How shopping lost its soulRemember when staff knew your name, had never heard of loyalty cards and said “much obliged” not “have a nice day”
A morning of glorious winter sunshine, the sky Delft blue, the pavements frost-spangled, and I am walking into my Sussex village to shop.
It is a small pleasure, this amble from grocery store to butcher via baker, and it evokes memories of my childhood.
I buy old-fashioned cuts of meat: oxtail to braise in the Aga, pork shoulder to slow-roast on Sunday and two links of homemade sausages.
At the Co-op, I choose a cabbage, a bag of parsnips and bread studded with pumpkin seeds. I chat to Freda, the postmistress, buy a book of stamps, post a letter. On the way home I meet a neighbour and we talk about mulching the garden.
Nostalgic: An old-fashioned grocery store is rare to find these days as supermarkets are commonplace
This gentle, unhurried process is a world away from most shopping today which, in my view, has become an unmitigated chore.
I detest the vast, out-of-town mega-malls that have sprung up across the country, with their merciless lighting, endless queues and bewildering diversity of goods.
I get lost in them. I find them nerve-jangling — especially at this time of year, when there’s no escape from the crowds or the festive muzak. Besides, who needs so much choice
In my sepia-tinted ideal world, ironmongers still wear brown overalls and sell trays of screws and hooks alongside brass polish and stove black.
Grocers stock quince jelly and jugged hare, and dispense leaf tea by the quarter-pound and poulterers advertise the start of the game season by festooning their shop fronts with rows of bright-feathered pheasants.
I suppose I hark back to this past because I feel that somewhere along the line, shopping has lost its soul.
The joy has been sucked out of it — and, instead of bringing communities together through commerce, it has turned us into mindless consumerists in thrall to the High Street giants.
I was raised in an era before supermarkets and convenience foods; when most kitchens had a pantry rather than a fridge; when mums were still called ‘housewives’ and shopped daily for perishable food.
This was what happened in Goff’s Oak, the Hertfordshire village where I grew up.
An elderly spinster, Miss Munns, presided over the Post Office, which was dark, wood-lined and fusty. Her stock was meagre and as seared with age as dear Miss Munns herself. She sold dog-eared colouring books, wax crayons and the odd jigsaw.
Mr Cheshire was exactly as a butcher should be: corpulent and red-faced with sausage-like fingers. He used to say ‘much obliged’ instead of ‘thank you’, and he wrapped your meat in white kitchen paper, totting up the cost of the order on the edge of the sheet.
The Co-op had no checkouts. Instead, you handed over your money at the counter and it was sent off in a canister along a tube that whizzed round the shop to a cashier in a glass-fronted cubby hole. Change was returned by the same method.
Traditional: Model Daisy lowe pictured by an old-fashioned Aga cooker, a kitchen appliance Frances Hardy misses using
There were no loyalty cards, but we collected ‘divvy’ (dividend) stamps, although the effort of licking and pasting them into a book hardly seemed commensurate with the few pennies we saved.
I can still summon up the memory of my first unsupervised trip to these village shops. Clasped in my hand was sixpence. Today it would be worth 2p and it would buy nothing, but this was 1964 and I was seven; it was my week’s pocket money and I was on my way to spend it all on sweets.
I walked the half mile to Chase’s, the newsagent and confectioner, thrilled with nervy anticipation.
“Instead of bringing communities together through commerce, it has turned us into mindless consumerists in thrall to the High Street giants”
Jars of boiled sweets — sherbet lemons, fruit drops, barley sugar twists, cough candy, mints and humbugs — were ranged on the shelves. But my eye was focused on the counter display where everything cost a penny or less.
A single old penny bought me a pair of fruit salad chews and two black jacks; a rice paper spaceship filled with fizzing sherbet; a tube of Parma Violets; a packet of Fizzers or Love Hearts; a lace of red liquorice; or a pack of candy cigarettes. For sixpence, I could have it all — the entire teeth-rotting assortment. So, just this once, I did.
Such multi-coloured snapshots are freeze-framed in my mind, vivid with detail. Curiously, I have no such recollection of shopping for clothes. Photos show me togged out in a tomboy assortment of knitted jerseys and jeans. Until, that is, Glenda opened her children’s boutique in the village.
