Christmas is a time for … getting into debt and polluting the world with low-grade plastic tat?

The nights are drawing in towards the end of the year. After the imported ghoulishness of Halloween we have the splendid and ancient tradition of –

  • celebrating the return of the sun’s life-giving light after the nadir of the darkest day 
  • honouring the birth of Jesus Christ, emulating the gifts of the three Kings
  • splurging on our credit cards, going into debt to buy stuff for Christmas, save retailers from going bust and keep the wheels of capitalism running for another year.

More debt, more plastic, more trash. Ah, that’s what it’s all about, and I introduced myself to some of this when I took a wander into town to get a 5 x 2.1mm breakout power cable from Maplin. They seem to have displaced all the vaguely useful, if overpriced, stuff to make way for the Christmas gadgetry. No power cable for me, then. Perhaps I could get a cheap set of Christmas lights in time for our early December party then.

We all seem to feel a bit poorer nowadays than in the heady days of the Goldilocks economy, but clearly this isn’t bringing out an attitude of make do and mend in us. We simply want our tat, but cheaper, so welcome to the Pound shops across the high street from Maplin.

Yes, it's only £1, but you're still being taken to the cleaners
intense competition in the sub-prime retail space

Let’s take a look at what we’ve got here then. What really strikes me about Christmas in these pound shops is the absolutely execrable taste and design of this garbage. If this is the stuff that appeals to the children in the family, then the parents need to do some serious soul-searching as to why they are failing to inculcate any sense of taste in their progeny. Sadly however, looking at some of the customers, I fear that this is doing the underage population of Britain a disservice – it’s the adults that seem to have no detectable sense of taste.

People filling their baskets with plastic Xmas trash
People filling their baskets with plastic Xmas trash in Poundland.

Makes you want to slap these folks around the chops with a wet fish and holler in their ears

‘Stop fixating on the price. You’re still being taken to the cleaners because this junk should have never been made, never been shipped over here and should have been sent straight to landfill if we’d failed on the first two counts.’

But no. It’s only a pound, so what have you got to lose? Well, a pound, duh!!!! It’s actually worse that that, because you have to buy more house to store this crap!

How about some inflatable Father Christmases over here on the left.

Roll up, roll up, plastic rubbish for just a pound!

I mean, really, when is an inflatable Father Christmas ever a good idea? How are you ever going to bring up your kids to appreciate two thousand years of Western culture when you sully your dwelling and their braincases with such addled, vile and ephemeral trash? Just Say No. See the top photo – there’s a convenient bin outside the store. If you find yourself outside Poundland having spent good money on such crap then for God’s sake repent now and cram it in the bin to save everybody any further embarrasment.

Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with Christmas lights, and the move to LED lights is a welcome one, provided they are mains-powered via an adaptor. You reduce the power consumption, and the lights should last a lifetime. However, there is everything wrong with Poundland’s battery-powered LED lights flogged here.

Poundland e-waste designed to help them flog you batteries

Basically this is plastic e-waste that is designed to sell you their consumable batteries. Depressingly, if you try and be clever and use rechargeable batteries you will find that the 2.4V rechargeables gives a result dim as Toc H lamp compared to the 2.8-3V from disposable batteries, because there’s a  threshold effect on the LEDs. You’d either have to change the heat-shrink encased resistor in series with each and every LED to fix that, or chuck out the battery cases and use a three-cell battery case. Neither of which the punters are going to do, so you might as well add some of Poundland’s value packs of batteries. Because they presumably have them made to a £1 price you’ll be changing them all the time but at least it keeps Poundland in business.

Notice these are all strings of 10 LEDs because Poundland get these made to their £1 retail target, so it’s a royal PITA to string up enough of these for a show worth doing, in itty-bitty short strings with a battery box every 10 lights. They ought to give the lights away free as they’ll make it up on the batteries. Where else other than a pound shop can you buy such a short-assed string of lights? That’s the price you pay for being cheap – if you pay a bit more for a 30 or 40-light string then at least you can rig a decent show. But hey, it’s only a pound, you can’t lose!

Oh yes you can – saving money on lights at Poundland is going to cost you a fortune by Christmas – you’re gonna get through a lot of batteries by then 😉

Strangely enough, I escaped from Poundland without buying anything. Let’s take a butcher’s hook at Yippee next door

Classy shopfitting, perhaps some corporate social responsibility to give the local schoolkids something to do maybe?

Here we have a cavernous cathedral dedicated to plastic tat that used to be a JJB Sports before it all went titsup

Cavernous cathedral of tat

Why do they have security alarms on the escalators? I thought Poundland was bad, but the stuff on sale here defies description; it makes Poundland look like a outpost of Design Museum. I’d have thought they’d be grateful if people lifted it.

