Consumed: How shopping fed the class system, by Harry Wallop - review

Shopping now defines us more than class, argues the author in this lively read. True, agrees reviewer Mark Lasswell, but all the same sometimes a pizza is just a pizza.

by Mark Lasswell
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

As a teenager, I spent a summer as an overnight janitor in a department store. On more than one occasion, usually around 4am, there would come a point when I'd lose my resolve behind the mop or the broom amid the deserted aisles and for a moment the store seemed to come alive with a hideous clarity.

Stretching into the distance were acres of choices aching to be chosen - forests of clothing yearning to be worn, ranks of handbags desperate for filling, terraces of jewellery gleaming for no one.

The mannequins seemed paralysed by the silent clamour for their attention. With a shudder, I'd get back to work and, if I finished early, slip off to the camping department for a nap in a tent. When dawn arrived, I'd shuffle off to the parking lot, wondering what the heck the surreal interlude in the wee small hours had been all about.

That experience approximates to what it's like to read Harry Wallop's Consumed.

The Daily Telegraph writer and the paper's former consumer affairs editor has done a deep dive into British shopping, intent on showing how the class system, once based on what you inherited or did for a living, has not so much gone away as been supplanted by one based on what you buy.

'If everyone around you professes to be of the same class, or even classless,' Wallop writes, 'then the battle to assert one's position comes down to what you consume rather than what you produce.'

He seems to have spent more time than may be strictly healthy in conference with representatives of the Office for National Statistics, the Asda Bootle focus group, the John Lewis Partnership archives and others steeped in the habits of the British public.

In Consumed, a certain awe is reserved for marketing companies such as Acorn and Mosaic, those fanatical data-hooverers adept at dividing and subdividing and sub-subdividing the population into groups with eerily predictable purchasing behaviour.

Not to be outdone, the author has come up with his own consumer groups. At the top are the Portland Privateers, 'high earners and high spenders' who like to book the births of their children at Portland Hospital in London and whose favoured brands are Mulberry, Belstaff and Smythson.

Close behind are the more rural-oriented Rockabillies, so named for their preferred holiday destination, Rock in Cornwall. We also meet Sun Skittlers (Sun newspaper readers who play skittles at the local working men's club); the Middleton classes (up from Skittledom, having traded in trips to Torremolinos for Tuscany and the Co-op meat counter for M&S ready meals); and Wood Burning Stovers (owners of 'a well-turned garlic press', Daunt book bags, Birkenstock sandals and a WBS).

Wallop counts himself 'mostly' as wood burning stove man, although as he tells us more than once, he has belonged to at least three classes.

He started life in an aristocratic but not wealthy family - still, there were childhood 'playdates at Kensington Palace'. These days, well, he's a journalist.

Some of the book's most appealing passages concern Wallop's own life and the working-class roots of his wife's family, seen through the prism of shopping and possessions. 'In the early 1950s, I had a Harris tweed jacket with dark brown trousers from the Co-op and brown brogues from Saxone,' his father-in-law says. 'No one looked better, in my opinion.'

In Consumed, shopping is an elastic term, applied not just to foraging for food and clothing, but also to buying property, selecting a school or taking a holiday.

But, mostly, the book concerns things and brands and who wants what. Wallop's fascination for his subject seems to be unlimited, often endearingly so, though readers may find their patience tried by the relentless rain of names.

For instance, his taxonomy of 'cupboard class' begins: 'Soups: fresh chilled, canned or, heaven forfend, dried. Mustard: Colmans, Maille, French's, out of a squeezy yellow bottle, or Pommery moutarde de Meaux out of an earthenware jar,' and so the list proceeds, through varieties of breakfast cereal, rice, salt and pepper. Yes, as he says, it's the 'tyranny of choice', but the reader may begin to feel a bit tyrannised too.

When Wallop parks the trolley and tells us what he thinks, some of his observations seem to come out of a squeezy bottle of obviousness ('In the last 60 years there has been a great democratisation of fashion'), others out of the author's own obsessive way of viewing the world: 'Lunchtime choices are small, subtle public acts that allow you to set yourself apart within the restrictive office environment.'

And you thought you were just hankering for pizza.

As Consumed would have it, you wanted that pizza because a 'conspiracy' of market researchers, brand developers, advertisers and others in the corporate horde made you want it.

Yet the commandeering of consumer tastes isn't particularly sinister, Wallop says, given that 'we have been willing participants in this conspiracy'. 

His theory is that this collaboration began in the 1950s as a way of defining class when the old markers crumbled. The more likely explanation is less exotic: people have always wanted to buy things, and they've always looked for a seller. As is so often the case in the modern world, now there's just a lot more of it.

Mark Lasswell is the editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal

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BOOK
How shopping fed the class system
Harry Wallop
Collins, £16.99

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