Monday, 2 June 2008

Sex and the City - not just a bit of fun

So, I went along on Friday night with my good mates Aileen and Julie – a girls’ night out watching the long awaited Sex and the City, the movie. I’ve seen the TV programme but never really paid much attention. However, a night out with my mates is a night out with my mates. So along I went, dolled up to the nines (not!) and once we’d got ourselves plonked in the front row, Pringles at the ready, the movie commenced.

Now let me say here that I enjoyed it on a superficial level. They’ve done a good job. It was clichéd in parts, predictable of course but also funny, energetic and very entertaining. And the tale is one of friendship and love and support – who can argue with that?

However, that’s not what I want to talk about here. As most of the readers of this blog know I worked in Sri Lanka from January to April of this year and, without wishing to sound pious I’ve come back cleansed of the need to throw myself into the consumer society I had previously been so much a part of.

Well, after watching SATC I want to take a big bar of carbolic soap to the lot of them. It’s funny how I’ve only been away three months but very quickly the symptoms of materialism started ebbing away and on Friday night, in that cinema watching the gluttony of the world we live in, I felt like standing up and saying “why are we all laughing at this?”.

One of the characters is, of course, obsessed with designer labels which means she at one point spends $525 on a pair of shoes and later reveals that a cushion cost her $300! A cushion?! Quite honestly I felt sick because these people may simply be characters in a movie but they reflect real life for many in the rich parts of the world. And yet in huge swathes of our planet people are dying because they cannot afford even the basics like food, shelter and medicines.

I had a conversation with Eilidh Whiteford on Saturday night. Eilidh is going to be the next MP for Banff and Buchan and she is also a campaigns manager for Oxfam. She has spent considerable amounts of time in the developing world and has a great deal more experience than my “introductory” three months. Anyway we chatted about the vast difference in living standards across the world and she made a very good point about the recent petrol shortages in Scotland.

Whilst we (and I am including myself and Eilidh here) were busy complaining about having to queue for petrol for up to half an hour, right across the world increasing fuel costs means people are not getting access to medicines when they need them and as a result their lives are being cut short. The petrol situation was a serious one here and when I’m sitting in a queue having to wait forever to pay hugely inflated prices, I am feeling sorry for no-one but myself. But I doubt anyone will disagree that our problems pale in comparison with those of many of our fellow human beings in the developing world.

Now, petrol is essential to all of us. Designer shoes are not. But to Carrie in Sex and the City, she has got to have them. And I don’t even know if it’s because she likes them. It seems to be simply because of the labels attached to them. I can enjoy works of fiction as much as anyone else. And I have friends who are fairly obsessed with fashion and labels – it doesn’t stop them being good people and many of them will agree with what I’m saying here. And whilst I may not have had the cash or the stupidity to spend that kind of money on shoes, I have wasted incredible sums of money on things I had decided were “necessary” in the past.

I think what happened to me out in Sri Lanka was that I had to manage for three months with very few clothes, not a lot of money, no make up (it just slid off in the heat) and very little of anything that I didn’t really need. And I managed just fine – in fact, I was very happy out there. It didn’t do my conversion any harm to be working with a (now) good friend whose day lasted from 5am to 11pm, who had to handwash absolutely everything, who had no microwave, no freezer, no oven, no car, no nights out, no chance of ever holidaying abroad, an outdoor toilet (my worst nightmare) and who, along with her husband, financially supported her parents, her sister and her child all living in a 2 bedroomed house with no windows – BUT was one of the happiest and most satisfied people I’ve ever met.

I guess passing the time of day with my neighbours who washed every morning and night at the well outside their house because they’d no running water and hearing them complain not once, could also have contributed to my conversion.

And having no television, magazines or Western newspapers for three whole months? Well, I believe that’s been the biggest contributor. Taking a complete break from all of that meant I came back and actually NOTICED the things that previously had passed me by but clearly had seeped into my subconscious – like the media constantly drumming home the message about the need for expensive shoes, hugely overpriced home furnishings, the latest gadgets that are so essential for happy living.

And that – the break from it all – will probably explain why although I enjoyed watching SATC on Friday night, I couldn’t just relax and pretend none of it mattered. I felt uncomfortable watching this woman and her friends so obsessed with material gain because it DOES matter, it matters a lot. What the answer is I don’t know but what I do know is if we turn our backs on the problems of world poverty, the answers will never be found. If we work together, if we all agree that it’s wrong wrong wrong to have so much disparity in the world, then one day, we WILL find the answers.

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