Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The conversational

Neil Boorman on the right.

The conversational 'menu'
Michelle on the left
Thought provoking cards on the subject of luxury

I love talking but would I like an evening of 'guided' conversation? This is the aim of Michelle Newell, a young Australian woman who has started The Conversational, a monthly event in Soho.
The theme of the night that I attended was 'Luxury', particularly pertinent in today's recession. We were asked to write on a little card something we desire that we would consider a luxury. Answers were varied from 'an endless supply of cashmere', 'a private library with a view of the Welsh coastline' to 'a husband' (er, that was me).
The author Neil Boorman who wrote 'Bonfire of the Brands' attended, giving a little talk on why he burned all of his luxury branded goods in Trafalgar Square.
He described his addiction to brands, how a purchase made him feel good "little confidence pills", but this was a 'high' that didn't last.
We asked him "How do you shop now?"
"No Prada, that's for sure, just simple generic goods. Vintage, although of course that has it's own chic, it's own 'brand'"
"But what about quality? Don't good brands give you goods that last?"
"That's a myth, luxury brands are often made in the same Asian factory as Primark for instance. 'British' brands like Burberry aren't made in Britain. I once spent a fortune on some fashionable flip flops. After two weeks they broke. I took them back, they were replaced. After two more weeks, the new pair broke, again they were replaced. This happened again. In the end the shop staff said to me 'well they aren't really for wearing'. Brands form identity. If I wanted to feel confident for a business meeting I'd wear Christian Dior. I had different brands for different situations."
I think of Cath Kidston. Her designs are a nod towards the nostalgia of the 1950s housewife. In an era of 'juggling' and 'having it all' working women love the fantasy of a simple life in which all you had to do is keep yourself nice with a cocktail ready for hubby when he gets in from work. Cath Kidston plays on all of that 'surrendered wife' stuff, which is why it is so successful. Again sites like Etsy, which sells home-made goods by individuals, is an example of this backlash against branding. (In Neil's book, he points out that 'branding' has an older meaning, something that you did to slaves and animals).
Neil again: "My mother made her own clothes. You didn't need to rely on brands, people had the confidence to throw a look together. We need to return to craftmanship"
I ask Neil: "To what extent is it a class thing? The working class tend to ape upper class behaviour, as if by buying the same brand you will become acceptable in that class. That's why chavs buy Burberry"
Neil: "Absolutely. In London smokers tend to buy American brands of cigarettes like Marlborough. If someone in London buys Benson & Hedges you think, do you live on a council estate? Are you from up North? I come from working class background in the Thatcherite era. All the pikey kids had the best stuff: the Star Wars lunchbox, the Pringle sweaters..."
"It's a vicious circle: you spend more time at work to earn more to buy brands. Time is not a luxury, it's a neccessity because it's finite. Brands are the consolation prize for working."
Somebody says "there is no replacement for glamour though.."
Neil interrupts "Glamour is a cold, lonely place to be...look at Victoria Beckham, she never smiles, her skin is too tight."
I ask: "So warmth is the opposite of glamour?"
This is a subject worth thinking about. And that's the aim of The Conversational, to inspire, forge new pathways of thinking...
Next to me a man sums up class in a nutshell:
"My mum's butcher said if a woman bought streaky bacon, he called her 'love'. If she bought 'back' bacon, he called her Madam"
I wonder about class, branding and food.
Neil adds:
"The whole Fairtrade Organic trend is a middle class guilt trip. Being green is a status symbol. We don't have the luxury to grown our own food."
Epicurus, a philosopher who lived in 341 BC, who has become synonymous with excess, luxury, indulgence, actually recommended escaping the idea of status with a frugal 'self-sufficiency' life style.
The roots of the word luxury are discussed here. From the 13th to the 17th century luxury was a perjorative term. It changed when monarchical courts became public and everybody aspired to flat plates and salt.
"We all live in a civilisation of kings now. We don't eat in season, we are all fat" said Neil.
Another question:"Who would break the law to achieve their luxury?" A few hands up.
Andy Warhol once said "Nobody can buy a better coca cola" Modern brands can mean either democracy or homogenisation depending on your point of view. I once met a Coca cola executive who explained that the company aims to provide coke at affordable prices in every country of the world.
Then ensues a discussion on how Mexican coke is better for it uses real sugar cane.
Afterwards I ask Michelle why she set this up:
"I missed the sort of conversations you have when you are a student where you exchange ideas not just talk about mundane everyday things.
It's a salon des idées, but also an opportunity to come together and talk about meaningful things"
I say that it's very un-British. One of the things I liked about living in France is their lack of embarrassment in talking about philosophy and politics. British people are funnier, but any sort of intellectualism is frowned upon here.
"It's very un-Australian too" says Michelle "But I believe the time is right for this kind of thing, anything that promotes community spirit, like your underground restaurant"
Free: the talks will take place monthly at 23 Romilly Street in Soho. To attend contact Michelle for these stimulating evenings at www.theconversational.co.uk


