"Wading neck deep in a swamp, your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it" Mary H. Kingsley (1897)

Japan’s agony?

Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett

The Observer, Sunday 20 March 2011

Just think about the effect on celebrities..

Not least of the benefits of Twitter, five this week, is as a facility whereby, long before commentators and divines get to grips with a disaster, celebrities can articulate their reaction to human misery, something which might once have entailed days, weeks, even an eternity of waiting. Did we ever find out, incidentally, what Dick van Dyke made of the famine in Ethiopia? Last week, it was immediately plain that Demi Moore was shocked by what she had witnessed in Japan: “Truly beyond words!” Although not for Richard Branson: “My thoughts are with everyone affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Pacific region.”

Inevitably, given current expectations of an instant response, the results are not always impressive, as in 50 Cent’s: “I had to evacuate all my hoe’s [sic] from LA, Hawaii and Japan”, which is generally allowed to be the most offensive celebrity Japan reaction to date (Sharon Stone having yet to opine on karma). More often, the most unlikely personalities swiftly disproved Chamberlain’s saw about countries “far away of which we know nothing”. Even amid private hurly-burly, including an imminent birthday and a shop-lifting allegation, young Peaches Geldof found time to emote: “My thoughts go out to all those affected by the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Pacific.” A thought rapidly succeeded by the no less pertinent observation: “Why does the price of Lucozade vary so wildly from shop to shop?”

The intellectual super-tweeter Alain de Botton gave himself two days before responding with a link to a whole essay, “Alain de Botton onTsunamis and Stoicism”, whose message did not, it’s hoped, come too late to comfort both Peaches Geldof and any Japanese survivors who chanced to find it. “By turning back to the wisdom of the stoic philosophers, we may find a way of tempering some of our expectations and dampening our shock at disasters and bloodshed,” de Botton argued, recalling the suicide of noble Seneca. “As he calmly took the knife to his veins, he remarked – in a sentence we may be wise to repeat to ourselves as we read the news on certain particularly sad mornings – ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.'”

And we need only recall Peaches on the variable price of Lucozade to recognise the persuasiveness of that.

Happily, since Twitter does not always lend itself to learned exchanges, people who turned to Thought for the Day for guidance would have been aware that there exist more cheerful reactions to the prospect of overwhelming tragedy and chaos. On Monday, Indarjit Singh recommended that, since God – or his God anyway – could not be expected to tinker with natural laws He had made earlier, mortals should console themselves with the well-known doggerel by Adam Gordon, concluding: “But two things stand out like stone/ Kindness in another’s troubles; courage in your own.” This, as some commentators testified, can be easier said than done. Singh’s fellow Thinker for the Day (retd), Christina Odone, has established, following repeated viewings of the tsunami, that: “We are all disaster junkies.” And the reason? “It’s been a really tough year, during which we – and not just my family – have felt squeezed by the recession and worried about our future finances. Self-pity is not only boring, it is debilitating, so it is with a huge relief that we have discovered that there is a whole nation who is far worse off.”

Also analysing his feelings upon watching the tsunami on television (in the County Hotel, Chelmsford) was the TLS editor Sir Peter Stothard. “The last house I ever owned in Essex was beyond the flood defences,” he reflected, in a knightly style that 50 Cent might do well to emulate. “So somehow the first pictures seemed reasonable – even appropriate – for an Essex boy returning home. It would be good to see them again. No scene of destruction can match a moving wave and a line of drivers with no sense that something bad is five fields away.”

For some western spectators, however, it has proved impossible to watch the disaster unfold in the same, stoical spirit. What all these philosophers are forgetting is: what will happen to BAGS? And SHOES? De Botton, for all his wisdom, knows sod all about running a Burberry franchise in Osaka. Directly after the earthquake struck, well before the nuclear threat to high-end accessories also emerged, the luxury index had fallen by more than 4%, the reaction summarised in headlines such as “Japan’s Earthquake Sends a Shockwave Through the Luxury Goods Business”. Burberry, with 7% of its sales in Japan, duly lost 6% of its value.

No wonder Anya Hindmarch, the luxury goods magnate, Cameron trade ambassador and proprietress of 22 shops in Japan, promptly added the message: “To all our friends in Japan, we are thinking of you! x”, beneath the words: “Shop now” on her internet store.

As recently as 10 March, luxury shares were still on the rise and insouciant bag-mongers such as Coach and LVMH had had nothing better to do than squabble over the spoils in a country where, even with China’s advancing army of Veblen goods fanciers, consumers still spend more on luxury tat than anyone else in the world and have done so since Japanese customers created the market in the 80s. Out of Japanese women over 20, almost half own a Louis Vuitton handbag, an enthusiasm for this form of conspicuous consumption thought to be related to population density and limited chances for display.

But the fever spread. Were it not for Japan, more British women might still think it mad or repugnant for mid-market fashion writers to urge investment in a Hindmarch Keaton (£1,195) or Samantha Cameron‘s Cooper Tote (£1,200) or Jimmy Choo sandals (£415) by fellow ambassador Tamara Mellon. Now there are fears the opposite could happen if, as one analyst puts it: “The nuclear accident burdened the general global mood.” Given the critical status of luxury goods among Cameron’s favourites, one of whom, Gabby Bertin, was recently spotted clinging to a Birkin as a pair of Christian Louboutins collapsed – prophetically? – beneath her, it must have been hard to stay stoical in Downing Street.

Riots in the Middle East already threatened luxury: Christian Dior told theInternational Herald Tribune‘s Suzy Menkes: “What we like is stability.” Japan makes it so much worse. At our very own bank, RBS, we find a luxury expert diagnosing an extremity of Japanese suffering that even a new spring tote cannot assuage: “Periods of mourning and a broken infrastructure are not conducive to luxury goods spending or an increased appetite to travel.” And yet, say the optimists, look at recovery after Kobe: bet on Burberry. If he is to keep his keenly contested place atop the list of grotesquely inappropriate responses, 50 Cent might begin by studying the financial pages.

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