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A life free from branding

Jun 05, 2005 Success, Sunday Nation

Have you heard about Mr. and Mrs. Arrowsmith of Hereford in the United Kingdom? They have been married for 80 years. Yes, eighty. Percy Arrowsmith, 105, and Florence Arrowsmith, 100, married on 1st June 1925 at their local church in western England. The Guinness Book of Records has reportedly confirmed that the couple holds the world record for the longest marriage for a living couple, and the oldest aggregate age of a married couple.

There are some other things that may interest you about the Arrowsmiths. They have lived in the same house for 77 years. Mr. Arrowsmith, a solicitor’s clerk, worked for the same firm for 63 years. When asked what the secret of their long marriage was, Mrs. Arrowsmith put it very simply: don’t go to sleep on an argument; say sorry often; hold hands every night. Just that.

So what do we, the younger generations of the world, make of the Arrowsmiths? Damn fools, no? Same firm, same house, same partner? Give me a break! Have these people truly lived? Boring, fuddy-duddy underachievers, without a doubt. No ambition, no spirit of adventure, no desire to experience the wide world in all its colours and patterns. They have nothing to teach us.

The Arrowsmiths are certainly a marketer’s nightmare. Their only indulgence appears to be a glass of sherry or whisky. And I bet even there they have consumed the same brand for decades. I’ve never met them, but I am willing to wager that they are impervious to advertising campaigns and brand signalling. I bet they consume what they do because it’s right for them, without being in the least bit affected by hypnotic advertising. I bet they don’t make any “lifestyle choices” and don’t feel the need to increase their spending just because an ad in a magazine suggested they were missing out on “real” life. I bet no amount of brand reinforcement can make them increase their consumption of any product, because they take what they need, period. Oh dear, if everyone was like them, where would the world be? Backward and undeveloped, no?

We are different, are we not? We young consumers just ain’t like that. We are always (repeat always) on the lookout for a better job opportunity, for one thing. Sticking in one place is like a slow death. Even when we get to the top, we have our eyes and ears (amongst other organs) open for something better, something bigger. That’s how you make it – by moving around a lot, playing employers off against each other, getting a pay jump with every move.

Same house? 77 years? Hapana. Two or three is the maximum time anyone should spend in any one house, unless they can’t afford to move, sivyo? Hey, you’ve got to try out different settings, different styles, different sizes, surely? Staying put is a village thing. For the uneducated and unenlightened.

Same partner? Now, come on. How you are you going to enjoy yourself with the same body to entice you and the same mind to entertain you? And after a while, people get so damned boring, don’t they? And their habits get so very annoying! Yes, you’ve got to be married to have kids and all that, but everyone needs to have something going on the side; it’s what our leaders do, after all. It’s why we watch “Desperate Housewives”. It’s what keeps the world going round.

OK, here’s a question: why are we all so stressed and unhappy? When I saw the press and TV pictures of the Arrowsmiths, they had a certain sedateness, a certain calm demeanour. They looked like they’d drunk deeply from the cup holding life’s little secrets. I challenge you to find anyone under fifty who looks calm these days. Worry lines on the forehead, eyes always darting around, a distracted manner, always thinking of something else to worry about: that is our lot. Next job – next car – next house – next mate – there’s so much to fret about! It’s not easy living in the modern world. We must earn more, borrow more, spend more. And when we can’t, we must borrow and steal. The urge is everything. It is life itself.

We are lost because we have reduced life to a set of fleeting consumption experiences. We have to pack it all in – see it all, do it all, try it all. We must earn to the limit, and spend beyond that limit. We must take out crippling mortgages and loans that allow us to buy it all and pay later. The Arrowsmiths, and by extension, our parents and grandparents, are a mystery to us. All we know is that we must obey the orders of the television set, mimic the dressing of the famous singer, and behave like the soap-opera actress. We have become second-rate simulacra.

And all for what? Where does this rollercoaster ride called experience heaven ultimately end? In the same ashes and dust as the Arrowsmiths (only a lot faster). The truth is, a life of sense frenzy does not leave you any time for the pursuit of a higher purpose. We become slaves of the paycheck and the bank statement because we must get more things for ourselves. We talk incessantly about interest rates and exchange rates, because we feel our entire raison-d’etre is wrapped up in our net worth. We are never going to be able to stop and ask if there’s a better way, a nobler way of living. Our gaze will never extend beyond our (surgically enhanced) noses.

My father told me this story when I was a boy, a long time ago. A rich businessman is on a rare holiday to a seaside resort, and by day two is already bored with having nothing to do. He decides to venture out on a walk, and comes to a small fishing village. There, he sees lots of men pushing their boats out to sea, and lots of women toiling in the homes and fields. All except for one young man, who lies in a hammock gazing serenely at the sea.

Curious, the businessman walks up to this man and asks him what he’s doing. The man turns, and after some time, says: “Resting”. The businessman is flabbergasted, and asks the idler why he isn’t out with the other fishermen. The fellow looks perplexed, and asks why he should do that. The businessman gets excited: “Why, so that you catch some fish and come back and sell them in the market and earn some money.” The supine fellow asks lazily: “And what would I do with the money?” The businessman is in full flow now. “Well, after a while you’d have enough to buy another boat, and then another, and then a whole fleet, and then you’d be the wealthiest fellow in the village!”

“And then what would I do?” asks the layabout. “Why, then you could sit and rest and gaze at the sea and think deeply about the world” snaps the businessman. “But my dear fellow, isn’t that what I’m doing now?” says the young man before settling back into his hammock to study the waves.

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