Stay out of the shops!

There were two reasons why I was excited, a few months ago, to walk into my second favourite bookshop.  Firstly, the senior partner wasn’t with me.  This meant I was to have the rare pleasure of slowly pondering the tomes without him huffily checking his watch and telling me I don’t need any more cookbooks.  Secondly, Berkelouw Books has a toilet, so I knew I could relieve the effect any bookstore or library has on my digestive system, and then carry on browsing, clench-free.  I was looking for something new, an author I’d not read before, maybe a whole new genre.  So I asked the two assistants behind the counter for their opinion.  They looked at me with blank faces and there was an awkward silence, until one of them said: ‘Er…I don’t really read.  Much.’

I resisted.  Honestly, I did.

Then I said:  ‘You know, I don’t have to come in here.  I can buy any book in this shop, online, for less than half the price and have it delivered, free of charge, to my door.  Or I can use my kindle and have it instantly in a format which is easier to read than a book.  And cheaper.  But I come in here because I like this bookshop and I want to support it.  And because it provides me with a shopping experience.  So don’t tell me you don’t read, much, because all you’re really saying is that you’re completely unqualified to do your job, both in terms of experience and attitude.’

Of course, I didn’t say this in the shop.  I said it about twenty minutes later on the way home, and I said it in my head, but I think she got the point.

Here’s another one.  Last winter I had the shopportunity to get a new ski jacket.  That’s a big purchase, so I did lots of research online and carefully chose the one I wanted.  Then I went to a store in Sydney and almost cried to find it was a whopping $900.  Back online, I found it in the States for $300.  Not on sale, that’s just how much it cost.  Except, guess what, they don’t sell online to Australia.  So I paid a shipping firm in California $10 to buy it for me and another $20 to deliver it to my door.

Then, on Sunday, I was in David Jones.  By the way, I don’t spend my life shopping, honestly, these examples cover twelve months.  Anyway, three shop assistants – three! – chatted around me as I struggled to reach a teapot at the back of the shelf.  Now, I know they were all on the tired side of fifty, and I know it was a Sunday,  and I know department-store lighting plays merry hell with your skin, but all the same.  Ladies, come on, the job title is Shop Assistant, there’s a bit of a clue in there.  Anyway, then I saw the price and thought ‘I’m not paying $345 for that!’, came home and found it for $119 online.

If you’re reading this in Australia you’ll have your own examples.  For the rest of you, people in Sydney swap these stories almost as much as we talk about property prices.   Surprisingly, both conversations are great social levellers.  This is because everybody hates being ripped off and nobody can believe how much property costs.  Investors in their sixties cashing in their pensions to buy an investment;  couples in their fifties moving into their last house;  people in their forties looking for something they can pay off before they retire;  thirty-somethings trying to get on the ladder.  We all struggle to believe what we have to pay.  And the twenty-somethings?  Don’t be silly, no-one in their twenties can even think about buying property over here.

Recently, though,  something interesting has started happening.

Firstly, the guilt at buying online  – ‘I know I should by local but it’s just too exxy’  – has begun to assuage.  This is partly because of the price difference, but mostly it’s because of the appalling level of service.  You feel less guilty threatening someone’s job if they can’t be arsed doing that job in the first place.  (On the other hand, I know full well I could get my sports-shoes cheaper online, but those guys at The Running Company are knowledgeable, helpful and charming, so I’ll always go there.)

Secondly, a few people have started whispering that Australia ‘needs a recession’.  After all, we haven’t had one in over twenty years.  Then property prices would fall.  Shops would learn to give a fair price, and service would have to improve because people would be competing for jobs and sales.  This kind of talk makes me curious: why are we Australians the only people in the world to call it the GFC  (that’s Global Financial Crisis for readers overseas), when we’re one of the few countries to prove it wasn’t a global phenomenon?

But, more than that, talk of ‘needing a recession’ makes me very uncomfortable.  It’s not as bad as saying we need a war, but it’s on the same scale of Be Careful What You Wish For.  Because let’s look at it another way:  maybe I should just stop my white whine.  “Boo-hoo!  I have to go online to get a good deal on a top-end ski-jacket.”  “Boo-hoo, a twenty-year old science student working part-time in a bookstore isn’t more widely read than me.”  “Boo-hoo, ageing shop assistants aren’t so desperate for commission they’ll massage my ego.”

