Christmas on the never-never

Christmas approaches and the demand for Barbie houses seems as buoyant as ever. The cheapest Barbie Dreamhouse is £250 from Argos. Littlewoods have it at £329. Why would anyone pay £79 more? Presumably because Littlewoods have the option to buy now and pay later.

Littlewoods are entirely transparent about what this means:

What is Buy Now Pay Later?
Buy Now Pay Later is an interest bearing option that allows you to delay payments on your purchases for up to 12 months. The delayed payment period starts from the date of order (including pre-ordered items and those not ready for immediate dispatch).

You can choose:
A delayed payment period of 12 months and then a repayment period of 104 weeks when you spend £50 or more.
A delayed payment period of 12 months and then a repayment period of 156 weeks when you spend £99 or more.

How interest is calculated?
Interest will be charged for the delayed payment period and the chosen repayment period.

Interest is calculated and compounded daily at a typical rate of 44.9% per annum for the delayed payment period and repayment period and is charged to your account at date of order as a lump sum. This calculation factors in the planned payments that are requested during the repayment period. Your interest rate is personal to you and will be detailed in checkout.

Buying things through weekly payments is nothing new. Many people will remember mail order catalogues.

Enterprising individuals would keep the catalogues, take the orders and collect the money; their reward would have been a small commission. The fact that their dealings would normally have been with family, friends and neighbours presumably ensured that defaults on payments were not common, but there must have been serious strains on friendships when payments fell into arrears.

The catalogues rarely had anything that might not have been bought in stores in a good-sized town and their prices probably were probably higher than the prices that might have been paid in the high street, the difference was that they allowed payments over months, twenty weeks, or forty weeks, or more.

In a high street store the only items that did not require an immediate payment were the sort of thing that one bought on hire purchase, televisions, washing machines and the like.

Hire purchase came with the threat of repossession if one did not keep up the payment of the instalments so, naturally, one could not have bought clothes, or many of the other things in the catalogues, on HP. The catalogues were successors to the door-to-door salesmen with their suitcases of clothes and household goods for which the repayments were collected week by week.

If one analysed the customers of the travelling salesmen and compared them with those who paid instalments on hire purchase, or mail order catalogues, and then compared both groups with those who might buy a Barbie dolls’ house through payments, the common thread would be the lack of access to other forms of credit.

Barbie houses are not essential, but there are other things that are, and the people least able to pay for anything are those who pay the highest prices.

It is an odd world that takes most from those who have the least.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Odd rhymes

Perhaps it was the dog-end of November daytime gloom that triggered the recollection. The deep greyness of the sky blanketed the city with a half-light. Indoors, reading without a lamp was difficult.

It must be forty or perhaps fifty years since I heard the words, my sister would recite them. They must have been learned from a member of the family or from someone at the village primary school, for we had no other contacts who would have been inclined to share odd lines of verse.

The first stanza, if I recall it correctly, went something like this:

One fine day in the middle of the night
Two blind men got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other
Drew their swords and shot each other.

Perhaps there were other verses, perhaps the lines recalled by my sister were no more than an introduction to a tale.

An online search brought me to the webpages of the British Columbia Folklore Society. The Folklore Society’s version of the rhyme that was so often recited by my sister has four stanzas and suggests that the men were not blind but dead.

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys* got up to fight, [*or men]
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other,

One was blind and the other couldn’t, see
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”

A paralysed donkey passing by,
Kicked the blind man in the eye,
Knocked him through a nine inch wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all,

A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came to arrest the two dead boys,
If you don’t believe this story’s true,
Ask the blind man he saw it too!

The length of the rhyme suggests it predates the truncated version which for so long intrigued us.

The BC Folklore Society received variants from North America, Europe and Australia, it has obviously been a rhyme that has travelled and that has undergone frequent adaptations. The multiplicity of versions and videos to be found on the web suggest that recitation of the words is still popular with some children.

Where did the rhyme originate? The lines are attributed to Spike Milligan, but given that Spike Milligan was not born until 1918 and that the lines have been in print since the 1920s, the attribution seems unlikely.

There are no suggestions as to the meaning of the lines, Wikipedia suggests the rhyme is “nonsense verse.” Perhaps within it there is an allegorical significance, but if there is, it’s hard to find.


Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Advent reason

“It stands to reason,” my mother would say, and if it did not stand to reason, then it did not stand at all.

Our upbringing was not religious, but was deeply ethical. Jesus of Nazareth was seen as a model for life, his treatment of people was an example for people to follow.

Once someone drifted from the ethical to the religious, then they had moved away from that which stood to reason and what was there to differentiate their claims about the supernatural from the many old superstitions that persisted in Somerset and from the esoteric beliefs of the neo-pagan hippies in Glastonbury?

If there was no criterion of reason, if there was no ethical code, then it could be whatever some church leader said it was.

The church has steadily watered down the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the ethical demands he made, replacing them with a spirituality of reassurance: don’t worry about the way you treat others, have the sacraments, believe the right things, attend this liturgy or that course, and you will get to heaven.

It doesn’t stand to reason.  It implies that Jesus favours those who have rejected his ethical teachings on justice

As Advent arrives tomorrow, the shift becomes obvious.

