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Sabbatical, Day 46: Bozos In The High Street, Hope In The Papers

If yesterday was St Patrick’s Day, I hereby declare today Bozos In The High Street Day. Two visits to major stores convinced me of that. In both cases, centrally decided policies or actions crippled the ability of those ‘on the ground’ to help. 

First, I visited W H Smith to pick up the copy of Mission-Shaped Questions I had ordered from them with a gift token. Having also received vouchers for £5 off books costing £10 or more, I wanted to order one or two more titles. However, there had been a power cut in the centre of town. Smith’s had lost electricity twice. As a result, their barcode scanners still weren’t working, even though power had been restored to the shop. This meant that if I ordered a book, they wouldn’t be able to give me the £5 discount. For gone are the days when you could order something and leave a deposit: now they insist on full payment upfront. As a result, ordering the book without the discount meant they were no longer competitive and they lost my business. I have no quibble with the young woman who served me: she spoke to her supervisor to see if there might be a way around it, but there wasn’t. At a time when they have lost so much to online stores like Amazon and when the recession is making life even harder, their inflexibility lost another sale.

Second candidate for Bozo status: Staples. I make occasional visits to this overpriced store that claims to price-match its rivals. Usually, it’s when I desperately need an inkjet cartridge, I’ve forgotten to order online and I am humiliated into paying their prices. Other times, it’s to get craft resources for Sunday School. 

Well – one day last summer, I was in there on one of my desperate inkjet missions and I couldn’t find my Staples Reward Card. (Not that it had rewarded me then, nor has it since.) A helpful assistant said, “Don’t worry, I’ll issue you with a new one. Ring the number on the accompanying leaflet and head office will combine your two accounts into one.”

That made sense. Except head office refused to do anything. Today, I finally remembered to take all the paperwork back when I called to buy some coloured card for an Easter party. The local people are bemused by their head office. Rightly so, in my opinion. I can’t see how a local shop would have the resources to amalgamate accounts. All they can do is scan the cards and issue new ones. Someone somewhere else just can’t be bothered. If they can’t be bothered … 

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From today’s Guardian: why the World War Two poster ‘Keep Calm And Carry On‘ has become popular again. Two quotes from the article:

Alain Samson, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, says that in times of difficulty, “people are brought together by looking for common values or purposes, symbolised by the crown and the message of resilience. The words are also particularly positive, reassuring, in a period of uncertainty, anxiety, even perhaps of cynicism.”

Dr Lesley Prince, who lectures in social psychology at Birmingham University, is blunter still. “It is a quiet, calm, authoritative, no-b*llsh*t voice of reason,” he says. “It’s not about British stiff upper lip, really. The point is that people have been sold a lie since the 1970s. They were promised the earth and now they’re worried about everything – their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension. This is saying, look, somebody out there knows what’s going on, and it’ll be all right”.

These seem reasons worth pondering from a Christian perspective. People want to hear a message that – in the words of Bob Marley – is “Everything is gonna be all right”, but there needs to be substance and reason behind such claims. Otherwise it’s wishful thinking. The Christian claim is that we do have substance behind our hope, and it comes in the Resurrection of Jesus. However, with such claims ruled out on principle, our society is left without substance at a time when hope is needed.

The common values and purposes our culture cherishes still remain those of economic idolatry. It seems to be taking someone of simple intellect like poor dying Jade Goody to be putting spiritual issues in the centre of the news. And yes, some of what she is reported to say or long for does sound like folk religion, but she knows she has such little time left and spiritual claims are clearly featuring highly in her concerns.

Sabbatical, Day 38: Music And Search Engine News

Today has involved a fair bit more reading of Clay Shirky, including the chapter where he describes how the revolution in technology and social tools completely changed the ability of Catholic laity to protest against sexual abuse by priests in Boston. When I’ve finished reading Here Comes Everybody, I’ll blog it in a series.

Family-wise, we’ve been giving Rebekah a severe lecture for knots in her hair that we had to cut out. She seems more obsessed with twiddling her hair (or that of school friends) than concentrating on her work. Being the mean parents we are, we are sending the hair we cut to her teacher.

I’ve also done some more Cross Rhythms reviewing today. A special word for Welsh singer-songwriter Phil Lewis (Facebook page here). Highly recommended for lovers of 80s-influenced pop-rock. He doesn’t have the big budget some artists have, but if he did I think he’d make a big impact. And for something different, Native North American worship music from Waking The Sound. There’s no way I would have heard that without being a CR reviewer. Quite extraordinary.

In other music news, I was delighted to receive an email from Vineyard Music UK announcing the release of a new CD by bluesy American worship guy Chris Lizotte. Nothing sugary about his stuff, even when the lyrical content is conventional. Here he is, singing Brighter Day with Crystal Lewis:

In technology news, The Guardian has a piece on the latest potential Google-killer. Wolfram Alpha claims to have found the holy grail of computing with the intelligence to understand human questions. It launches in May. It’s confusing that it’s caused Alpha: it sounds like it hasn’t even reached beta status. However, you can apply to participate in the beta testing on the site. It only seems months since the last Google-killer was announced and hyped, only to be ruined by bloggers (including obscure ones like me) pointing out that it didn’t deliver good results. I wonder whether this will be any different.

Stephen Byers Lied To Parliament

According to today’s Guardian Stephen Byers’ admission in a court case that he lied to Parliament about Railtrack has scuppered his chances of a comeback to Government and risks him facing the wrath of “the Commons standards and privileges committee, the watchdog that guards the seven principles all MPs must uphold – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, openness, accountability, honesty and leadership”.

Those seven qualities are quite something. While the little bit of me that is postmodern is sceptical of how completely objective we can be, I just wonder how well we in the church do on this score.

The Debt Trap

Jon Ronson has a powerful column in today’s Guardian about the tragedy of the debt mountain in our nation. He traces it back, not only to the scandalous behaviour of financial institutions in the way they target the most vulnerable, but to one man who admits he thought he was doing something good but unleashed a monster. That man is the well known evangelical Christian Lord Griffiths. He sounds repentant. I hope he is.</p.

But Lord Griffiths is no longer in political power. (He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.) Might we dare hope that another Christian politician, Gordon Brown, might make tackling this a priority?

And might we Christians tackle the underlying issues with a witness that you can be fulfilled without having all the latest things? Of course that would undermine our entire economy, which is not based on need but upon want …