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The armies of kitsch march onwards, ever onwards, to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost.

December 7, 2017

Welcome to the imaginary town, what I hope will become a regular feature of fictionalised and greatly exaggerated accounts of town life. Names and places have been redacted to protect both the innocent and the very guilty, particularly as I am one of the guilty parties. Having established that, read on:

Some time ago, I completed a jobcentre placement at a charity shop. I enjoyed it, and I got extra money on my dole. What wasn’t to like? The only trouble with it was that I couldn’t stand the waiting. It was fine when I was working in the stockroom- I could happily spend hours sorting things and I flatter myself that I did so in a clean, meticulous and methodical way. But sometimes I would have to spend hours cooling my heels behind the till.

Any charity shop has certain items that keep being donated to them again and again. A friend in another charity shop used to say that ‘It’s not a charity shop without a copy of the Da Vinci code’. Certain books are tediously recurrent. Forget the bestseller lists and the reviews in the papers- the best indication of what people are actually reading lies in which books are regularly donated to charity shops. They are read but not kept- you seldom saw a copy of, say, the lord of the rings or one of Stephen King’s dark tower books mouldering on the shelves. Dan Brown books were parcticularly likely to crop up in this context- at any one time we would have up to five copies of ‘the Da Vinci code’ laying dormant in the stock room. These are the cheap books- throwaway fantasies for the modern age. But who knows how posterity might judge them? The thought occurs that Shakespeare was simply writing popular entertainment. The box of Mills and Boon novels always kept by the bookshelves for reasons of space, I suppose, were more conventional escapism. They spoke to an obvious desire, but what dark, subterranean urge gives birth to popular fiction? Curiously, these books don’t seem to have the same lifespan as books that are explicitly within the fantasy genre.They were bought, read and then taken to the charity shop, perhaps with an interval of some months.

Nor was this phenomenon confined to the bookshelves. A particular dress might be donated twice or three times. I suspect that some of our customers bought clothes one week, wore them and then donated them the next. But that didn’t account for some items being donated in their tens- halterneck tops and T-shirts with allegedly humorous slogans. This particular charity shop- I omit the name to protect the innocent- was cursed with a profusion of tiny kitsch figurines. Teddy bears with drums, the three wise monkeys, that sort of thing. I found a huge box of them out in the shed, formerly a dumping ground that was being re-organised by the manageress, who’d only recently started at the shop. They barely sold- somebody might be particularly struck by a particular figure and take it off our hands, but by and large they sat in their box collecting dust. Eventually, my boredom and the free availability of these neglected creations combined to produce spurts of purposesful activity. I created little tableau with the figurines, acting out scenes from my imagination. I would have them all facing the shop, like a little army or crowded around a central figure. I added more, and they started to resemble a small army. This struck a chord in my imagination, and I started fetching more and more of them. I refrained from this frankly childish pursuit as much as possible, but eventually the long stale hours defeated me. I began to spend more and more time fantasising about the doings of these little plastic creatures, and re-arranging them according to my whims.

To begin with, my little objects occupied a small shelf by the door, but gradually and imperceptibly, they started to occupy more and more space, some with their little legs dangling over the edge of the shelf, others facing in a properly martial manner towards each other, or set apart, commanding the masses of dolls and toy cars. Their little empire kept on growing, until it reached the racks of reduced womenswear. This presented something of an obstacle, which I overcame by arranging them in a line along the floor of the shop. Undaunted, the little domains of these creatures kept spreading.

Had the manager been present, of course, this empire building of plastic figurines would have been called to a halt. But then the manager went away for a few days, and I went into overdrive. The fantasies associated with these neglected little objects became more and more elaborate. From one minute to the next they could change from being conquering armies to peaceful citizens of a wise and enlightened republic of toys. The other staff took an indulgent view of these activities, but as the people’s plastic republic began to encroach on the menswear section, that bemusement turned to alarm. Soon, the whole of the shop was inhabited on every flat surface with hundreds of little rabbits, china dolls and plastic toys of every description. I briefly christened the display ‘the armies of kitsch march onwards ever onwards to death, glory and the great annoyance of Clement Greenberg’s ghost’. Clement Greenberg was the man who described kitsch as a ‘tool of fascism’. For a while, the little empire became an authoritarian state in line with the thinking of that statement, then it would morph as other ideas took hold into a democratic state or a theocracy. I renamed it as the much shorter ‘people’s plastic republic’ Figures would sit in circles and assemblages as I imagined them discussing weighty matters of state policy. The jewellry stand became the seat of government, with two chambers of government and a president. The rightwingers were led by a transformers action figure, while the liberal left had a pair of doves as their joint leaders.

The effect of this little enterprise was to encourage customers to buy the figurines in droves. I’d long ago taught myself from the till manual how to print a total of the day’s takings. We were making more money than we normally did. This hadn’t been my intention, in so far as I had ever had an intention. The actual purpose of my work at the charity shop had long been occluded by the need to re-arrange and animate the people’s plastic republic. Piqued, I began to fetch the figurines in bags and for every one of the ‘fallen’ I would place ten of them back on the shelves. This activity had grown from a minor childish diversion to an all-consuming mania. I imagined how the citizens of the people’s plastic republic would react to the threat posed to their civilisation by these giant people who would buy their citizens and take them off to who knows where. Little squads of ‘guards’ emerged commanded by a leader, a fierce and hard-bitten teenage mutant ninja turtle, facing out to fend off the threat. These little guardians would disappear by twos and threes as customers bought them. Many of them were visibly amused, and people started coming back and buying more. Our shop became the centre of attention on the high street- people would come and admire the people’s plastic republic. Children especially were very taken with it. I began to weave the responses of the customers into my fantasies.

It occurred to me that the people’s plastic republic, while it had achieved so much, was still looking for a greater purpose, a unifying quest to unite its people. Something like the ‘great leap forward’. Now there was a third political party in the people’s plastic republic- the colonisers. I looked out the window and as I saw shoppers strolling in the morning sun, it seemed to me that the citizens of the people’s plastic republic must be aware in some way of the world outside the shop. They all came from other places, after all. The scientists and thinkers of this state, It seemed to me, had to have some plan, some vision of colonising the exterior world. And so, little groups of figures started appearing on street corners, in telephone boxes, radiating out from the shop.

When the manager returned, she opened the door in the morning to find an entire shop of plastic figurines, with just enough space for her to enter and see the armies of kitsch on every shelf and cupboard, marching across the floor, lines of them all converging on the door.

“What the bloody hell happened here?” She said…

  1. Can you orchestrate a re-enactment in an empty shop or a willing charity shopwindow? I can just visualise the scene….wondrous in deed.

  2. I agree, it would be wonderful if I could. I don’t really know anybody in the charity shop world anymore though.

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