The Apotheosis of The British Experience

Mark Steyn on the “January Sale” phenomenon in Britain:

…The January sales originated in Parisian department stores a century and a half ago. Today, many other countries have them: in America, all the most honoured days in the calendar – Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day – have been appropriated for Massive Store-Wide Clearances. Since the collapse of communism, sales have even arrived in the understocked emporia of Moscow, where hitherto every check-out line was for nine items or less. But only in Britain do the sales have their peculiar intensity.

After suffering the traditional English Yule, through Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Christmas Bank Holiday Tuesday, the First Wednesday Before Thursday, slumped in front of the big seasonal movie (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) and Channel 4’s Lesbian Christmas, besieged by carollers baying “Feed The World”, giving up on charades after Granny takes 25 minutes to mime “Two Little Boys”, your average Briton begins to get a little stir-crazy. The idea of two nights of physical discomfort camped out on Oxford Street and being used as a urinal by passing derelicts has a beguiling, liberating aspect it might lack at other times of the year.

Of course, not many bargain-hunters actually do queue up 48 hours in advance. Don’t be disheartened if you find the pavements a seething tide of humanity. Many are just there in the hope that their amusing queue costume will get them a spot on Newsroom South-East (“And finally, the January sales begin tomorrow. And outside Marshall & Peabody there are no prizes for guessing what Ron from Greenfield Park is hoping to get. That’s why he’s dressed as an 84-inch Nicam digital stereo holographic TV”).

The exception is Harrods, where – if you take a close look – most of the queue are all too obviously agents of MI6 dispatched by Prince Philip to prevent the heroic Mohamed Fayed from continuing his courageous expose of the British Establishment. Fortunately for Mohamed, most of these Government agents are repulsed by the ladies of the ground-floor parfumerie department spraying everyone in sight (“Don’t fire until you can hit the whites of their eyes”). A few highly trained professionals do make it through: the all-time record for the dash from Harrods’ front door to the china department is held by a Taunton accountant, Ian Birch, who in 1988 just beat Mr L. Christie of Ladbroke Grove to come in at 13 seconds. It should be noted that, to be eligible, the journey has to be incoming: many shoppers have wandered by accident into the store’s Egyptian Room, and been back on the pavement screaming well within 11 seconds.

To foreigners, all this is one of those quintessentially British traditions no outsider can hope to understand, like the Lord Chancellor walking backwards at the State Opening of Parliament. Except, with the January sales, everything seems to be backwards. In US sales, the reductions are greater than in Britain and the original price from which they’re being reduced is a lot lower to begin with. So, to Americans, all the British are doing is enduring immense inconvenience, unpleasantness and possibly physical pain for the privilege of being slightly less ripped off than normal. But they’re missing the point: it’s not the winning or losing, it’s how you play the game. We all know that that table of pullovers marked “Up To 50 Per Cent Off!” contains one sweater that’s marked down 50 per cent and 69 that are marked down between 6 and 8 per cent. And, even if you find the 50-per-cent-off sweater, it’ll be orange crimplene, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the strange turquoise collar. And, even though you know you’ll never wear it, why forego the pleasure of queuing for half an hour to pay for it? It’s the Blitz, it’s the Dunkirk spirit, it’s about showing that Britain can take it – and, if the Germans are too busy to dish it out these days, then thank God that Debenham’s and John Lewis and MFI and DFS are willing to pick up the slack.

No, the January sales are the apotheosis of the British experience. First, getting there is hell: a year or two back the M25 was brought to a complete standstill – or rather an even more complete standstill than usual – when 100,000 shoppers endeavoured to reach the Lakeside shopping complex at Thurrock. Imagine: 100,000 people who want to spend the day trying to get to Thurrock, and failing. Second, once you get there, don’t expect any, um, facilities: if you’re thinking of camping out, bear in mind that in the entire length of Oxford Street there are seven public conveniences. Third, the only stars you’ll see are Mr Fayed and someone who used to be in a spin-off from “Dynasty”. Fourth, as at Wimbledon, the foreigners are beginning to move in. Last year at Harrods, one Russian bought 10 washing-machines and 10 dryers and then paid £3,000 to ship them back to Moscow. God knows why. If you plug 10 washing-machines into the wall in Moscow every light in Belarus will go out.

