It’s a Wonderful Life (Fair Use)

I – The feast

It’s Christmas time, a time to eat, drink, and be merry. Mulled wine and mince pies, all around a hot coal fire with beloved relatives and an abundance of presents under the tree. That, at least, is what the corporate advertising and mind-numbing shopping mall jingles here in Newcastle would have us believe Christmas is all about.

But in the real world, the picture isn’t quite so rustically cosy. The people here at Newcastle Westend Foodbank, at the Church of the Venerable Bede (officially the busiest foodbank in the country), know this better than most. I arrive at their final collection before Christmas – soaking wet from the late December rain – to see that there is a queue out the door. This happens to be the same food bank as that which features in Ken Loach’s 2016 film, I, Daniel Blake, depicting the brutal reality of Britain’s welfare regime. Everything, it turned out, was exactly as it is portrayed.

Foodbank preparations. Picture courtesy of James.

In the seating area I meet Christine and Sarah, a mother and daughter from Fenham. They tell me that, every week, they do some domestic work for an elderly male neighbour. He pays them £2 or £3 for the time, which they then thriftily save each week so that they have £100 to spend on Christmas. I also meet Alan, in his 50s, who was made redundant from Railtrack soon after British Rail was privatized in the 90’s. He complains that workers on British Rail were gradually replaced by agency workers. He went into painting and decorating, but now has bad arms and arthritis, and is awaiting a work capability assessment. Here, it seems, are the real Daniel Blakes.

One of the foodbank organisers, Matthew King, is busy doing the paperwork, and I ask him about why the demand for the services of foodbanks has risen. He answers unequivocally: ”Benefit sanctions; the bedroom tax; the 1% up-rate”. We talk some more about the circumstances in which people find themselves, and when I ask if he ever meets people who haven’t eaten in days, he replies ”Oh yes”. He tells me that demand rises during the school holidays because some children no longer receive free school meals.

Around lunchtime, as the second of the day’s collection sessions begins – and with 56 people queueing outside – I encounter a scene which seems as if it has been designed by the Gods of Irony. Two employees from Vodafone walk in, who turn out to be doing corporate social responsibility volunteering. The scheme’s name, it turns out, is called ”Give Something Back”.

Flashing through my head is the story of one of the biggest scandals of the Cameron government: in late 2010 it was revealed by former tax inspector Richard Brooks in the pages of Private Eye that Vodafone had been acquitted of a £6 billion tax bill. The foodbank organiser explained that the Vodafone employees had donated two large boxes of toys. Some of the parents who visit the foodbank cannot afford to buy toys for their kids, so the foodbank duly stock large boxes of everything from jigsaw puzzles to audiobooks to teddy bears.

Later that day, as I help organizer Michael Nixon with the crates in the warehouse, we talk over the politics and context of the foodbank. Like many who run foodbanks, he is motivated by his Christian principles. ”As Christians part of our responsibility is to look after those who are less fortunate.” He tells me proudly about bishop William Temple and his role in the creation of the welfare state. But he doesn’t see himself as much of an activist. ”It makes me feel angry but not necessarily politically angry. I would sooner see a fairer, more just society, but that is for politicians to argue about. I am faced with the reality of the situation as it is today.”

Such food banks are, of course, merely one example of charitable giving during the “season of goodwill”. But while few people would ever frown upon temporary relief, many are asking if they are a sustainable, long-term solution. “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist” said priest Dom Helder Camara, famously. Foodbanks, perhaps, merely serve to sustain a status quo which means that, for many, there will be no Christmas feast.

II – The elves

Gordon Smith used to work as one of Santa’s little helpers. Two years ago he worked as a Christmas temp at’s biggest “fulfillment” centre in the UK in Dunfermline, Scotland – a warehouse so big it is reported to be the size of 14 football pitches. Each year, the warehouse’s core staff of 1,500 are joined by around 4,000 temporary workers towards the Christmas rush, when sales jump to as much as 86 items a second.

