At least once a week, Richard sends an email offering me “Breathtaking Deals!” on a specific brand of computers. Sometimes these offers are superseded by “Huge, Unrepeatable Discounts!” or by “Best Ever, Incredible Offers!” I have never to my knowledge met Richard, although apparently he knows me, because all his emails begin with a chummy “Hi, Eric!” I have never purchased his brand of computer, nor do I reply to his entreaties, yet still the messages keep coming, a weekly digital scream in my face alerting me to all the possible ways of attaining technological nirvana, if only I would part with a few hundred pounds.
Richard is rather like Sarah, Rachel and Rose who from time to time (“Hi, Eric!” again) send me emails suggesting that the next time I’m leasing a new car (which will be soon, they hope) I should look no further than their latest offer of a Mercedes coupé at only £499.99 per month – plus VAT. No? Well, failing that, how about a brand new Honda CRV with leather seats and automatic transmission – just £399.99 + VAT a month. Always there is the pesky VAT, added like an afterthought in a badly worded speech. Sometimes, in a final desperate plea at the end of their message, they offer me cut-price luxury for a deposit of only £99.99 + VAT. But no matter how many nines they pack into their message, I resist. I resist.
Who are these shadowy digital creatures who think they know me so well? In idle moments, I fantasise about what Richard, Sarah, Rachel and Rose are like in real life – if indeed they have a real life. Do they have moments of self-doubt? Are there times when the whole world seems to be against them? Do they suffer from embarrassing health complaints? Have they partners whose habits drive them crazy? Are they frustrated by the slow growth in the economy? Do they have private peccadilloes they would rather we didn’t know about? Take Richard, for example. Has he come to terms with his raging halitosis? Or what about Rose? She may be callipygian, but does she understand quadratic equations or the importance of reducing the national debt? And Sarah, I feel sure, has wrestled for years with her personal stance on moral relativism.
This way madness lies. But my personal lunacy about these creatures is as nothing to the madness that is all around us during the sparkly, jingly, tinsel-covered “Christmas” hokum that now seems to assault us throughout the final sixteen weeks of every calendar year. During that season, Richard, Sarah, their television equivalents and the rest of the hard-sell retail gang fill our ears with entreaties to buy, buy, and buy again. Theirs is an incessant call to commercial arms, a plea to spend, to live on the edge, to get with it, to get more of the much we already have.
So the pressure mounts. In the breathless 24-hour media and internet world of these creatures, “Christmas” presents us with a series of apparently huge “lifestyle” questions. How much to spend? What to give to whom? Which Christmas cards to buy? How to sparkle at that party? How to keep the family happily together on Christmas day? How to stop Uncle Bert drinking too much again this year? Who have we left off the Christmas list? How to grab the latest must-have bauble before it’s sold out? It is only when we properly compare these lifestyle “problems” with real, gut-wrenching human problems that we can get things in perspective – think Syria, Iraq or Liberia, think poverty and homelessness. The challenge of genuinely cataclysmic human and personal disasters is so often presented on the internet and in the media in an undifferentiated way side by side with trivial questions about deciding which trinket to purchase, that it can seem that the two are of equal gravity. It is a bit like equating Shakespeare with Russell Brand, or Beethoven with Iron Maiden – each has its place, but they can hardly be regarded as equals in the generally accepted sense of the word. And so, we are left, confused and blinking, staring at a false perspective on what is important in our world – and the purpose of it all.
Are these the ravings of a grumpy old humbug? Perhaps. But I’d quite like Richard and his friends to stop screaming at me for a moment so that I can hear properly the still, quiet message at the heart of Christmas.