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:

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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