I’ve spent weeks laughing at people churning themselves into a frenzy over Christmas shopping. “Calm down dears, it’s only November”, I scoffed internally at the harried mums jabbing me in the bum with rolls of wrapping paper that have been cynically bolstering the tills like coiled harbingers of January’s pennilessness. There I’ve been – smugly tutting for weeks like I’d somehow escaped The System – until I realised with a gulp that it’s now…actually…well, pretty close. Like, a week away. And I’ve done next to nothing.
I should have learned by now to plan ahead and do it in manageable chunks, but to be honest this last minute panic is as much a Christmas tradition for me as doubling my podge and weeping in the street at the Salvation Army band. “You’re old and wearing a really big coat and playing the tuba – HAVE SOME SNOT!”
It’s an amazing pressure that swirls around us as this time of enforced happiness. Aside from the emotional obligation you feel to the nostalgia of Christmasses past, to being the same festive person you’ve always been when actually you’re mostly stressed and distracted, you also have to think about other people; family, humanity, maybe even – dare I venture – Jesus. Christmas is demanding – you have to buy stuff, wrap stuff, plan stuff, eat stuff, juggle stuff, do stuff, eat stuff, think of stuff, be stuff, eat stuff, sing stuff, wear stuff, stuff stuff, eat more stuff, and stuff. It’s like work, (if work encouraged you to always have a fortifying mulled wine in hand).
One of the hardest bits is buying stuff for people that doesn’t leave their faces looking like you just handed them a kipper on a frisbee. No one wants to see that face. You want to see the face like you just gave them a winning lottery ticket wrapped in Michael Buble’s best pants. You want the good face. You want to make those tinkers feel loved. (And, secretly, a silly little part of you wants to make them love you the most.)
But the pressure’s on, and you’re squeezing through a throng of people who are seemingly buying the best presents ever, and they’re smiling smugly at you as you dither with a battery-operated meerkat, and your brain, panicking, turns to anything else but the logic that tells you: “Your family love you, they want you to save your money so you can fix your car and not be stressing in the new year – they want to just spend time with you.”
No. The spending of Time isn’t pretty enough. You can’t put Time in a box and make people cry with it.
So naturally, I fell into the Cath Kidston trap. I wanted to spoil my sister rotten and so I found myself in a squished boutique, stylish women cooing in my ear that Cath Kidston is the best thing to happen to Britain since Hitler killed himself, and frantically thrusting my debit card into a cashier’s hand because…I want my sister to know I love her. I want her to know I am always here, that my heart is still charged by all the power in my blood which rushed me like a pre-pubescent warrior towards her doomed bullies in the playground, that I think she has the prettiest face I have ever seen on a real live woman, that I think her vegetable lasagne is the best.
So I bought her a floral bag.
And even though I know she will love it because it’s bloody gorgeous (she’d better not fucking read this or the surprise is ruined), a small part of me was disappointed in myself. Because Cath Kidston bothers me a bit. Not because she’s now astoundingly rich or is turning pretty designs and nice craft ideas into generic badges of proscribed femininity, not because she’s cynically seized upon that quiet, comfy, increasingly shameful part of most women that wants to be baking and feathering and making everything ‘nice’, not because she would probably not be seen dead out in something as common as her own designs (the ones that make it into the shops anyway), but because she is going against the whole ethos behind her floral/birdy/polka-dotty loveliness. She’s the queen of twee; the figurehead for the renaissance of vintage thrift, and the Cath Kidston empire which lures us with its shabby-chic ‘I’ve just macraméd the hair I pulled out of the plughole into a charming brooch’ is a facade. It’s not hand-woven in an English country cottage by Cath herself – no, it’s made in China. It’s about as English as Chairman Mao slurping noodles with a panda. It’s made in massive quantities to be shipped out to shops which make people feel like they’re buying into an authentic experience, or expressing some aspirational or creative part of themselves not being otherwise satisfied. Cath Kidston, and all her pricey ilk, is the opposite of tepid tea and stale jam tarts at jumble sales in honour of post-war ‘make do and mend’. Cath Kidston is sort of the new Burberry; ethos turncoat and brand flake. The symbols of qualities we admire and covet – domestic contentedness, resourceful canniness, attractive living – are made available to everyone not out of good spirit, but out of the voracity of business. Cath Kidston is not likely (nor would ever have been advised by anyone with a brain) to have limited her wares to the country stores of farmers’ wives in moneyed rural England because they were more honest showrooms for her designs. You’d have to be a fool to wilfully limit your own success.
There is a certain democratisation, I suppose, present in the dispersal of such products in the way a brand can go from exclusive to inclusive, elitist to commonplace (like when the poor could suddenly get their hands on bottom-rung qualities of coffee, spices, chocolate, and the BMW after the rich had grown ambivalent about it all) – but democratisation and class unification is not the mission nor the driving force; boundless cold hard cash is.
Perhaps Cath doesn’t like what it’s become. Perhaps Cath herself is sick of the whole look and is reclining in a minimalist Bauhaus pad somewhere sickeningly urban. Maybe she doesn’t poo in pastel colours after all. Maybe she’d surprise us all by being a messy eater and saying ‘cunt’ a lot. But her ego must be somewhat sated by the knowledge she is an image-maker of her generation, as were Coco Chanel, Mary Quant, and the dude who painted that black woman a bit greeny-blue in the 70s. Cath Kidston’s designs will one day evoke a whole era. Perhaps it will have earned it, perhaps the history of a brand is the history of a people, perhaps what is coursing through its lines and colours is the disparateness of Britain – the haves, the have-nots, the spirit, the laziness, the pride, the nonchalance, the reserve, the gaucheness, the snobbish aspiration, the humble salt of the earth; Britain in all its chequered (gingham) past.
A part of our culture all woven up in a bag for Christmas.
When we were little, and one of us was sick, my sister and I used to take a plate of malt biscuits and a glass of milk to whoever was languishing in bed. I could have reminded her of the infinitesimally huge things I felt for her by spending 59p on a packet of biscuits and arranging them in a heart shape; I could have given her a bit of our time in a box – a tiny malt cow grazing on a golden brown biscuit – and she would have loved it. But I fell into the Christmas buying trap of needing to somehow quantify the immeasurable, and I bought something pretty that I know would make her walk down the street all jaunty. And that jaunt will have a lifetime of my love trailing clumsily behind it. My love is in her fibres.