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Scrooge Goes Shopping: A Modern Christmas Tale

New Statesman, 15 December 2003

Yes! And the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!

‘I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmastime be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!’

‘Well, there’s no need for that’, said Marley.

Scrooge leapt into the air. He spun around to find Marley’s ghost at his shoulder, for the second time that night.

‘You again!’ he yelled. ‘I thought it was over!’

‘Nice to see you too,’ said Marley. ‘Now, how far have you got?’

‘I’ve done past, present and future!’ shouted Scrooge. ‘I’m still recovering! Now it’s Christmas morning. I have to buy a turkey for Bob Cratchit. I’ve got a whole city of people to be nice to. What more do you want?’

‘Well,’ said Marley, ‘contractually, you know, I’ve done all I was obliged to. Shown you the facts and let you choose, that sort of thing.’ He leaned conspiratorially towards Scrooge.

‘But you know, the one good thing about all this’ – he raised his chains and rattled them; what had terrified Scrooge a few hours before seemed now to be simply showing off –

‘Oh, stop it.’

‘Sorry. Anyway, the one good thing is the travel. I don’t mean all this flying around in chains gnashing my teeth, I mean the time travel. You saw what those spirits can do. I get to do a bit of that too.’

‘Do you?’ said Scrooge, who wasn’t interested.

‘Oh yes!’ said Marley. ‘I mean, I’m not supposed to. But the places I’ve been when they weren’t looking! I could tell you some stories…’

Scrooge looked impatiently at the clock on the mantel, which he had stolen from a pawn shop.

‘Yes, well, I’m rather busy actually, Jacob. So if you’ve just popped back to share a few holiday anecdotes, you’ll understand if I ask you to go and…’

‘It’s fine,’ said Marley. ‘Don’t worry. I’ve stopped time again. Just for a while.’ Scrooge sighed.

‘Is this going to take long?’ he asked. ‘Only I was planning to spend the afternoon kicking cripples.’

Marley gave him a look.

‘Sorry,’ said Scrooge, somewhat wistfully. ‘I meant buying presents for cripples. Old habits, you know...’

‘Listen’, whispered Marley, ‘I’m not really supposed to, but there’s one last place I want to take you. This one is really going to blow you away.’

‘“Blow me away?”’

‘I picked it up. You’ll see. Come with me.’ He held out his hand. Scrooge sighed again, and took it.

‘Where this time?’ he said.

‘The future.’

‘I’ve done that.’

‘Not this one you haven’t’, said Marley, with a sly glint in his dead eyes.

‘Just get on with it,’ said Scrooge. He closed his eyes, and they walked through the wall.

They stood in the centre of a giant avenue of light. It stretched as far as Scrooge could see in both directions. Great stone buildings reached to the sky, strung with stars. At eye level, lights of all colours illuminated cavernous spaces stacked high and wide with glittering prizes. The place was packed with slow-moving streams of people, moving on either side, and sometimes among, a roaring river of red and black metal. The air was heavy with sickly fumes and hung with clouds of indistinguishable sound.

‘Bugger me!’ said Scrooge, his jaw hanging open.

‘Ebenezer, please.’

‘What is this place? Where are we?’

‘Oxford Street’ said Marley. ‘I’m surprised you don’t recognise it.’

‘Oxford Street!’ repeated Scrooge, in wonder. ‘What…’

‘It’s Christmas, in the year 2003, since you were about to ask’ said Marley. ‘There are only five shopping days left, so everyone’s rather frantic.’

‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying!’

‘You’ll get the hang of it. Just keep your eyes open. This is the future of Christmas, my old friend. Makes you and your prize turkey look rather quaint, doesn’t it?’

‘Turkey’, murmured Scrooge. ‘Do people still eat turkey?’

‘Never more so’, said Marley. ‘Look, there’s one.’ He pointed through the open doors of a Tesco Metro.

‘It’s diseased!’ squeaked Scrooge.

‘It’s just wrapped in plastic. Perfectly safe. It’s the hormone injections you have to worry about.’

‘Plastic? Hormones?’

‘Just roll with it,’ said Marley, who was enjoying himself. ‘The future’s a foreign country. They do things differently here. Now follow me, and don’t get lost.’

They drifted down to street level. Scrooge could see, now, that the vast caverns of light were shops – but shops the like of which he had never seen before. Shops of such size, magnificence and opulence that they must surely put the Royal Palaces of England to shame. Every one of them was packed with people, dragging bags and levering each other aside to look at the wares.

‘My Lord!’ Scrooge repeated. ‘What are these people doing?’

‘Shopping. What does it look like? It’s Christmas, Ebenezer. A time for giving, remember? Look at them all giving.’

‘But they all look like they’re suffering!’ said Scrooge.

‘Well, most of them are,’ conceded Marley. ‘Nobody really likes Christmas shopping, do they? But you’ve got to get people something good. And these days you can buy anything at all, right here in the heart of London. Things you could never have dreamed of, my old friend.’

Scrooge gazed around him. It was true. In one window stood a library of silver boxes, topped with tinsel and a single sign: ‘digital cameras. £49.99 Unbeatable Christmas offer.’ Then a white gold necklace for £99.99. Purple blocks of what looked like ice, scattered with what looked like snow and topped with what looked like shoes, perfume bottles, glasses, jewels, gold. ‘Magical gift ideas throughout the store’ read the writing on the vast window. Something called ‘DVDs’ was apparently popular. The garments were made of materials Scrooge had never seen. The textures, the shapes – there had never been anything like it.

