Monday, 29 September 2014

On shopping in supermarkets

It seems that in whatever location a person might live, a supermarket is never very far away. Whether one lives in a city or the suburbs, or even in a rural area, it is certainly the case that a supermarket will exist within a ten minute drive of that location. Supermarkets are everywhere. The modern supermarket is something remarkable: vast, clean white floors crossed with evenly spaced displays of carefully parcelled goods in neat rows. So clinical. Supermarkets are remarkable in the way that they have convinced so many of their convenience, despite their out of the way locations often inaccessible to walkers or public transport. When within their walls the shopper is dazzled by the array of choice. On a single aisle one may find up to twenty different types of strawberry jam, though no damson or blackberry. It is interesting the degree of homogeneity which is disguised behind the seemingly limitless array of goods. Supermarket shopping is easy, but not fun. It is convenient, but not rewarding. Rarely do you see a person shopping in the supermarket with joy.   

When I was a child, supermarkets were extremely rare. Instead people shopped on their local high street. They wandered in and out of each shop buying their meat from one, their vegetables and fruit from another. For frozen goods there were special shops with rows and rows of freezers, all closed, their contents disguised behind opaque lids that one had to lift to uncover their contents like a treasure trove. There were shops for newspapers and confectionery, shops for bread and baked goods, shops for shoes, shops for music which sold not just rock and pop albums but also musical instruments and sheet music. There were shops for general dry goods, grocers’ shops, which sold nuts by the pound, great vats of flour. The floor of the butcher’s shop was covered with sawdust and wood shavings; the butcher’s apron bore vertical stripes in red or blue and white, often streaked with brown, finger shaped stains of dried blood. The black pudding with its fat intestinal coils always gave me the shivers. Shopping took time, it was a ritual. Many shops had individual owners, the chain store was rare. People took care over their offerings; bakers prided themselves on their skill. If a cream bun cost ten pence more in one shop than another but were the best cream buns in town, one didn’t begrudge paying the extra.

Market days were always exciting. On Bank Holiday Mondays there would be a special market; the streets were riddled with stalls that spread across half the town and each turning brought new surprises. Stalls selling books and magazines, handbags and cheap dresses, belts, treats, all sorts of things. The food sellers would fill the air with marvellous smells: candyfloss and doughnuts, hotdogs and burgers, the humble but quintessential chip. The streets would be littered with food wrappers and plastic bags; dogs would wind a path through forests of legs, feasting on scraps of discarded food alongside the pigeons and blackbirds, brown fluttering of sparrows. Stall owners would cry their wares, their offers “three for a pound…two for the price of one…a fiver for the last one, they’ve all got to go”. Markets are a carnival of colour, a confusion of sound, a jumble, a lot of fun to walk around.  

Supermarkets are convenient. They are the perfect reflection of a world which measures value in terms of time and cost. If I had my choice, I’d rather have a messy market day, meat wrapped in paper and a cream bun from the best, if most expensive, bakery.  

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