It’s Martin Luther King Day and I am at Earls Court in London, wandering through the vast exhibition known as Top Drawer. This is where the nation’s shopkeepers come three times a year to find things to buy for their shops.
It’s Martin Luther King Day, and instead of reflecting on the brotherhood of man and justice and equality, I’m on a pilgrimage to the Mecca of upmarket materialism. I try to justify this in several ways. For instance, I try hard to support local makers, designers and producers even if the quest for ‘Made in Britain’ is a kind of Holy Grail of purchasing. More and more, the ‘beautifully designed’ and ‘value for money’ things are designed in Britain, but made in India and China. I warm to a stand of beautiful knitwear with a sign that reads ‘Made in England. No thanks to Blair and Brown’, because this Government has made life hell for small businesses, strangling them in red tape and legislation that makes it easier to manufacture abroad.
Another way I rationalise my devotion to mamonistic capitalism instead of the moral reconstruction of society is that I employ 50 people, including my shop and assistant managers, who are with me today. If my shop thrives (and that depends on finding good things that people want to buy), then I am able to provide secure and flexible employment in a rural area where jobs are scarce.
My third defence is, well, I like doing it. On my first trip to Chatsworth, I fell in love with the Duchess of Devonshire’s shop. In those days, she sold children’s sweaters made by women on the estate from the wool of the her beloved Jacob’s sheep. A table of volumes said ‘Family Books’; Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Lord Acton. Imaginative, personal and fun, the Chatsworth shop was my inspiration when I wrestled with the challenge of diversifying a farm. And, like the Duchess, I discovered that I loved buying and selling.
And now there is a whole new world in the countryside, shops attached to country houses and occupying outbuildings and tithe barns. My theory is that folks rarely visit a garden or a house more than once a year, but if there is a great shop and restaurant (not self-service), they return again and again. Proof that house and garden are extraneous is Daylesford in Gloucestershire which offers neither, just a series of shops, cafe and spa, set in magnificent farm buildings. Lady Bamford has set a new standard: organic, local, seasonal food; exotic and beautiful things from around the world. I drool with envy and awe.
And yet, and yet. Deep in my heart, I feel that I should be doing more in this troubled world than encouraging people to spend, spend, spend, especially when shows such as Big Brother reveal that racism is alive and well; when a war as wrong as Iraq has no end in sight.
King lived simply. Despite a love of cars, he never drove a deluxe model. He lived in modest houses. True, he liked good clothes. College friends nicknamed him Tweed because of his donnish tweed suits. After one arrest in Alabama, his pyjamas brought from home were made of silk.
It’s Martin Luther King Day, and I realise that more than ever the world needs a leader who absolutely refuses to meet violence with violence. I place an order for 24 wool blankets, made in Scotland, a dozen log baskets made in Norfolk. Like Thoreau, King believed that ‘one honest man’ or woman could morally regenerate an entire society. Maybe that is the challenge to the nation’s shopkeepers.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 25 January, 2007.