‘Ello madam, did we pay for this plastic abomination? No? Please, please, take more, let me get you a boxful, get it outta here!

Why? For crying out loud, why?

It’s at times like this that serious questions come to mind. For the last three hundred thousand years humanity has been involved with an epic struggle to self-actualise. We stand on the shoulders of giants, previous generations used hand tools to carve things of timeless beauty.

Saxon purse lid, Sutton Hoo, about 1000 years old. Where did we start going wrong?

Surely someone, somewhere, in the long journey from plastic pellets in some Chinese factory to the placing of this vile cat-shaped kitchen timer in pole position on Yippee’s display, should have asked themselves why? What are we doing here? And ideally smashed the mould 😉 For Pete’s sake, they couldn’t even line up the eyes and whiskers graphics with the nose button, or the zero marking.  Be competent at least, even if you can’t be tasteful. Talking of which, it appear that the town is short of Christmas -themed cowboy hats. Once again the waste of human potential struck me – somebody spent time ‘designing’ this for manufacture. Bet they’re going to wish they’d spent more time at the office designing such life-affirming tat when their time is nigh, eh?

less bad than the timer.. just. Still begs the question, why…? Just why make it, why buy it?

It was time to get outta there, before the cloying stench of decadence sapped any more of my will to live. People are wondering why consumers aren’t buying, perhaps its because the fire of aspiration of make things of value has failed in the face of the need to make a fast buck. People are getting themselves into debt to buy shit like this for Christmas.

In a last attempt to find something of value I went to Wilkinsons, to see their Christmas lights. I am in the market for some lights to add to the party kit. It’s a pain needing to be able to rig this for 12V battery power for the summer parties outdoors, but Christmas LED lights are easily modified for that. Wilkinsons was a large bump up in the taste department, I’m glad to see. Kitsch I can forgive in Christmas decorations, some of that goes with the territory and is even necessary, it’s the downright fugly and the appalling taste that I can do without. Thomas Kinkade kitsch, OK perhaps. Malformed plastic garbage, no. Wilkinson’s are crafty buggers, too – I thought I’d clean up this January on discounted Christmas lights from 2011, but they don’t sell them off cheap, they clear the shelves, presumably landfilling the stuff.

Looks like the Chinese manufacturers of this Wilko product  have found a use for their chicken feathers, probably doesn’t pay to dwell too long on what happened to the birds. They probably weren’t free-range 😉

One of the reasons people are in such dire straits now is that we have unlearned our ability to do even the most basic things for ourselves. Take this, for instance –

Wilko wreath, plastic pine, real-ish cones, yours for £10 fully loaded

We appear to be so deracinated that we’d prefer to spend £10 of our heard-earned dosh on a plastic (yet again) simulacrum of pine, rather than getting ourselves and/or children into the pine forests that lie to the nearth-east and north-west of the town and having away with a few pine cones from the forest floor and some branches. However, if the thought of constructing our own wreath does occur to us, then Wilko have that covered over here at the make your own Christmas wreath experience. In a nod to Poundland, all the natural stuff, holly sprigs, pine cones come at £1 throw in six-up lots. At that rate my box of firelighting pine cones is worth about fifty quid.

£50 worth of pine cones, at Wilkinson’s rates

It’s barmy, you don’t even have to go to the forest – Access to Nature Ipswich is holding a Festive crafts event on the 15th December where they will show people how to make Christmas wreaths and provide the materials – all free of charge! These are wholly compostable and contain no plastic.

I came away appalled at the sheer ephemeral waste of it all. None of this stuff is going to last more than a year at best. It wouldn’t be so bad if this were just a waste of money, but this plastic trash holds a darker secret, one that people who are buying disposable plastic trash for the children should know be aware of.

Nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today somewhere

Yes, that includes biodegradable plastic other that that made of corn starch, it simply becomes smaller pieces. Plastic has only existed since the last century, and nothing on earth has yet worked out how to eat it and break it down. This TED talk has more:

[iframe 560 315]

This alterative take by Brooklyn band Chairlift has something to be said for it too

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Even though I don’t have kids it made me think about trying to reduce single use convenience plastics. It’s about getting things into perspective. The plastic that keeps a hospital syringe needle clean is good even if only used once. The plastic in my computer serves me every day for about 5 years. But the plastic in a shopping bag is needless, in the face of good alternatives. And ephemeral, low-grade trash like from Yippee needs some thinking about before we continue to give the market the feedback that this is something we want more of in the world –

Ephemeral, low-grade plastic trash from Yippee

Perhaps something really bad happened over Halloween, and the town has been taken over by zombies, shuffling their abused plastic credit cards to the tills of Poundland and Yippee in exchange for these vile and tasteless plastic products of decadence.

