Sunday, 8 April 2007

Bargain hunters

Don't we all love a good bargain? I'll say. The people of Northern Ireland are fanatical bargain seekers, much more than elsewhere. They don't have any of that residual guilt about paying the proper price and protecting the workers' interests. If it's cheaper than it should be, they want it - now. They have an inbuilt radar that detects special offers and introductory discounts at five miles, and they come flocking in.

They like nothing better than arriving on someone's doorstep and saying "Guess how much I paid?" Then there'll be ten minutes of a blow-by-blow account of how they got this amount knocked off the two weeks in Turkey, then the special deal on the car hire, then the upgrade on the flight, then the special luxury suite at the hotel, and all thanks to this friend of a friend of an uncle who's got these amazing connections and anytime you want a good holiday package just say the word and he'll do the same for you, why pay the full price like all those poor mugs in the High Street, it's just a big rip-off, those travel agencies must be laughing all the way to the bank, it's not what you know, it's who you know.... (I could go on)

That's the other thing. People love to boast about their bargains, but they're not gloating, it's not one-upmanship. They want to share their good fortune with you and they want you to have a bit of it as well. That's still very much the Northern Ireland way - we all scratch each other's backs, do each other favours, in one big mutual leg-up that keeps us all afloat.

Now that Belfast is getting more prosperous and cosmopolitan, there's a bit more of the hard-bitten, commercial, take it or leave it approach creeping in, but by and large we haven't yet succumbed to the impersonal product-shifting that pervades other cities. Business, for us, is still just part and parcel of our personal relationships (which is why snubbing or insulting people is a dangerous move - it might come back to haunt you when you're setting up that lucrative deal in a few years' time).

But yes, people here latch on to bargains like homing pigeons. Even the sedate, dignified, well-heeled gentry of suburban Malone can be seen elbowing their way through the Sprucefield* hordes to get their hands on some tantalising cut-price offering. No one wants to be left out of this essential social ritual.

*a huge shopping centre in Lisburn, soon to get Ireland's first John Lewis.

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