Glenda was as glamorous as her name: she had a slash of red lipstick, flick-up curls and wore pointy-toed stilettos that clickety-clacked.
She was also my mum’s friend, so we had VIP access to the wonderland of junior fashion that her little shop contained.
I can still recall, down to the finest details of stitching and piping, the outfits Mum bought me.
There was a dress with a checked skirt, a wide belt and white blouse top; a blue linen pinafore with a floral blouse to go underneath it; a polka-dot smock dress with puffed sleeves; white ‘bell-bottoms’; a striped ‘skinny-rib’ top and — oh joy! —two Beatles caps.
I’d already saved 6/6d to buy an EP — extended player — of Twist And Shout by the Fab Four. Beatlemania afflicted us all: I even had my hair cut in an absurd pastiche of Paul McCartney’s mop top.
Of course, not every shopping trip was a joy. A few years on, Mum was updating the kitchen. There were to be new Hygena units, and she was embarking, with her customary meticulous attention to detail, on researching the efficacy of the new front-loading washing machines.
Shopping should be fun: Frances loves the sudden thrill she gets from lighting unexpectedly on a quirky present (posed by models)
Even now the relentless tedium of that day spent trawling round department stores comparing various models remains with me. As leisure activities went, it was right up there on the boredom scale with collecting car number plates.
But Mum’s research paid handsome dividends: the Bendix she and Dad bought remained in perfect working order for 25 years.
As a family, we were never rampant consumerists. We gasped in outrage at people who piled into the car each Saturday to ship off to shopping centres for the sheer pleasure of browsing round them.
That said, as soon as Marks & Spencer opened a branch within striking distance of our house, Mum arranged forays to stockpile jumpers, skirts and frocks. M&S was a byword for dependability and quality. Not that it cut any ice with teenagers. And, by this time, I’d become one.
My clothes shop of choice was Chelsea Girl. It had all the allure of Biba at a fraction of the cost, a fashionably dark interior — you had to peer through the gloom to see the rails of clothes — and the shop assistants were not there to help so much as to pose in their floaty mini-dresses and hot pants.
I still have a Proustian memory of my first purchases: a skinny cowl-neck scarlet jumper and a pair of pin-striped flares which I teamed with vertiginous yellow cork-heeled platforms from Sacha.
‘They’re really comfortable,’ I’d lie to anyone who expressed surprise about how I managed to walk in them. I wore all three items of this ensemble until they fell apart.
“I”d rather rod the drains than spend a day at Bluewater. The clamorous crush of people is disorienting, the sheer scale of the place wearisome”
Next, I wafted through university in the ridiculously wide jeans we called ‘loons’, teamed with teeny cheesecloth shirts and calf-skimming ‘granny’ cardigans.
I’ve no memory of shopping during my undergraduate days at all: I had my head stuck in Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
But I must have inherited some of my art teacher mum’s passion for design. When I bought my first flat, in the East End of London — I was 24 and a junior reporter — every spare penny was invested in renovating and furnishing it. I rose at dawn to snaffle the bargains at Brick Lane junk market. I could never resist a bargain.
I also scavenged shamelessly in skips, and when I spotted a pick‑up truck passing with a Victorian roll-top bath on the back, I flagged down the driver and offered him 40 for it. He obligingly delivered it to my home.
Today, as a mother myself, my attitude to shopping is ambivalent. Frankly, I’d rather rod the drains than spend a day at Bluewater. The clamorous crush of people is disorienting, the sheer scale of the place wearisome.
To me, it is a kind of purgatory to slog round such temples of Mammon, toting so many carrier bags that the blood supply to your hands is imperilled, then losing the car in a ten-tier multi-storey that you queue for an hour to get out of.
Instead, I prefer to amble round market towns such as Chichester. I like little boutiques where they help you choose something that suits, then swaddle your purchase in tissue paper. I adore the labyrinthine North Laine area of Brighton, the squawk of circling seagulls above and the chance to stop and have a cup of Earl Grey and a scone in a tea shop.
Most of all, perhaps, I love the sudden thrill you get from lighting unexpectedly on a quirky present that is just the perfect thing for someone in your life.
It’s at moments like that when I’m reminded that if shopping is a chore, then sometimes — just sometimes — it can also be one of life’s great pleasures.