The Porcelain Gentleman

A definitive guide to the land of lavatories


New West End - Boxing Day Sales on Oxford Street - December 26, 2011

The Setting:

How close is Britain to a revolution?

Listen to the sensationalist screaming’s of a comedic skinny-jeaned sex addict on Newsnight and one may be led to believe it’s going to happen this afternoon. But what must actually go down for this to occur?

The ‘Arab Spring’ has been noted as the most modern of revolutions where Twitter and Facebook united marginalised communities and allowed people to know that they weren’t alone when they marched to the nearest municipal centre with their angry heart buttoned to their cuff. But pick through the wreckage and ultimately the reality behind the heartfelt overthrow was down to the provision of one of the most basic of human requirements – bread. Whilst the romantics may dwell on human spirit in the face of autocratic adversity, what really got the rural Tunisians to start a wave of pitchfork wielding and hunchback hunting was the gut wrenching reality that their children may starve as a result of wheat price inflation.

Equally it has become popular for people take a Freudian approach to explain Hitler’s wanton desire to create a world of albinos by debating the relevance of a missing testicle or a failed art school application. But this is all moot given that he would most likely have lived a life as an over opinionated Berlin cab driver were the general population not so despondent with having to pay reparations to their lethargic French neighbours and thus desperately looking for something to blame.

Desperation, it would seem – is the recurring theme.

And so to 21st Century Britain. Everyone exudes such great despondency over things such as the price of property. But then your great-aunt Molly, who owns a flat in Hammersmith, kicks the bucket, and leaves a quarter of it to you. All you then want to do is rent it out for 4 grand a week to some students who must beg you for mercy when you force them to pay £900 to replace a door handle.

Then of course – the cost of living. A can of Fanta has gone up in price far quicker than your pitiful paycheque has over the last 4 years, compounding the thought that life is indeed ‘a bitch and then you die’. Let’s revolt. But then a pop up website tells you – ‘you, yes you, can buy an iPad Air on credit. Pay nuffink now’. Blimey. Well, you think – thrust this device into my world post haste, I can always flog my granddad’s pacemaker in a ‘cash for gold’ outlet if it comes on top, I’m willing to bet he’ll die long before my overdraft does. Crisis averted. Let’s go blag some wifi.

But it can’t be that simple can it? Are all thoughts of a revolution easily quashed with the offering of a Lacoste scarf? Surely love for our fellow man transcends the momentary feeling you get from the smell of new trainers?

What better way to gauge how much we have shunned consumerism than during the festive period – where total focus is on good will being extended to all men. And what better place than the largest and most ostentatious of all shops, which, one would assume, must be on its knees as we move away from a society of materialism, focusing all energy on fighting those pesky financial institutes and their total disregard for inequality. Thus, to see how many steps we have taken on the proud walk to a new era – I went to the Selfridges & Co.’s Boxing Day sales.

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The Establishment:

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Oxford Street may be a world famous retail hub, but if one strides down its famed pavement slabs for more than a minute you will suddenly realise that it is simply a row of shops selling Union Jack tea towels, interrupted momentarily by some grandiose headquarter of a low end high street brand. This makes the resplendent Selfridges building all the more magical, and in terms of people, magnetic.

However, for what the building presents in terms of elegance, is immediately eradicated by the barbarity of people wishing to strip it of all belongings as if the greatest storm in history was on its way and all the drinking water and canned goods where shelved in its basement. The Boxing Day frenzy, to be rather frank, is biblical.

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As I looked around waiting for the plague of locusts to kick off the end of days, I started to notice the looks on peoples faces and then, the products on offer, which allowed me to harness greater understanding of what was going on.

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Focusing firstly on the ‘people’ the first thing that becomes apparent is the look of fear slapped across their face.

selfridges tinter 6

In some warped parallel, this is the exact look of fear that you see in Syrian refugee camps on news reports, because both groups are staring into the unknown – no fear, it seems, is worse than that of looking into an abyss. Now whilst in Syria the unknown is based on whether they will survive moment to moment and if normality will ever come back into their lives, the unknown in Selfridges was based on the complete lack of understanding of why they were so desperate to buy things they hadn’t even known existed until right at that point. ‘I don’t know what it is, but I can’t live without it!’

To truly get why this happens, one must look at the products. Now I could have picked from a multitude of euphuistic clutter, but the two that stood out were this:

Selfridges 1

This was a small part of the ‘tea section’. This is literally what happens if you give a bag of PG tips to Willy Wonka. No wonder people were scared.

Then there was this:

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This is a bottle of French fizzy wine, given its own jacket. How can people be rationale about their own clothing necessity when we are putting overcoats on bottles of liquid we are supposed to drink chilled?

Tellingly, the quietest place was the floor area that sold plates and cutlery and things that had a sense of purpose.

Selfridges 8 Selfridges 2

The Toilets:

Selfridges 3

Now in most instances, for the Porcelain Gentleman, the toilets represent a delve into the heart of an establishment and thus are filled, from the moment one sees the requisite facilities signage, with intrigue and anticipation. But from the baying Boxing Day crowd, the restroom took on the role as place of refuge.

Which was handy, as they serve more as a place to hide than a place to be overwhelmed with opulence:

Selfridges 4 Selfridges 5

Indeed one could speculate that the cubicles, with the floor to ceiling thick doors blocking out external light and sound, were designed simply to allow one to collect their thoughts, revaluate exactly why they are alive, before heading out into battle. In some regards, it serves as a humane and slightly upmarket prisoner of war camp, with lots of solitary reflection in austere conditions, full of people living in hope that the hostilities beyond the bathroom walls will end soon and allow them to be repatriated into a peaceful setting.

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The marbled trough sink worked well as a an oxymoronic feature; ‘It’s nice here, hope you’re having a swell time – but remember, you are still no more than cattle’.

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The Porcelain Gentleman:

Once back out onto the Westminster pavement, I was no closer to knowing the immanency of an  insurrection. On one hand, the high level of consumer activity would suggest people are in fact moving closer to satisfying their own self worth through product ownership than they are on clubbing together for some collective social upheaval. But on the other, if people could get that worked up over a 20% discount on something they didn’t even want, then surely coercing them to demand constitutional change, or at least set fire to David Cameron’s cat, can’t be that hard?

In reality, I suppose revolution is going to have to come through material bribery than actual heartfelt political debate. If you really want the masses to unravel the very fibre of capitalism by causing chaos in the streets, you’re going to have to offer them an iPod for their service.

And for an idea of the sort of place the rest of us will have to hole up whilst there is mayhem on the streets? Look no further than the Selfridges toilets (3/10).

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2014 by in Retail.

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