Tuesday, October 21, 2008
LONDON: The expensive stores along Bond Street and Sloane Street have fallen eerily quiet. So have the cheaper ones scattered all over town, the Monsoons and the Topshops and the Next outlets - ubiquitous staples of the insatiable British shopping diet. Britons, like everyone else, are coming down from their huge spending spree.
But mass consumer culture is relatively recent here. Britain's modern identity was forged in part by postwar values like thrift, prudence and living within your means. Even as alarm courses through the country like an electric current, there is a parallel thought in the air.
It is this: Perhaps the downturn, however difficult, will usher in a return to that elusive concept, traditional British values. Perhaps the last 15 years or so will be considered a sort of madness, an anomaly, a strange dream. Perhaps people will lower their widely inflated expectations and stop their habit of wanting things - whatever they are almost does not matter - that are flashier, bigger and better.
"I think there is a mood of austerity," Vince Cable, finance spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party, said in a recent speech, talking about society as a whole as well as the banking system. "A reaction against greed, excess, waste, tax cheating and selfish, self-indulgent behavior."
Already, people are losing their jobs and houses, and businesses are failing across Britain; the downturn is going to be very bad. But what is striking about the past era is that much of the incredible boom in consumer spending was stimulated by people who, even in good times, could not afford the things they were buying.
Buoyed by easy credit and inflated property prices, the British public spent itself into debt, a total of £1.44 trillion, or $2.56 trillion, of it. Britons now owe, on average, 180 percent of their disposable income. One-third of consumer debt in all of Europe is held by people in Britain, said Chris Tapp, deputy director of Credit Action, which counsels people about how to handle debt.
Audrey Hurren, a retired secretary of 65 who was waiting for the subway in central London the other day, put it a different way.
"I think it wouldn't do any harm at all for some of the younger generation to be less greedy," she said. "It's not a very nice thing to say, but maybe they could behave a little more sensibly."
Hurren was raised just after World War II believing that if you couldn't afford it, you didn't buy it. By contrast, she said, her granddaughters have more than she ever dreamed of, and are still dissatisfied.
"They don't appreciate anything - it's easy come, easy go," she said. "They get a mobile phone; if they don't like it, they throw it away and get a new one."
In an interview, Tapp said that different generations were likely to respond to the downturn, which is now being called a recession in Britain, in different ways.
People in their 30s and younger, too young to remember the last recession in the early 1990s, have grown up in a world "where credit has always been cheap and easy and available," he said.
For them, there is no precedent for frugality.
The austerity of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the privations of the 1970s - when electricity was briefly rationed and the country put on a three-day work week to save fuel - are stories to read about in books.
"The idea of saving up for what you buy - that's what you did when there weren't any credit cards," Tapp said.
In the boom years, the so-called soft sections of London newspapers grew fat on articles about ever more expensive goods and services geared toward the conspicuously consuming masses. But suddenly, even the papers are talking as if they have woken up with a jolt after a long drug-and-sugar binge.
"I am happy to observe that the decades of vulgar excess are finally over," the columnist India Knight wrote in The Times of London. "There is a strong collective sense of us all coming back down to earth. It's like a huge national reality check and, unwelcome as it may be, there is a possibility that it will result in us straightening out our priorities."
The left-leaning Guardian, whose detractors lampoon it as the kind of newspaper that encourages you to "knit your own lunch," has begun printing guides to surviving in the new age of austerity: cultivating an urban garden, cooking with leftovers, using less energy.
The Times recently featured an article about how to make old clothes newly fashionable by, for instance, cutting the sleeves off coats (and wearing the coats over long-sleeved sweaters). Another article, in the Sunday Times, offered tips on "Fifty Ways to be a Recessionista."
The author David Kynaston, whose book "Austerity Britain" discusses the privations of the post-World War II era, said that until the mid-1980s - the Thatcher era - Britain was "careful, cautious, understated, naturally socially conservative."
But, he added in an interview, "In the 1980s, there was essentially a psychic shift in how to use money. What went out the window was the old puritan self-consciousness, even a sense of guilt, about money."
After the recovery following the recession in the early 1990s, everything changed even faster.
Spending was glorified; so was borrowing. Banks began offering 125 percent mortgages. Credit card debt soared. In a recent book, the psychiatrist Oliver James complained that the country was suffering from "affluenza."
People got used to more expensive things. Organic food was presented as a necessity for good health; supermarkets emphasized "luxury" ranges of foods. Britons abandoned traditional seashore vacations and began flying to Europe. Upmarket sandwich shops appeared across London, replacing the old, humble ones. The need for new gadgets at home soared.
All of that feels expendable now, Allison Burton, a 31-year-old hairdresser, said in an interview.
She mentioned a friend whose husband had just lost his job.
"She wrote down what their outgoings were and managed to save herself a grand a month," Burton said, by doing things like switching to a less-expensive cable-channel package.
Stores are now marketing themselves on the basis of cost rather than quality or exclusivity. Supermarkets have unveiled new no-frills foods and pledged to match their rivals' low prices. Tesco has refashioned itself as "Britain's biggest discounter."
Lindie Parry, 25, a transportation project manager walking down Victoria Street with her husband, James Bain, 40, said she had begun shopping at less-expensive supermarkets. Bain said that people were remembering that they could often get free coffee at work - not as good as Starbucks, but coffee nonetheless - and that bringing lunch from home was cheaper than buying it in a shop.
"It was great while it lasted," Parry said of the boom time, "but nothing lasts forever
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