Since the warehouse opened in 2011, the retail giant has become notorious for intolerable working conditions, not just in the UK but around the world, with Amazon facing waves of strikes from labour unions in Germany demanding collective wage agreements. Amazon hit the headlines yet again last year after it was reported workers were enduring such poverty that they were reduced to sleeping in tents near its warehouses, to save on the cost of transport.

Convenience comes at a human price. Picture courtesy of Jeff Samsonow.

Smith, though, thinks he got off lightly: “I had it extremely easy in comparison with other Amazon workers. I was a runner, which essentially involved me taking a pallet from one end of the warehouse to the other, continuously, for eleven, twelve hours”

But the pressure soon took its toll: “The first two, three weeks, I had massive blisters all over my feet, because of the shoes they make you wear. I had to go the doctors and get cream to thin the skin down. One of the blisters I had on my big toe was so big it looked like it was growing another toe.” Smith’s experience is by no means unique, with Professor Michael Marmot (a leading UK academic on stress at work), saying Amazon’s working conditions were “all the bad stuff at once” and that “evidence shows increased risk of mental and physical illness.”

Hired through an agency and with little possibility of the job becoming permanent, such jobs are part of the encroaching casualization of the western labour market, the rise of a so-called precariat. “They have a points system. I got fired because I accumulated too many points. I turned up for my shift on the Sunday night. My ID card didn’t work. So I buzzed security and got told by the guy from the agency, sorry, you’ve got too many points, you’ve been terminated”, Gordon says.

Casualization is merely one example of the hardships endured by the Amazon “associates” (Amazon shy away from the more politicised term employee), there is also the hours, the pressure, and the surveillance. “You don’t get to opt-out of overtime. It’s compulsory over-time.” On the surveillance, he says: “It’s everywhere, it’s like going through an airport.”

He adds: “They have signs up everywhere saying, ‘our standards are not unrealistic, they’re just high’, but they are unrealistic. It’s like working in the Springfield nuclear power plant in The Simpson’s, clock in, clock out. You have to do that every break, you get points if you don’t. [But] last year they had a DJ. The irony didn’t go past me when they played Queen’s I Want To Break Free.” The pay, too, is meagre for such a large and successful company: Amazon usually hire staff at the legal bare minimum or just above, far short of the real living wage of £8.75 an hour.

Outside of the movies, the folklore, and the fairy stories, these are the real Santa’s elves, labouring to delivering presents under the tree in time for Christmas Day. Unseen, dehumanised – paying the price of convenience.

III – The snow

While workers like Gordon Smith are duly given the boot the moment they are not needed, Amazon themselves are on a roll. Last Christmas saw their global sales spike to $35.7 in the fourth quarter, up from $22.7 in the first. Amazon’s sizeable slice of the market is merely one part of the annual Christmas festival of consumerism, which annually comes along to bail out Britain’s economy. Barely a Christmas goes by without headlines in the Business pages voicing relief or frustration from the British Retail Consortium.

But what, one wonders, are the massed ranks buying in such a frenzy? One Guardian writer, who spent a week as an Amazon insider, said: “To spend 10½ hours a day picking items off the shelves is to contemplate the darkest recesses of our consumerist desires, the wilder reaches of stuff, the things that money can buy: a One Direction charm bracelet, a dog onesie, a cat scratching post designed to look like a DJ’s record deck, a banana slicer, a fake twig.”

A Christmas market in Edinburgh. Picture courtesy of Ross G. Strachan.

Such items are merely part of a wider trend which seeks to manufacture desires to fuel our consumer economy. Under the hashtag #extremecivilization, the writer George Monbiot has sought to document this trend of pointless consumerism. Such an appeal has produced examples including a smart phone for dogs, ready-peeled bananas, self-stirring mugs, and snow-saunas for those living in the Arab States.

But it all comes at a cost, one not just financial, but ecological. (The items have limited long-term utility: Annie Leonard, for her film The Story of Stuff, calculated that just 1 per cent of all the materials bought are still in use 6 months after purchase). Consumption and manufacturing contribute the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, once you factor in the goods we import from China. Indeed, once you crunch the numbers, and factor in the reductions from energy transition, the UK’s emissions have increased by 20 per cent since 1990. The growth of the consumer economy is arguably the primary source of the problem.

