Rather than getting angry and radical, we’ve become more culturally conservative
It’s Saturday night and there you both are, lounging on the sofa in your his-and-hers slankets, freshly microwaved fish pies balanced on your laps, and the telly muffling, if not quite drowning out, the sound of your neighbours rowing. Again. Because it’s 2008 and along with eating out, divorce is now just another item on a long list of indulgences that the average Briton can no longer afford. But never mind, the two of you are “dining in”, and for a tenner to boot.
Like other money-saving experiences begot by the credit crunch—glamping, for instance—the reality of “dining-in”, Marks & Spencer’s response to straitened times, lags behind its marketing. Just as queuing for a tepid campsite shower is never going to approximate to a spa experience, so a ready meal remains a ready meal—alright, a sequence of ready meals in the case of those multi-course deals with a bottle of Chateau Grande Recession thrown in. Yet as the scale of the greatest economic calamity in living memory revealed itself, this was a charade in which we became willing participants. After all, staying in was the new going out. And with images of queues snaking around crumbling Northern Rock branches still fresh in our minds, joblessness looming, and high-street giants like Woolworths and Comet teetering, who wouldn’t want to hole up and hope that just a few lifestyle tweaks could set things right? A full decade on, the dining-in deal, that innocuous bundle of foil containers, thrift and denial, epitomises many of the impulses that continue to drive our culture, high and low.
Comfort, that was what most of us initially sought. We weren’t going to get it from the news and we certainly weren’t going to get it from economists, wise after the event, but we could find it in abundance at Aldi and Lidl, where we headed en masse to stock up on cut-price, off-brand staples. In America’s Great Depression, it was cigarettes and cinema tickets that bucked the trend, their sales continuing to rise as nearly everything else plummeted. Here in the UK we reached for sweet, fatty snacks after 2007. Maybe some hardwired evolutionary trait was kicking in, insisting we add a little extra padding for the hard times ahead, easing one belt out a notch as we were compelled to tighten another. Our rediscovered appetite was still raging in pinched 2010, when Mary Berry and co debuted a telly contest that allowed us to mainline sugar and butter with a sprinkling of notions of unity and past glory. It wasn’t just any old bake off, it was The Great British Bake Off.
We craved another flavour, too, one that precipitated a spike in sales of dishes like cottage pie and rice pudding: school dinners. Or more broadly speaking, childhood. The basic explanation for our financial pickle was simple enough: we’d spent beyond our means. But in an increasingly secular society, that didn’t seem justification enough for the hardship that was being meted out, especially as technological advances continued to make instant gratification ever more instantaneous. Why couldn’t we just keep borrowing? Or print more money?
“Vintage hits like Dad’s Army—televisual jam roly-poly—were brought back from the dead”As it turned out, printing more money is exactly what the central bankers in charge actually did. The rest of us, however, without their economics degrees were left feeling like dolts. A dawning awareness of the interconnectedness of global markets only underscored the extent to which our personal, financial, wellbeing had slithered beyond our control. Thus infantilised, we began dressing in “adult” onesies, lapping up film franchises starring superheroes and heroines drawn from graphic novels, and buying “adult” colouring books. (I say buying because I’ve yet to see an adult actually use one, and would like to believe that they go unopened. Please do not disillusion me.)
That mistrust of globalisation also helped fuel locavorism—eating only local food. Was it something about hearing the words “too big to fail” so often that made us newly enamoured of the small? Small-batch coffee, small-batch bourbon, small-batch cigars—they all enjoyed a definite moment.
Meanwhile, we weren’t just comfort eating, we were comfort dressing too. Women began trading high heels for ballet pumps, loafers and Chelsea boots. The woolly hug that is the Christmas jumper was embraced and even made it on to catwalks where it cocooned Burberry and Jil Sander models. By 2012, Topman could be found stocking 34 different designs. And for those of us prudently adopting a wardrobe of trend-proof basics, a new word was conjured up to make us feel edgy: normcore.
That word encapsulated a resurgent desire for shared experience in the face of crisis, just as dining-in, even while it kept us home, hinted at the communal—implying a fixed time and menu. As we tuned into The X-Factor (or Strictly Come Dancing), we could depend on other households around the country tucking into their king prawn linguine (or vegetable moussaka) as they did the same....MORE