Yet again, I escaped the High Street with my wallet undented.  Not because I was dedicated to frugality, though unlike some of my fellow citizens I hadn’t come to spend money purely for the sake of spending money. No, I came away empty handed for one simple reason. I found nothing of value. This is the thing people are getting wrong when they crowd Poundland. Just as Ellen Ruppel Shell identified in her book Cheap, we have lost sight of the value side of the “value for money” equation. Without value, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is, indeed something value-free is worse than nothing, because it is an insult to dwindling resources and takes up space in homes and landfill.

I needed cheer, and I have polluted the Web enough with pictures of trash. Two miles in the other direction from my house the crisp autumn day I cycled in the countryside for eight miles, looking for attractiveness rather than garbage.

The light was crisp and low, and I rested my eyes on the delights of the natural world instead of the garish colours of tawdry Christmas items made in China.

the way out of town
Good honest crap, none of this plastic garbage. It will be returned to the soil and become something useful in due course
Nightingale’s Hill

I’ve lived fewer than three miles from Nightingale’s Hill for more than twenty years, and to my shame I’ve never been here before. It is remarkable how much more of the world, including the locality, I see once work is out of the way 😉

I will come here in the Spring and see if it still hosts some of the dwindling stock of nightingales – down some 50% over the last decade. Most of the nightingales I have heard have been towards the coastal areas, though I did hear one on the way to work a year or so ago

another place two miles from home I hadn’t observed in 20 years, though I often passed it on the way to work when driving 😉
Finally time to head home at this tree



18 thoughts on “Christmas is a time for … getting into debt and polluting the world with low-grade plastic tat?”

  1. Hi Ermine

    The first part of your post was just depressing. It really is sad to see the world degrade into that. I’ve stopped going to shops now as I just have no interest in any of it. When I was a child we made Christmas decorations both at school and at home. Great fun and it also has left me with some very fond memories even 30 years later.

    Now to the second part of the post. That was inspirational. What beautiful country side. I envy you. With a fair wind I’m less than 4 years out from joining you.



  2. Hi Ermine, i have just read your last two posts, interesting, possibly true. But i think you are finding to much time on your hands.
    The poor will always be with us.
    The gullible will always be with us.
    But what you need to remember is, the poor do three things.
    1] They are the lubricant that allows money, wealth, assetts to flow from one section of haves to another section of haves.
    2] They are there to frighten the middle classes not to slacken off! or there but for ??? it might be you.
    3] In times of extreme conflict and threat to this pleasant land of ours. They are the ones that are brain-washed, or coerced to fight, suffer injuries and die on behalf of the haves.
    So let them have their few crumbs, the country can afford it, especially if they can make Costa etc of this world pay a fair amount of Corporation tax for operating in this country of ours.

    I know you like charts and things, so before i sign of have a look at this webb site, especially its interactive features.

    And if i don’t get back, to your site. have a good Xmas.
    The man it is all about said, “I am, not I was, or I shall be,” live for the now, but just plan a little for the future.



  3. @RIT Some of the depressing nature of the first part is I think due to the fact that town centres are hollowing out and retail is going to out of town.

    The countryside, yes – it’s embarrassing that I will soon have lived here for nearly a quarter of a century and the Fynn valley is a noted area of scenic attration; I’ve seen it from the valley footpaths but not the ridgeline. And the last two photos were easily visible from my car route to work but I’d never noticed 😉 Good luck with your four year strategy!

    @Lupulco that website is a great analytic treatment of the problem, thank you for that! Take your points on the gullibe and the poor, but a chap needs a rant every so often! Hope you have a great Xmas too!


  4. Hi Ermine
    I’ve been waiting for the ‘bah humbug’ rant on Xmas and you didn’t disappoint. It made me laugh. Love the photos.
    I’m sure you’re more compassionate than your last two articles suggest- well I hope so-cos I class myself in Lupulco’s ‘poor and gullible’ group. Poor because I’m in the bottom 10% according to Lupulco’s Living standards graph (but I don’t feel poor) and gullible because I believed the hype when we were told that technology would give us all more leisure time and a better standard of living!! From my experience of technology (email and mobile phones) at work, it took me from a 9 to 5 hours,5days a week job to a 24/7 job.
    As to ‘value’- lord don’t get me started!
    I’ll go before I start ranting:)


  5. I liked the bits crossed out at the start and the very end, otherwise I thought this entry descended into an unnecessary rant. Rather than singling out easily mocked choices, what about some positive alternatives?
    All of this stuff is relative – many people may find your own consumption excessive and your shopping choices in very poor taste.