  1. I'd like to go to this. It sounds like a kind of mini-Oxford Union. I could have contributed to this particular discussion too. Using organic and Fairtrade is actually more than just an excersise in conscience salving; it really is worthwhile doing it for serious practical reasons. It can have a genuine effect that can counter the factory-farmed food industry. Although it's best to buy local organic, rather than the cabbage shipped in from Kenya to the Tescos organic shelf. I'm not a carbon-retentive, but I still think, for your own benefit, it's best to eat something as soon as possible after its death simply because organic doesn't keep. 12 hours for a cucumber in a cargo ship's hold as it crosses the Gulf of Guinea can knock 50% off its nutrient levels.

  2. BTW: Sorry I've been a bit quiet lately. I've had the dreaded Swine Flu!... Yes, I am still alive. This comment is not channelled by a medium.

  3. Like Ben, I would also argue against the organic / fair-trade thing being a guilt trip. I just prefer to know where my food comes from, and in the case of meat, that it has been fed without taking too much out of the human foodchain (ie: grass fed as opposed to grain fed or worse, fed bits of its relatives - thanks Maggie T). If we all decided to spend on food what it is really worth, we'd be a healthier nation, eating less, especially meat. Surely a good thing. Fair-trade has received a bad rap recently, and I can understand why - fairness is something we should ALL be entitled to - a bit like charity beginning at home I suppose. Personally, I'd like to see the fair-trade tag extended to growers / animal rearers in this country too. Please don't be fooled into thinking that workers in the food / clothing industry in this country are all treated fairly. We still have sweat shops everywhere.

    Ooh, I got all a bit worked up there! I have to say, I think The Conversational sounds like a great night out, but possibly a little bit of preaching to the converted?? It certainly seems more fun than the other pop-up you reviewed today.

    your little green friend in the west, green drawers x

  4. It's true. Our own country is far from a paradise. It may seem that way to many foreigners who face much harsher conditions, but in fact it could be so much better. And our own destiny is linked to the fortunes of all humanity. Britain might be an island in geographical terms, but it's not in political and social terms. Some people speak of pulling up the drawbridge and letting the rest of the world rot, but even if they claim that this is an ethical position, it's just not practical.

  5. In my experience Primark is great for underwear, much better and cheaper than the designer shit underwear you can find in places like T K Maxx. No wonder the middle class hates Primark so much. And Matalan can be good for unbranded jeans, the last pair I bought from them in one of their sales cost £1.50 - no doubt someone was exploited but then the entire capitalist system is based on exploitation.

    And if you wanna be green it makes more sense being vegetarian than eating 'organic meat'... All meat that isn't roadkill (and personally I don't go for that either) is a cruel luxury.

  6. Oh these sounds fantastic!
    I'm very lucky in that I have many wonderfully interesting and intelligent friends with whom I can and do chat about all kinds of things, including some wonderful and thought-provoking subjects such as this example.
    I think I will look up the website, thank you!


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