Property prices are different:  it’s a national disgrace that successive governments have done nothing to make housing affordable for young families, instead structuring taxes to favour wealthy investors.  But the rest is just whining.   Everything being expensive is the price we pay for living in a country with a decent minimum wage, close to full employment and half the raw materials China needs to build its cities.  We need a recession?  Give me a break.  Say that to anyone in the US or Europe and see how they react.  We are the lucky country and we should never, ever forget it.

Anyway, must dash.  The postman’s at the door with some Australian wine I found cheaper online in London.

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The Kids Need To Know

We have a legend in my family, a grain of truth cultured over the years into a pearl of a story, about the day my brother came home from sex education at school. He’d have been about ten, I guess, which sets this story in 1975, my mother between husbands, furiously feminist and making sure everybody knew it. I remember holding mum’s hand in the supermarket in those days, listening to her persuade strangers that if they were doing the shopping, and carrying it home, then it was their husbands and children who should bloody-well cook the stuff. Anyway, when Jonathan got home that day and said ‘We had sex education in school’, my mother, of course, quizzed him about it, just as she did with me a few years later. (Mum: ‘Anything you didn’t know already?’ Me: ‘I didn’t know men had periods too.’ Turns out I’d got confused about ejaculation.) Anyway, long story short, the next morning my mother is in my brother’s headmaster’s office, banging her fist on the table and demanding an explanation of why, at no point, not once, was the clitoris mentioned in her son’s sex education class. ‘You’re going to ruin the next generation of men too!’ she yelled. Years later when, at the slightly more appropriate age of seventeen, I confessed to my mother that I wasn’t quite sure where it was either, she nearly crashed the car trying to show me. With hand-gestures on the dashboard I mean.
About two years after that near-miss in the car, I taught myself to type. I can’t remember why. I was also learning the alphabet backwards and how to shuffle cards, I probably just saw someone doing it and decided I wanted to learn. It was a good choice. I made more money through my twenties from being able to type than I did from either of my degrees.
And the connection between the keyboard and clitoris? It’s about what we teach our children. I have to confess right now that I haven’t been in a school in thirty years, so maybe all the stuff I’m about to talk about is actually taught to kids these days.  But I doubt it. For example, are we telling kids they should never ever just pay the minimum amount mentioned on their credit card bill? My step-dad, a bank manager, taught me that at fifteen and despite all the other financial mess I ever got into, I never had a big card bill growing fat on compound interest. And do we teach kids the basics of economics, so they can understand how exchange rates, inflation and the stockmarket impact their daily lives? Do we teach them to deconstruct adverts, to see how they are being manipulated to believe in lifestyles that don’t exist by people who just want their money? Oh, and don’t start me on photoshop. Please tell me there are schools somewhere which show teenagers, with slideshows, how celebrities really look and how they look once they’ve been photoshopped into the shape we’re all supposed to be. (Mylie Cyrus has thighs! The man on the front of Men’s Health doesn’t actually look like that!).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking morality here, that’s a whole different debate. Morality is akin to religion and, next thing you know, you’ve got men and women who’ve foresworn ever having an orgasm giving out relationship advice, or looking after small children. No, I’m talking about basic practical stuff everyone needs to know. Like over-paying on your mortgage, checking ingredients before you buy, the basics of personal hygiene, what plants are growing around you, how to cook five good dinners, painting a wall, what sugar does to your body, how to cope with tough times. I’d love to hear your additions to this syllabus.
So where did you and I learn all this stuff? From our parents probably, or maybe just life. Same place we learnt to ride a bicycle, make small talk at parties, persuade petty bureaucrats to do us a favour. But isn’t that leaving it all to luck? Isn’t the point of school to give the next generation the greatest chance of success? After all, if school doesn’t teach kids about life and how to cope with it, there’s a good chance they’ll learn from TV, movies, the internet and magazines. And if that’s the case, heaven help us all.

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