‘Look at this’, said Marley, peering through a window. ‘Cubby the Cuddly bear – just £6.99. Isn’t that sweet – look, he’s got a little hat and scarf.’

‘Jacob,’ said Scrooge. ‘These people – they must be rich even beyond my dreams! What has happened?’

‘Ah, well,’ said Marley, ‘that’s not quite it. You see, every year the pressure is on these people to buy more and better gifts than they bought last year. And every year these wonderful places – he waved his hand towards the nearest FCUK – make them offers they can’t refuse. But to afford it all, most of them get into debt.’

‘Debt!’ yelped Scrooge, horrified.

‘I knew you wouldn’t like it. Remarkable how easy it is to get into debt here. In fact, it’s positively encouraged. Just last month they managed to borrow £10 billion between them.’

Scrooge fainted, but found himself remaining upright.

‘You can’t faint,’ said Marley. You’re a shade from the past, remember? This isn’t your real body. Get with the programme.’

‘Please stop talking like that!’ begged Scrooge. ‘Why this debt? And who encourages it?’

‘Oh, everyone,’ said Marley, vaguely. ‘If people don’t get into debt they can’t keep buying things they don’t need, and if they don’t keep buying things they don’t need, the economy will collapse.’

‘Economy?’ mouthed Scrooge. ‘Collapse?’

‘Yup. All of it. The whole shebang. Nobody really understands how it works, but essentially they all have to keep their purses open and their banks empty or everyone’s in deep doo-doo.’

‘But why buy things they don’t need?’ asked Scrooge. Marley burst out laughing.

‘Oh Ebenezer, you are quaint’, he said. ‘And you call yourself a businessman! The point is that they have to keep buying things. It’s all about something called ‘consumer confidence.’ And the people who make all these wonderful things make it easier by designing them so they don’t last. Then people have to go and buy more.’

‘Don’t last?’

‘Do stop repeating everything I say. Yes, they break, and then people throw them into big holes in the ground and go out to the shops again. Guess how much household rubbish this country produced last year?’

‘I can’t.’

‘Twenty-eight million tonnes! Remarkable eh? People throw out their bodyweight in the stuff every three months. And eighty percent of it goes straight into the aforementioned big holes. Rather like a midden, they are, but a midden about the size of Middlesex.’


Marley stopped and looked at him sternly.

‘Ebenezer,’ he said. ‘I’ve brought you all this way. Please try and ask some intelligent questions.’

Scrooge gathered his thoughts.

‘I don’t believe it,’ he said, finally and somewhat lamely.

‘It’s all true.’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Well, you know, one picks things up. I have a lot of time for reading. Did you know that they cut down fifty thousand trees just to make the paper that people use to wrap their Christmas presents in? Then they throw it all away the next day. And, since you can’t faint, you might be interested to know that last year this lot spent six hundred billion pounds just buying things. Six hundred billion, Ebenezer! They spend over £500 each just on Christmas Day. Every Christmas they spend fifteen hours each shopping, two hours each queuing …’

‘But Jacob, this is awful!’ cried Scrooge. ‘Where is the joy? Where is the spirit of love, of giving, of taking pleasure in simple things? Where is the true spirit of Christmas?’

‘Oh, that,’ said Marley. ‘It’s over there.’ Scrooge followed his finger through the window of a department store, to where a man in an ill-fitting Santa costume was handing out Christmas Sale leaflets in front of a giant plastic iceberg sponsored by Vodaphone. Scrooge looked utterly crestfallen.

‘Oh come on, old man,’ said Marley. ‘Chin up! Remember what the Spirits taught you!’

‘Spirits!’ spat Scrooge. ‘Humbug to the spirits, Jacob, and to you! Three journeys I took today. I came back changed. I came back feeling all beneficent and selfless! Then you bring me here!’ He hung his head.

‘You’ve really ruined my Christmas,’ he said, sadly.

It was beginning to dawn on Marley that this might not have been a good idea after all. He grabbed Scrooge’s hand and, before he had time to think, dragged him bodily through the wall of the HMV Megastore. For the eighth time that day, everything went dark.

Scrooge was back in his chair by the fire. Marley was still at his side.

‘Was it real?’ he asked, dazed.

‘Yup’, said Marley, who was shuffling from foot to foot. ‘Listen, Ebenezer … I may have made a mistake taking you there. It was just supposed to be a bit of fun. If I’ve gone and undone all the Spirits’ work you have no idea how much trouble I’m going to be in…’

Scrooge looked up at him.

‘Jacob’, he said. ‘Can it be changed? The Spirits told me I could change my future by my actions. Could I change that one too?’

‘You could give it a shot’, said Marley. ‘I mean, I don’t fancy your chances, but …’ – sensing an escape route, he pulled himself together – ‘no, I mean, certainly. Why not? Hah hah. The future’s just the result of our actions, after all.’

‘Then I shall not buy a present for Tiny Tim!’ declared Scrooge. ‘Now that I’ve seen where it leads, I shall refuse to participate. Instead, I shall visit him and warn him of the dangers of runaway consumption!’

‘Er…’ said Marley, alarmed, ‘well, let’s not get carried away, eh? That might not go down too well. Especially the bit about consumption, what with his chest and all.’

‘Perhaps you’re right,’ Scrooge pondered. ‘Then I shall keep it simple. Maybe I’ll just buy him an orange.’

‘Bit tight, Ebenezer,’ said Marley. ‘The spirit of giving, remember? Surely you could at least stretch to a bag of walnuts?’

Scrooge looked at him, and smiled.

‘What the hell?’ he said. ‘It is Christmas.’