This is written in the hope that others will sing about a quick trip to Iceland (to the tune of The Fall’s ‘A Figure Walks’) when popping up the local shops. And incidentally, on the subject of songs, there is along the road a new supermarket to get lost in. There probably was no desperate need for one, but then there would not really be any call for more nail or tattoo parlours, tanning salons, coffee shops, takeaways, restaurants, betting shops, vape vendors, opticians, jewellers, solicitors, estate agents, pawnbrokers, payday loan arrangers, gyms, traditional Turkish barbers, card shops, funeral directors, building societies, banks, bathroom and kitchen fittings showrooms, churches, chemists, Chinese herbal medicine places, mobile phone outlets, sportswear and shoe shops, discount stores, and arguably charity shops.
The new store is a branch of Lidl, which is a brand name new to this town, and is here now in addition to Asda (and its smaller offspring down by the doctors where Netto used to be), Iceland, and Sainsbury’s, as well as the M&S food hall for the less prudent. In a way the new store replaces the much-missed Aldi which moved on some years ago when Mothercare made them an offer they could not refuse.
Our new Lidl is right up the end of the high street, past Sainsbury’s, Wilko, and the pound stores, beyond the cinema and the bingo hall, and nearly up as far as the old Woolwich Equitable pagoda building. So, a special effort does need to be made to get there, but it will make a bit of a break from the usual routine to go up that far from time to time. It seems pleasant enough. It is an odd place, though, being upstairs, so shoppers need to use a funny moving sidewalk or travellator thing to get up to where the action is. So, there might be trouble ahead, technology being what it is.
None of the supermarkets along the local high street are soullessly large, and none of them are ever particularly busy in the mornings. The really serious bulk-buyers go elsewhere, presumably to the out-of-town megastores where they can load up their 4x4s and SUVs to show how well-off or stupid they are. So, doing the rounds of the local supermarkets can be a pretty pleasant experience, though admittedly there are many political and environmental arguments against using them.
On the plus side, walking around these stores is good exercise, physically and mentally, and it can be fun seeing how people behave, witnessing the best and worst of human nature in terms of manners, humour and helpfulness. So, if you do go there for a special offer, you are guaranteed personalities. Odd snippets of overheard conversation can be hilariously surreal when caught wonderfully out-of-context, people’s antics can be bafflingly eccentric. And it can be fun waltzing down the aisles accompanied by an old hit played over the store’s PA system, humming along, while checking out the new lines and the promotions, and wondering which of the checkout operators to fall in love with and which brands to boycott.
So far it has been fun watching people in the new Lidl, before they become blasé, acting with genuine inquisitiveness: “Ooh that Irish tea loaf looks lovely. Shall we try some?” One real surprise was the low-key approach Lidl took when opening the store, an occasion which was sensibly marked with little fanfare, avoiding a situation like in the excellent novel Radio Activity by the very great John Murray where Radio Cumbria was broadcasting live the opening of a new Asda outside Aspatria, intruding on the Radio Tangiers broadcast the book’s hero was listening to, prompting him to hope “it crumbles overnight!” and “that some bankrupt corner shop proprietor has the sense to go and gelignite it.”
Another passage from a John Murray classic springs to mind when considering supermarkets, and that is from his novel Reiver Blues where the barmy Loon Cheng (aka Henry Hawkes) muses about opening his dream café: “I’d have Edinburgh philosophy professors obliged to talk about nothing but the current retail prices of babyfoods and tinned spaghetti hoops across ten different shopping chains in their glamorous university city. Ten chains, Wm. Low to VG, Spar to Tesco, Nisa to Asda, Morrison’s to Sainsbury’s, from Morningside to Leith and back and not forgetting Musselburgh and Penicuik while they’re at it.”
That book was published in 1996, and in the past 20-odd years there has been a massive change in who goes or does the shopping. The local supermarkets always seem to have in them a very high proportion of blokes, chaps, geezers, guys, gents, and that is on their own rather than with a spouse or as part of a family group. Men alone, usually with baskets, who seem to know what they are doing, and where they are going. Many are philosophers, and some may even be professors.
Who are they all, these savvy souls in the supermarkets, the seemingly happy shoppers, who know their north from south? Some are Shena Mackay’s mad old men of London, some are bachelor boys by accident or design, some are shopping while the partner’s working, some are retired, some are redundant, some are ones who work at home and fit the shopping in when they want a break.
And some are part of that growing army around here, all the single fellows of 50-plus looking after an Aged P who would otherwise have to go into some kind of a home or endure daily visits from a care agency, a way of preserving some sense of independence, and an arrangement that suits all parties because these coves are your everyday failures with nowhere else to go but back to the now almost empty family home, where they fit the household chores, and so on, around their daily routine and get by, with the help of their books and music and films, the football, some studying, gardening etc., finding they should have too much time but that they are oddly more constructively occupied than most.