The only wonder is that the government hasn’t got around to banning it on humanitarian grounds. But maybe they don’t need to. Despite superficial touches of modernity – creche facilities for bored blokes who’d rather watch Sky Sports that some stores are now offering – there’s something inherently antiquated and nostalgic about the whole season. You vaguely expect to see decrepit department stores that ceased trading a generation ago to re-emerge at sale time from the mists of memory, like a retailer’s Brigadoon. Like the faux millennium, the January sales like to jump the gun, showing up in December, late November, October maybe. You can’t have a January sale in January any more, because in January most department stores are too busy putting up their Christmas windows. But the fact that they’re out of sync with the calendar and have become entirely arbitrary only emphasises their redundancy.

Can the tradition endure? The year 2000 was the first big Christmas of “e-commerce”, when significant numbers of customers bought their gifts online. True, it’s not the same, but technical innovation is proceeding at such a pace that by next year it should be possible to enjoy a virtual January sales experience, where, before you can log on to, say,, you have to sit for four hours looking at an amazingly life-like picture of the back of a Saab on the M25. After all, it wouldn’t be a good old traditional British sale without it, now would it?

And his take on the “rocket scientists” in Gaza.

And Canadian columnist David Warren on Israel’s “moral imperative”:

…An organization [Hamas] that persistently declares Israel has no right to exist, and persistently acts upon this premise, cannot be negotiated with. The Israelis have the material means to destroy Hamas, and therefore the moral imperative to do so.

Israel also has the misfortune to be defending herself today in a world that is lost in moral fog. The predictable, asinine resolution from the United Nations (“both sides stop shooting right away”) is, alas, representative of public opinion in many Western countries. We are nearly incapable of making hard decisions, let alone sticking to them. We did not cry, “Both sides stop shooting right away,” on D-Day. The correct response was, “Onward to Berlin.”

My particular fear is that, again, as in 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Israelis will succumb to the pressure of international blathering. From what I can see, I cannot even be sure they were determined not to repeat the mistake of going half-prepared into battle. Such actions as avoiding the house of the Hamas “prime minister,” while demolishing the surrounding compound, telegraph more pulled punches. They suggest Israel intends to negotiate, in the end.

Again: it is wrong to negotiate with such an enemy. It leaves him to fight another day, and then another. It thus condemns people on both sides to additional death and destruction down the road, while depriving them of the peace and order that can come only from a definitive resolution of the conflict. Moreover, it plays into the hands of an enemy whose strategic purpose is to wear Israel down.

The Western doctrine of just war, echoed in the articles of international law, moreover demands that the Israelis finish what they’ve started. It doesn’t say “never fight,” as the ignorant suppose. On the contrary, it says if you must fight, be sure to win; that victory should be achieved as promptly and humanely as possible, while observing the various formal conventions. To those who refuse to observe the conventions, it offers no quarter. Those who, for instance, fire rockets at civilian targets while themselves masquerading as non-combatants are entitled to no consideration, as prisoners of war or otherwise. Those who use civilian “shields” are responsible for their fate.

These principles are humanitarian. You don’t “attrit” a cancer, then await its regrowth: you root out every speck of it. In the long run, the Germans were better off for the destruction of Nazism; and the Palestinians would be, for the destruction of Hamas. If they don’t know this now, they will know it later. For those who cannot live peacefully with their neighbours must be stripped of the power to disturb them. The compulsion to live peacefully can then lead towards the habit of living peacefully.

The sad truth is that these precepts are not well understood in Gaza at present. They must therefore be inculcated. Those who truly want peace, will pray for an unconditional Hamas surrender.

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