American kids believe Santa lives at the North Pole, British kiddies believe Father Christmas lives in Lapland. In a grotto. (Why a grotto? I have no idea.)

So this time two years ago, the web site of a brand new theme park, Lapland New Forest appeared, touting the “magical tunnel of light”, “bustling Christmas market”, and “Hollywood special effects” to be seen. Elves would meet you at your car and escort you into the “snow-covered log cabins” where you and the kiddies could make ginger-bread houses, sample seasonal food, and see live polar bears. There was to be a nativity scene, ice skating, dog sleds, and—of course—Father Christmas in his grotto. It sounded stupendous, and those inclined to theme parks (our family isn’t) snapped up the £30 ($45) tickets, available only in advance via the internet, and in limited numbers so that ticketholders wouldn’t have to spend the day fighting crowds or waiting in queues (lines). (Tickets were £25 if bought in bulk; £10 for children under 2—yes, 2, not a typo for 12. A single parent taking a three-year-old to see Santa there would cost almost a hundred bucks).

Alas, it was a case of virtual reality–funny in hindsight, but not funny to families that paid as much as £300 to get everybody in for a big Christmas treat. The nativity scene was entirely without live donkeys and lambs or even a “Hollywood special effects” version of same, as it was only a painted billboard in a muddy car park (parking lot). There were a few huskies, true, but they were chained up to doghouses in the mud, where they sat, howling.  The polar bear was made of plastic, but the snowman was live, or at least the person inside a snowman costume was live, which was made clear when he stalked off saying he wasn’t going to put up with verbal abuse from the disappointed punters (paying customers).

The tunnel of lights consisted of a single strand of fairy lights (ordinary Christmas lights) strung on trees along the entry path.  The ice rink’s ice machine didn’t work, but at least that saved customers the cost of renting skates.  Entering the Christmas market turned out to cost extra and, when you got in, you found only four market stalls; the seasonal fare was the same burgers and sausages sold out of mobile refreshment vans at every event in the UK (perhaps it was “seasonal” in that they jacked up the prices). The gingerbread-house makers ran out of gingerbread after the first hour.

People queued for as long as 3 hours to see Father Christmas and then found that, unless they were prepared to pay another 10 quid (15 bucks) to have the official photographer take their child’s picture, their kids didn’t get to meet Santa Claus, but could only wave at him from a distance.

Disappointed parents at one stage attacked Santa; others settled for brawling with each other in the gingerbread house. And the elves, when they found they wouldn’t be paid until Christmas Eve, went on strike.

The press called it a “Winter Blunderland” or renamed it “Crapland”. (Note: crap is much less socially acceptable here, where it’s a much stronger term than the mild expletive it is in the US.) The management barred the press, so at first the only coverage of the story consisted of footage of the mud taken from outside the gates and at some distance—one of the few clips with any action showed an elf who’d sneaked around behind one of the buildings for a smoke. You can see what the comedians of the satirical BBC programme Have I Got News For You thought about it here; that footage is probably the best entertainment that Lapland New Forest’s management provided, and the jokes are all on them.

This year, the UK is in need of some seasonal entertainment, since the estimated half a million people trying to rebook cancelled flights and the thousands spending the night in Heathrow airport can’t even console themselves with a leisure-time shopping trip to Brent Cross. Our nation of shopkeepers is a nation snowed in. In some houses, I’m sure they’re cheered by seeing the Lapland New Forest management get its comeuppance. And we’re warm, snug, and smug at our house, as long as the milkman keeps coming.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Winter Blunderland in a Nation of Shopkeepers

  1. MFC

    I am SO envious of the dairy & bread home-delivery! (The snow? Not so much.)
    What are the chances that an English person would say, “IN the High Street”, rather than “ON the High Street”?

    • Your questions about in/on the High Street is really interesting. There’s no logic to the use of prepositions; it’s all just convention. And people here, in talking about the economy, actually *do* say “spending on the High Street”, yet they would never say “I live on the High Street” or “There’s a hairdresser on the High Street”. So why do they say “You can read in any newspaper from WHSmith’s *IN* the High Street that the spending *ON* the High Street is up this year”? (Though it may be down. I have no idea.)

      You can do a quick and dirty check for this kind of thing using Google searches. I searched–limiting the doman to sites ending in “.uk”–on the following: “spending in the high street” OR “spent in the high street” OR “spending in high street” OR “spent in high street” [the last two to catch phrases such as "spent in high street shops" and "spent in high street stores", etc.], then I searched again switching all the INs to ONs.

      It’s 10 to 1. Using that as a rough guide, UK web sites use “on the high street” ten times more than “in the high street” *when discussing consumer spending*. Weird, huh?

  2. Not just bread and dairy, either. Today I got plastic wrap (UK: cling film) from the milkman. He can bring huge bags of compost and kitty litter, Pepsi in 2-liter bottles, cookies and crackers, fresh (refrigerated, that is, not canned) soups, and on and on. If you order in advance, he can bring you what’s called here a “veg box”, in this case, an organic veg box: a big box of whatever is in season from local farms. And as for baked goods, he’s got pretty much anything you might traditionally serve a teatime: crumpets, muffins, tea cakes, small loaf-shaped cakes.

    The selection is limited, though, to brands that are major and traditional, you might even say old-fashioned. There isn’t much cheese other than the leading brand of cheddar. You can’t get any really good bread, only pretty much the bland sliced loaves; there’s one type of bread with interesting seeds and things, but that’s it.

    But why am I describing this, when you could look at the web page? Go to http://www.milkandmore.co.uk — the headline, over a picture of a milkman, reads “Let me fill the gap between big shops” — they use “shop” here to mean “shopping trip”, and that’s what’s going on in that headline; it doesn’t mean a physical gap between physical shops!

  3. They used to do a diary too. Quite a nice one – A5 size with recipes. Not sure if they still offer it these days – I’m going way back to the 80s, when I last ordered one.

    • Yes! The Dairy Diary. I’ve never seen one. I’ve always looked at the ads and order forms for that and wondered why anybody would want a dairy-themed diary, but now that I actually know somebody who vouches for it, maybe I should give it a try. But I’ve already ordered my diary (US: appointment calendar) for 2011, from Mslexia magazine, so I won’t be doing it anytime soon.

      • Mary Korndorffer

        Oh I was a regular Dairy Diary enthusiast. Haven’t got one THIS year, but kept them in the kitchen, and had grand resolution to cook whatever recipe they offered that week. Failed again. They had very useful household advice (e.g about cleaning spillages of red wine / chewing gum) and first aid diagrams!
        Snow seems to be clearing from this side of Guildford, so maybe able to extract the car today!
        ATB
        Mary K

  4. Chris

    I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the British, our famous reserve, owes a lot to the dominance of London and Londoners in the face we show to the world. Outside of London and certainly the further North you go, the more likely it seems to be that a stranger will engage you in conversation.

    I spent two days in London whilst undertaking a course at Regents College and no-one spoke to me at all during that time unless I spoke to them first. try spending two days in Yorkshire without anyone speaking to you! Of course I’m biased, being from the North, but my mum is a perfect example of the non reserved Brit, if you spent more than two minutes in her company I guarantee you would would be sucked into a conversation, she talks to everyone.

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