A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Shopping – the new religion

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford examines social trends.

It was about two years ago when I realised that I was fully and finally confirmed as middle-class.  I visited IKEA – then went back again. Mind you, that second trip was to collect a flat-pack bookcase I’d stupidly left behind in the loading bay but, as I was having to return anyway I bought another two, just in case….
This week I’ve visited another branch of the same multi-national retailer and, although I have still to eat one of their infamous meatballs, I admit to having looked forward to my shopping trip with unreasonable excitement. Ever since my last visit there has been a small length of wall in my study that has just been crying out for two of their little DVD shelf units to match my bookcases and now I’ve got them – YES, I’VE GOT THEM! (laughs hysterically then tries to calm down again).
It was a wonderful experience, just as mind-boggling as the first but comfortingly familiar. The fact that this particular experience took place in the artificial construct that is Milton Keynes did not affect matters: the strange presence of nearby concrete cows and artificial countryside did not permeate past the entrance to the enormous car park. I felt at home.
I’ve even joined the IKEA ‘family’ – an action I’ve never considered in the past with any retailer, even Uncle Marks and Aunty Spencer (although I’d certainly consider a serious proposal from a well-stacked model railway shop).
Anyway, I finally fully understood what people mean with the rather glib phrase: “Shopping is the new religion” and, even better, this followed my reading about a new ‘scientific’ report that said shopping prolongs your life. Wow! My brain started humming and I felt extreme excitement as profound thoughts shunted around unused neurons.  I had a revelation.
After this epiphany I had to navigate 160-odd miles of M1 and associated frivolities to get home so I switched over to cruise control and allowed my synapses to sizzle. Unusually lucid thoughts spilled from my excited brain as the car drove itself through the endless speed limits delaying my return to our beloved M62.
The new understanding now seemed so obvious – Christianity promises a good afterlife but science has “proved” that shopping extends your present life (which, obviously, you can then spend doing still more shopping). It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Spend enough time on retail therapy and you’ll live to be 1,000: when you finally die you won’t want to go to heaven because you’ve already got all the fluffy pillowcases, bright red glasses, scatter cushions, mirrored things and too-small book cases you could possibly want, and if heaven doesn’t serve meatballs then you won’t want to go anyway.
So I should certainly consider changing my career (yet again) and going into retailing to increase the overall level of happiness of the human race: certainly I’ve seen a greater number of miserable faces at some church services than I noticed in the vast shell of IKEA (not at any Beverley Minster ones, obviously, but I have been around a bit. Some non-conformist services can feel a bit joyless at times).
We were all browsing, selecting, picking up and checking ourselves through the system with the help of various yellow-shirted individuals who were unfailingly polite and helpful (so very unlike me when I’m under a bit of pressure). We all seemed to be satisfied with what we were doing and whole families seemed to be ‘experiencing the moment’ as one – and if the very young ones didn’t want to play ball well, they could play ball (hahahahaha – sorry) in the special games area. Heaven on earth – or was it?
Obviously, you’re going to expect me to say: ‘no’, – and I’m not going to disappoint you. Consider the following: we do certain things over and over again for a few reasons: because we must (e.g. buying food); because we can (e.g. listen to music while driving a car); because it brings us pleasure (e.g. playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin); or because we can’t stop ourselves (e.g. addiction).
Round about the depressing area of Woodall Services on the M1 I realised that life isn’t all about self-indulgence.
I’ve become good friends – no, members of the family – with many of the congregation at the Minster with whom there would not normally be any connection. The thing is, we are united (under our Minster roof) by the message that life isn’t all about us, as consuming individuals. It’s about sharing our talents, resources, assets, feelings, understanding and even love with other people. It forces us to act in certain ways that are not normal to us, ways that are not pure indulgences.   
By the time I’d reached Goole I was firmly of the opinion that it is the self-indulgence of shopping rather than religion that truly is: ‘the opiate of the people’ (copyright Karl Marx, that well-known 19th century comedian). If that’s so then IKEA is like mainlining heroin – pleasurable to start with, but ultimately destructive if you get addicted to its simple level of satisfaction. Luckily, I can give it up at any time, no problem.
As the towers of the Minster stood proudly over the Westwood I realised I was home again, safe from the siren-call of flat-pack furnishing. And then I realised I needed a new mirror for the bathroom….and a side table for the living room…and…and…

First published April 2011


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