We all know what the end result will be. A climate-change ravaged world could quite possibly spell the end of a post-card perfect Dickensian white Christmas: “In terms of future trends, a recent UK Impact Prediction model prepared by the Met Office suggests that in a medium to bad scenario we’ll see a reduction of [snow cover] of 52 per cent by 2080,” said environmental scientist Chris Spray to the Guardian.

Snow-saunas, then, in an ironic and tragic twist, could mean the end of the real deal. Unless we resolve the impossible and fatal logic of our economic model soon – which demands perpetual growth on a finite planet – we will be left in a world in which we are all perpetually dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

 IV – The angel

Amid the pressures and stresses of the modern capitalist Christmas, it is little wonder that Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has become a staple of the Christmas cinema listings, packing out auditoriums each year. Few films better distil the conflicting values celebrated by Christmas – commercial values on the one hand, versus spiritual values on the other. A film made in the shadow of America’s Great Depression, many of us see part of ourselves in the story of George Bailey, saved by Clarence Odbody, AS2 (Angel, Second Class).

The story is well-known. Hero George Bailey finds himself sacrificing his hopes and dreams of travelling around the world to stay in his hometown of Bedford Falls, picking up responsibility for his father’s Building and Loan. “I couldn’t face being couped up in a shabby little office….It’s this business of nickels and dimes, and spending all your life trying to work out how to save three cents and light the pipe, I’d go crazy. I want to do something big, and something important,” Bailey says, with frustration.

George Bailey with Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. Picture courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here.

The Building and Loan soon runs into severe financial trouble after the errors of his uncle, Billy, who misplaces a large bank deposit, and Bailey, realising that he has made a mess of the business that meant so much to his father, contemplates suicide. Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence Odbody, seeking to earn his wings, arrives to show Bailey a world in which he had never been born: where Bedford Falls is renamed Pottersville, full of slums and vice; where his brother, Harry, never saved his fellow soldiers because he was not there to save Harry; and in which the Building and Loan went out of business years ago. “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you realise what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

The film could, in many ways, be regarded as an anti-capitalist masterpiece. It shows the impossibility of running a business driven only by the benevolent desire to provide: market forces determine who survives and who fails – profit and yields come first. “Have you put any real pressure on those people to pay those mortgages?” demands Henry Potter to Peter Bailey when his Building and Loan first runs into trouble. “Times are bad, Mr Potter, a lot of these people are out of work.”, replies Peter Bailey. “Well foreclose.” “I can’t do that. These families have children.” “They’re not my children.” “Well they’re somebody’s children, Mr Potter.” “Are you running a business or a charity, Mr Bailey?”

George Bailey, for his part, is a champion of the little man and the working man, saying in one of the most eloquent speeches from the film: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”

The film, too, reaffirms Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about the dangers of knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Potter, confronted with Bailey desperately seeking a loan to rescue to the Building and Loan, asks Bailey how much collateral he has. “No securities, no stocks, no bonds, nothing but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You’re worth more dead than alive. Why don’t you go to the riff raff you love so much and ask them to let you have $8,000? Because they’d run you out of town on a rail”. Clarence, seeking to remind Bailey that the value of life transcends money problems, no matter how severe, says: “Ridiculous of you, to think of killing yourself over money, $8000”.

It’s A Wonderful Life is an annual reminder that despite the grim realities of the modern world – the reality of hunger in a modern, developed country, of shit jobs, of pointless stuff, and of environmental catastrophe – there remains a wonderful life worth celebrating. It wasn’t always this way: societies throughout history – from the Pagans to the Romans – have celebrated a winter festival to get them through the ravages of the winter months. Let us reclaim the spiritual from the material – and endeavour to create a festival beyond “this business of nickels and dimes.” 

The end of Frank Capra’s iconic Christmas film. Picture courtesy of Insomnia Cured Here.