  6. @Romany Rant away – be my guest! I’m sorry it sounds harsh, perhaps Lupulco is also right that I’ve stewed too long on this. FWIW I am now in the lower part of the living standards graph too now, though I don’t feel poor. Perhaps the harshness comes from seeing so much of a sense of entitlement. I saw some elements of the crunch in 2007/8 and started to run towards it, reducing outgoings and saving.

    This was then amplified when I came to the conclusion I wouldn’t make it to retirement age. Nobody owed me any help there, I had to sort my own issues out. Hence perhaps the sense of humour failure when I see the lack of agency and whining demands from the 50k plus child benefit brigade. As for housing benefit, when I couldn’t afford to live in London I moved out, I didn’t demand others pay for my lifestyle, though I take Trevor’s point that housing has increased in cost since then. Rob’s recent post on living up North shows he can even invest his ISA allowace even though he isn’t way up the income scale – he has a positive and proactive attitude to controlling his costs and taking opportunities. Our country would be in a much better state if we could get more of that sort of thinking into it.

    I’m not running a bah humbug on Christmas in general. I manufactured the jig and developed part of the process for assembling the willow cores for Access to Nature’s wreath-making course 😉 We just need to buy less crap – living standards are about what is in your life but quality of life is about who and what’s in your life.

    @Mike fair cop, I’ve changed the category to rant, because it was. I don’t agree that everything is relative. As well as the general principle of NoMoPoMo that is well summarised in ERE’s the importance of not being a punk, some things matter. This stuff is trash and it is needelssly fouling the environment.

    The belief that everything is relative is only sustainable where there is no interdependence. The West starting losing its way when we subscribed to the concept that everything is relative – we lost the capacity to determine value with that. Without some common goals and a shared story we will end up with dissipation and self-serving behaviour. The goals and what matters aren’t written on tablets of stone and we can collectively reshape and redefine them as we go along, but without them we are lost in a pathless world.

    Since I’m not standing for election advocating jackbooted Taste Police outside Poundland taking the piss is fair enough 😉


  7. Sadly mostly very true. The only bit I disagreed with regarding the tat was ‘ephemeral’. Some of that plastic is going to be around for hundreds of years, particularly if it gets buried.

    Also, I think you were a bit hard on the timer — at least it has a purpose, versus most of that trash.

    I’ve had to train people not to give me plastic rubbish at Christmas or at any other time. Hate it hate it hate it.


  8. To be fair, the decline of Maplins happened long before Christmas. Its been going on for about 5 years or more I was in there myself recently to buy parts to keep ICR FM’s elderly computers just about going, they hadn’t got their Xmas stock in yet and there was still all manner of tat in there, and a massive mark up on anything compared to CPC.

    TBH they have become a pale imitation of Tandy/Radio shack from the 1980s, I didn’t think that would even be possible 😦

    The alarms on the yippee store would have been inherited from JJB. There is of course much more black market value in stolen sportswear than 99p store stock, even chavs do have some basic maths skills..


  9. You’re spot on. Here’s another post idea. You can cover the other end of the spectrum of kitsch and junk:

    1. Have you seen those diamond studded mobile phones that are targeted at the very rich and clueless (Paris Hilton?) people? (Very likely conflict diamonds involved)

    How about all those stupidly blingy, overprices clothes that celeb rappers wear? (Does someone really need sooo many gold necklaces other than to look like a t***?)

    How about those wasteful fashion catwalk events featuring overpriced, cringe inducing “latest fashion” that, if one spots on the street will call the Mental hospital to pick the wearer? (Honestly, have you ever seen even one of those catwalk hats in the Ascot photos, like EVER?)

    Those over-over priced stilettos, heels, shoes, handbags, etc., because there is a “label” on them that automatically qualifies a 4-5 figure price tag? (This is really stupid!)

    Overpriced sports cars…
    (This one sends me reeling every time!)

    How about cocaine and other drugs used in rich parties more often?

    Now throw some alligators, pythons, ivory, poaching, sweatshop labour, etc., to this mix, and the environmental costs are just as bad here if not more.

    So, it’s not just the poor, but the rich also who contribute to this rampage on the Earth’s resources but in another form of tatty way.

    Have fun writing this post. I definitely look forward to it.

    In short, I don’t think this post of yours’ was “Bah! humbug” at all. It is a timely reminder.


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