The book of Revelation Chapter 1 verse 7 has the following words in the King James translation:

Behold, he cometh with clouds;
and every eye shall see him,
and they also which pierced him:
and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.
Even so, Amen.

The words inspired John Wesley to write the following verse in his hymn Lo! He comes with clouds descending.  There was no mistaking Wesley’s understanding of Revelation, if you rejected the teaching of Jesus, then the end of life and the day of judgement would not be a welcome prospect.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

The words “those who set at nought and sold him” were felt by some as being susceptible to an anti-Semitic construction, “those” was seen as referring to the Jews. Such concerns could have been addressed by substituting “we” for “those.” This has happened in the hymn now sung in churches. Revelation 1:7 is now rendered as:

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
we who set at nought and sold him,
pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
Lord, have mercy,
let us all thine Advent see.

However, it is not just that “those” has disappeared; the whole meaning has been changed. There is no deep wailing anymore, the day of wrath is something to be welcomed by all, “Let us all thine Advent see.”

Jesus didn’t say that, Jesus is clear about his ethical demands.

What then is the point of belonging to a church? What is the point of ethical behaviour? Do Christians now posit an amoral God who does not discriminate between heinous criminals and those who have striven to live just lives? If all end up with the same reward, sure, what’s the point in bothering?

It doesn’t stand to reason.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Old and cold

The BBC carries news of the demise of another energy supplier.  Perhaps the proper term should be re-seller, for the insolvent firms have been locked into contracts where they had to buy the energy at a price far higher than at which they could sell it.

Customers who have lost money through the financial collapses will be protected, but there promises to be little protection for the many ordinary people who will be unable to pay the higher energy prices and will sit cold in their houses.

The thought of someone sitting cold in their house always bring memories of the lady in the little village sub-post office.  Go in the door of the shop with its bare shelves to buy a solitary postage stamp and she would appear through a doorway – an old green cardigan wrapped around her and a hot water bottle clutched to her chest. The lady and her elderly mother had sunk into a genteel poverty.

The old always suffer the most in cold winters.

In part, it is because that older people are generally less physically able to cope.  In part, perhaps, it is also a matter of fear.  If your only means of support is your weekly pension, then you will be afraid of incurring any debt. If anything goes wrong, you will have nothing with which to pay, so you carry on setting a bit aside each week, when you can, and you carry on trying to make sure you do not touch your savings, particularly your savings for your funeral.  Even when it becomes very cold, you try not to spend more than you had planned, even if that means extra clothes and filling hot water bottles, even if it means you have no comfort at your own fireside.

It seems odd that a government that can find billions for companies during the pandemic can offer no guarantee that older people will not be cold this winter.

The people who will suffer most, as ever, will be those who have tried to be responsible.  The people who worked hard and stewarded carefully what they had, and made the money go around as best as they could, are often the very people who are just above the very low thresholds for any assistance.  Like the sub-postmistress fifty years ago, they will be left to do their best to get by.

All those lessons about working and saving and budgeting can sometimes seem pointless.

Posted in This sceptred isle | 2 Comments

Spare us the revolution

“We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.” The words of James Connolly are at the head of a poster pasted on various street electricity boxes.

Revolutionary action? Exceptional times? Aren’t the times always exceptional and what is achieved by attempts at violent revolution?

My forebears rallied to the revolutionary cause in 1645, they stood in the ranks of the Parliamentary army on 10th July 1645, an army that inflicted an humiliating defeat on the forces of the Crown, and what did it achieve? The miserable and violent years of rule of the Commonwealth, the dictatorship of the war criminal Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. No Stuart monarchy could have been worse than the rule of the Puritans.

Forty years later, the men of our community rallied to a Protestant revolutionary cause again, supporting the claim to the throne of the Duke of Monmouth against the Catholic King James II.

Monmouth was popular in the south-west of England, popular among the farm labourers and artisans, popular among non-conformists. Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 11th June 1685 and met the Crown forces on Sedgemoor, outside of Weston Zoyland on 6th July 1685. Monmouth’s army suffered heavy casualties on the battlefield. 2,700 of the rebels were captured, 750 of those were transported and 320 were executed in the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys.

The West Countrymen had little cause to love the Stuarts and welcomed William, Prince of Orange, when he landed in Brixham in 1688 and began the Glorious Bloodless Revolution. The Catholic James II was driven out and the Protestants William and Mary became monarchs, not that it made much difference to the lot of poor farm workers in Somerset.

In the Nineteenth Century, agrarian conditions had worsened and revolutionary actions were again seen as the only available option. In the neighbouring county of Wiltshire in the 1830s there were more than two hundred acts of violence in the name of the mythical Captain Swing, actions that included machine breaking, rick burning and cow maiming.

Whilst expressing deep anger at the deepening poverty felt by far workers, the Swing disturbances did nothing to improve the lot of those who were suffering. The response of the government to the widespread poverty in the nation was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which brought with it the horrors of the workhouse.

Revolutions have only worsened conditions, even those who quote James Connolly must realise the consequences of revolutionary action. The 1916 revolution in Ireland brought a bloody War of Independence, a bitter Civil War, and years of struggle for working people. Much as the revolutionaries may despise it, reform has always achieved far more.

Posted in This sceptred isle | 1 Comment