Monday 23 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Stop droning on... don't let guilt wreck your Christmas'

If you're lucky enough to have a roof over your head and a few quid in your pocket, don't feel guilty about the Christmas splurge, says Brendan O'Connor

SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP: Consumers have worked hard throughout the year and deserve to splash Christmas cash
SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP: Consumers have worked hard throughout the year and deserve to splash Christmas cash
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The Gatwick drone felt like a sign in a way, didn't it? It worked on many levels. It seemed like one final humiliation for the British in what has been an annus humiliation for them. Not only could they not do the big projects, it seems they're not great at the small ones either. There was a familiar sense of Dad's Army about their seeming powerlessness to do anything about the drone for about two days.

In a year when we became increasingly concerned about the technology we have created to make our lives better, the Gatwick drone, or drones, also seemed like a vaguely ridiculous symbol of how helpless we can be against our own creations when they fall into the wrong hands. While we were busy wondering about our data, and Russians interfering in elections, and AI taking over and turning on us, and maybe even the rise of the killer robots, it was actually something as simple as a drone. A drone, that anyone with a few hundred quid could buy, was able to mess with everyone's best-laid Christmas plans, and paralyse an airport in one of the leading cities of the world, in a developed country.

"Lack of foresight" was cited as one of the reasons why they didn't seem to know what to do about the drone. Because who could have foreseen this? That if you allow anyone who fancies it to have a small remote-controlled aircraft that seemingly can't be traced back to the person flying it, some anonymous person might fly one over an airport? It's not as if it's blindingly obvious that someone might do that, is it? Lack of foresight. There's been a lot of that around. Like who would have thought that Brexit might turn into an omnishambles. Apart from anybody over the age of two.

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The drone seemed to have a message, too, about Christmas, and the commercialisation of it. A drone is the ultimate toy for the grown-up child who has it all. No one actually needs their own private drone. But loads of people have them, and loads more people will probably get them for Christmas. Not big heavy-lifting ones like the Gatwick drone seemed to be. Just toys. Because adults like toys these days too. Possibly adults who didn't get enough toys when they were kids. Now they're in charge of the money and they're going to buy whatever foolish things they want. Because they can.

Our Christmas Kantar Millward Brown poll today says that nearly everyone who has an opinion thinks that Christmas has become too commercial: 86pc agree Christmas has become too commercial, while just 4pc think it hasn't. It's a funny thing because I could have sworn I saw that 86pc of people out shopping yesterday. But then, as the famous F Scott Fitzgerald quote goes: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

And that is essentially what we are all doing. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and a few quid in our pocket are caught up in this maniacal shopping, as if against our will. We're muttering and moaning to each other that it's all gone too far and the children are all spoilt these days and everybody has enough rubbish anyway. But still, on we go with the dance, as if carried along by the surging crowds.

Of course people blame everyone else except themselves for it. Present-giving can often be construed as an act of aggression these days. Damn you so-and-so. How dare you give me a present? Now I have to get you one. And on and on in this merry-go-round of giving, passing on presents, often the same ones. Some people do the ultimate act of aggression and prevent re-gifting by going with the new vogue for personalised gifts. So anything from a bottle of booze to a handbag has your name on it, so no passing on unless to someone with the same name as you.

Somehow people seem to have decided that the spending is worse this year, that we've all gone mad. But it's possible that we thought that last year too. We feel guilty about it also. Homelessness comes into sharp focus at Christmas, and the figures released last week were up again. There are still nearly 4,000 children homeless in Ireland. And sometimes people can get a twinge of guilt when they are walking out of the drone shop and they are confronted by a homeless person.

According to our poll, people say they will spend on average €292 on food for the household this Christmas, €147 on drink for the house, €525 on presents, €139 on restaurants and €131 on going to the pub. And let's face it, they are probably lying a little bit, lying a little bit to themselves and then a little bit more to the person who asked them. Because there is that bit of guilt and shame.

Before we all decide that it's all about money and we've lost the true meaning of Christmas and the worst excesses of the boom are back and before we start swearing off shopping, we should maybe reflect on it a bit more.

First. Consider this: retail is the biggest employer in Ireland, outside the public sector, employing over a quarter of a million people. That's everything from kids making their own cash at the weekend to men and women who support families, to single parents, to immigrants getting on the job ladder, to older people having a purpose, to people with intellectual disabilities having a sense of self-worth. It is the bustling heart of our economy and our society. And it is a very tangible way of supporting the community. In today's poll, people say they are doing a quarter of their buying online. Much of that trade, by its nature, will be going abroad. Much of it, by its nature, will also be going to Amazon, a company about which many people have moral qualms, but still we use it. Supporting your local shops is positively a public service next to giving money for Jeff Bezos to build more warehouses.

And consider, too, that there is nothing wrong with people getting out there and spending money. Humans are at heart traders, buyers, sellers, dealmakers, acquisitive. It's not a sin or a denial of God or spirituality. It is not an offence against the true meaning of Christmas. And the instinct to give gifts, to be decent and to buy our friends a drink, is surely connected to the core of the Christmas message of goodwill. And consider, too, that all this frenzy of consumerism is getting us through the shortest, darkest days of the year.

If consumerism was all there was to Christmas, you'd be worried. But the truth is that in between all the splurging, there is a great decency too. People tend to think a little bit more about their fellow man at this time of year, and about those less fortunate. And maybe we don't do enough, but we do a bit more than we might otherwise.

So maybe we shouldn't beat ourselves up. If the guy coming out of the drone shop drops a guilty 20 quid to the homeless person he sees, it's not going to solve the problem, but maybe it is, on balance, a good thing that he's buying himself a toy.

So Happy Christmas, and why not absolve yourself? You've worked hard, you deserve a bit of a splurge. Enjoy it, don't let that Irish guilt ruin it for you. But don't forget to think of others, especially those who aren't as lucky as you.

Sunday Independent

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