Sunday, 2 September 2012

Golden opportunity

It used to be conservatives who would look back thirty years and see a better time. Geoffrey Pearson wrote a brilliant book about it, every generation imagining that life was better thirty years before and making the same complaints about their children that their parents had made about them.

But at least in the past, the pay-off for the kids was that life was easier for them than for their parents. I remember saying that, cockily but not actually wrongly, to an oldish man in Stevenage town centre when I was a teenager, on overhearing him complain that kids had it easier than in his day. Aren't they supposed to, I asked him? Isn't that the point?

So it is. Or so it was, before a generation came to power in Europe with the plan of making everybody worse off than before. Everybody except them.

I once asked my late great-aunt, who would never have been so crass as to complain about the younger generation, and who spent her life working for a better future, what she thought her Party had achieved. She told me that you hardly saw homeless people on the street any more, which fact she attributed to what Labour had done in local and national government. And you didn't, back then: something which must be as hard to imagine for somebody young today as it must have been for her when she was young.

I don't remember quite when the conversation took place. Perhaps during Mrs Thatcher's first term. It was really in her second that homelessness was deliberately created in a series of social security cuts, and the shop doorways of our major cities were filled with sleeping bodies.

What this taught me was that it takes longer - far longer - to bring about social progress than it takes to reverse it. If this is not generally understood, it's because the job of reversing social progress used rarely to be undertaken: conservative parties in government were usually pragmatic, accepting changes they had previously tried to prevent. But now those days are gone and their rules are broken. And everything may be broken very soon indeed.

I rarely or never saw homeless people when I was a child, though I grew up in London- and I don't believe I ever saw a pawn shop. I am sure, though sure from no particular memory, that I read about them - in all probability in a history book! - and had to ask what they had been. I wouldn't have to ask today, thirty years of social progress further on.

You see shops, you see posters on walls, you see leaflets under windscreen wipers. What they say in Spain is COMPRO ORO. I buy gold.

As far as I am aware the only gold I have is in my wedding ring. This is probably true of most people, and almost certainly true of the people at whom the shops, the posters and the leaflets are aimed.

Just as there is a plague of evictions across the land, and a plague of non-payment of wages, so there is a plague of COMPRO ORO. A plague of pawn shops, thirty years after I had to ask, in London, what they were. It is as if Spain were turning into a Britain of the Thirties. It is like Love On The Dole.

I have never been to a pawn shop, but I know enough - now - about them to understand that they are places to which one goes in fear and shame. But everybody understands that. They are a refuge of the desperate. You would not advertise that you were going to one. You might as well advertise that you were going to the workhouse.

But here we are, after thirty years, not just of social progress, but of advances in the culture of acquisitiveness and advertising - and now even the furtive journey to the pawn shop must be dressed up as if it were an adventure in consumerism.

I walked across Huesca on Friday, from the station to the Mercadona on the east side of town, via Calle de Cabestany and past a COMPRO ORO shop that I don't remember seeing there before. On the wall of this shop was a poster. (A photo would be helpful in illustrating this anecdote, but my camera and I are presently separated by about a thousand miles, you will have to imagine a poster depicting a ring in its display box, a treasure chest with a string of pearls coming out of it, and a delighted old lady unable to believe her luck. If this is hard for you, to imagine a cheerful poster on a pawn shop, imagine how much harder it was for me, thirty years ago, to imagine what a pawn shop actually was.)

On this poster, which - slightly and suitably amended - one might have associated with a bingo hall, was written:
How would you translate? Perhaps you're sitting on a fortune - and you don't even know it. Perhaps. Or perhaps you'd be too gobsmacked by this exhibition of bad taste to find it worth the effort.

You might as well put a big poster on the wall advertising exciting new openings in prostitution. Everybody knows that brothels exist, just as everybody knows - in 2012, at at rate - that pawn shops exist. But we don't talk about them as if going there were the opportunity of a lifetime. As far as I know. Maybe I just haven't seen the posters.

I mean I always hated Antiques Roadshow. But going to a pawn shop isn't Antiques Roadshow. It isn't some old biddy finding there's something in her attic that she can sell for fifty quid and buy presents for the grandchildren. It's a pawn shop. Pawn shops, like cholera, happen among poverty and disaster. And dressing them up as a destination of opportunity is dressing up the disaster that's happening to Spain as if it were a road to wealth and happiness.

There have been rather bigger outrages than this in Spain, in this past week alone: but sometimes it is the small things and the symbols which make you angriest. Either way, this is Spain today. We are not short of pawn shops. Nor are we short of emetics.

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