Monday, June 22, 2009

'Britain's biggest charity shop'

Some while ago we noticed the existence of the Newlife Superstore - sometimes described as the biggest charity shop in Britain. I'd recently been discussing charity shops on twitter with @charityshops and others, so thought it was a good opportunity to check it out.

So we planned our attack. Despite Cannock being about 45 minutes away by car, we decided to take the eco option and go by train using the rather excellent Network West Midlands daysaver ticket.

Unfortunately it appears that so few people actually use these tickets, the station ticket office are not aware of them. Cue 10 mins of frustration at Tile Hill station. C'mon Centro, if you want people to buy the tickets, make sure the train companies know they exist!

Anyway, what with a change in Birmingham, the journey was almost doubled. Still, after a bit of a walk on arrival in Cannock we eventually arrived at the Newlife shop.

The layout is similar to TK Maxx - large numbers of rails of clothing with lots of people. Yes, really there were loads of people in a charity shop!

The main difference with any other charity shop is that Newlife accept products from brands because they're not wanted for whatever reason. This arrangement means that Newlife has to remove every label from every piece of clothing they sell. Believe me, that is a lot of labels.

There is clothing everywhere. There is no proper organisation of sizes and styles. When you add in the fact that the labels are removed (and hence it is very hard to tell sizes of things you're looking at), browsing for clothing becomes a major headache. And as a man, there is a small percentage of mens clothing, much mixed haphazardly with the womens. In the end I just gave up.

Good points:

Brave attempt at a different style of charity shop

Bad points:

Massive queues at changing rooms.
Inexplicable £3.50 charge to use the store
Clothing randomly mixed around the store
Lack of labels meaning finding anything is very difficult
Shortage of decent amount of mens clothing
Large number of Newlife websites mean that planning a visit is extremely difficult.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Politics Jesus of The - the theology of Yoda.

I have been reading the amazing book 'The politics of Jesus' by John Howard Yoder (here from Amazon but other online bookshops are available).

I cannot state too strongly at the beginning - this is hard mental strain theology. The book is packed with clinical examination, careful criticism and referenced comments. Indeed, sometimes the pages are more than half full of footnotes which can be very offputting.

OK, that health warning out of the way, the theology is highly charged and dangerous. Yoder's central thesis is that too often the Church and Christianity has sought to minimise the social dimensions of Jesus' ministry in the gospels to the extent that we now are in a position of finding reasons to ignore his direct commands.

For a start, I found two points extremely well argued. First, the dichotomy of the biblical narrative in who actually owns and controls the world. Yoder argues that the essence of the 'right' way of things is divine even when the structures are not. So the notion of laws protecting the innocent are God-given, but the way they are used are not. Further, we constantly find ways to worship these broken structures rather than God who gave them. So for you and I, our faith is more likely to be in things like the NHS, our pensions, job security, social security, dole etc than God. These things are not necessarily bad, but they are not God.

Second, Yoder has some things to say about the stormy relationship many people have with the epistles. He argues that rather than attempting to correct and temper the impression given of the Christ in the gospels, the epistles are actually largely older than the written gospels. Hence the oldest writings are of the heavenly spiritual Christ and this is tempered by the memories of the human Jesus written in the gospels within people's memory.

Further, in an amazingly good point, Yoder demolishes the subsurvient and dominating attitude some derive from reading some of the epistles. Rather than being the 'natural order of things' for women to be under the men, for example, this is written to people who already know that there are no men or women or jew or greek in the body of Christ. Paul's argument then becomes one of encouraging those who now understand that they have self-determination to exercise it with humility, even to the extent of humble submission to men in order to win them over. I cannot equal the force of the argument, but Yoder argues that there would be no point in Paul stating that women, slaves etc were inferior because everything in the societies where they lived was literally screaming that this was so. The radical gospel was the one stating that they were actually equal, spiritual individuals who were empowered to make choices for themselves.

It strikes me that good talking points from this include:

1. In what way are we actually living in submission to the God we profess rather than other earthly structures - other than not at all?

2. If we truly believe that other people are worth as much as we are (and, by the way, isn't it interesting how we conveniently ignore the injunction to 'love each other as I have loved you') it is almost impossible for us to live as we do. For example we would oppose any immigration controls because our poor migrant brethren have as much right to the resources we take for granted as we do. The notion of a nation state would be entirely redundant.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The deserving poor and the undeserving rich

On Sunday we were at a loose end so decided to visit a local National Trust property. For those who don't know, the National Trust is an obsession for the middle-aged middle-classes, and being one of the biggest and wealthiest landowners in the UK is responsible for the upkeep of a large number of historical buildings and large areas of British countryside.

Anyway, we visited one of our most local properties - Packwood House. The story in brief is that a wealthy bloke bought a house at the beginning of the twentieth century which had a debatable historical link to the civil war and his son with the improbable name Graham Baron Ash set about collecting artefacts with which to adorn said building. So it is a twentieth century reproduction of a Tudor building.

Soon after completing this, the building was donated to the nation via the National Trust. I'm not sure of the reason for the donation, but tax and death duty is very likely to come into it.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Sarah Wise's book The Blackest Streets which uncovers life in one of London's nastiest slums at the end of the nineteenth century. Lying in an area between some of the busiest roads, it was a dark network of paths - too narrow to even be described as roads - and appalling housing.

At the time, there was the idea floating around of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, the latter being thieves, drunkards and the lazy. This distinction was important, as the Victorian conscience demanded protection of the deserving from the weight of poverty. Uncovering a classic example of Orwellian double-think, Sarah Wise exposes the truth. Those charged with improving the health and sanitation of those who lived in the darkness were the same people who had least to gain from improvements because they were involved in the chain of house rents imposed on the residents. And, it turns out, those who ultimately owned the land were some of the nation's most wealthy individuals, literally acting as parasites on the poor. They claimed to be interested in the morality of the poor (which seemed to be largely about being publicly aghast about lax sexual behaviour, drunkenness etc, vices which are hardly exclusive to the poorest) whilst at the same time were those involved in creating the conditions which forced people to live in this squalor. These places were dens of vice and crime. But they were also places where people worked ridiculously hard to make ends meet, where people fought tooth and claw against the system which seemed to inevitably lead to a spiral of poverty leading to death in the workhouse. Indeed, at several points, those comfortable living members of the ruling classes sought to reduce the meagre social safety net payments to 'encourage the poor to work'.

So we have on one side the 'deserving rich' who are lauded for having saved a load of artefacts for the nation using some un-named source of wealth. On the other, we have the 'undeserving poor' who lived unbelievably bad lives making matchboxes and other poorly paid piecerate work whose lives amounted for so little that when the slums were cleared they were instantly forgotten and their names added to the mountain of bodies at the Somme.

Whilst the slums might have gone from London, the attitude remains. We are constantly bombarded by rich people finding ever more imaginative ways to throw pennies to the poor. We imagine that we are justified to live our lives of leisure and prosperity because 'we have worked hard for it and deserve it'. We try to convince ourselves that we should lead lives of 'positivity', patting ourselves on the back for doing things which in the final analysis amount to very little indeed.

The elephant in the room is that we are responsible for the structural sin that allows people like you and me to live lives of excess whilst other people have lives which amount to almost nothing. The theology of 'original sin' is unfashionable because people don't want to believe that people can be condemned before they've actually done anything.

But the truth is fairly easy to see. Most societies spiral into injustice whereby the few are supported by the poverty of the many. We live as we do because others live in poverty.

Unfortunately for us, justice eventually prevails. We're living on borrowed time.

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