On shopping

A while back I found myself debating the decline of the high street with a friend of a friend on Facebook.  Friend of Friend argued that the “traditional” high street had actually been wiped out years ago by chain-stores, and if these were in turn being replaced by online shopping, this was no bad thing.  I found myself (having never previously given it a moment’s thought) arguing rather inarticulately that the high street had a purpose beyond its commercial one, a community purpose if you will.

I was thinking, I suppose, about 9YO, who’s already starting to walk part of the way to school by herself.  No doubt solo trips to the local shops will be next on the agenda.  Our local shops – and the people who work in them – give me a sense of community as much as my local friends, the reassuring presence of trusted adults.  Without those shops, 9YO’s walk home from school – along a 40mph stretch of B road, past suburban semi’s with front doors set back behind leafy front gardens – involves no human contact, no possibility of interaction with anyone other than friends who may or may not be walking the same way (most likely not, given that our school serves a large catchment area and most of her friends seem to live in the opposite direction).  And that feels somehow lonely, unfriendly, in short not the kind of neighbourhood I want her to grow up in.

So that’s why I make a point of supporting the small parade of local shops near us – an off-licence, butchers, hairdresser, post office.  The butcher is currently a discussion point among our family though.  Until recently it was a family business, apparently unchanged  since the 1950’s, with limited opening hours and a hardcore of elderly customers coming in for stewing steak.  Now it’s been taken over by a newbie who’s clearly not finding it  the goldmine he hoped and is up against it to keep the place going.  Unfortunately all his increased opening hours, dragon burgers and free lollipops for the kids just makes you feel as if someone’s gone round to your grandparents house and moved all their furniture round.  Husband finds all this change a bit unsettling, and thinks I should just pick up the meat and eggs during my weekly supermarket shop. But I’m still shopping there, partly because the stuff tastes so much better, but also out of a vague commitment to the idea of ‘ethical shopping”

I should add at this point that I don’t live in  some gentrified neighbourhood with a farmers market and organic deli to give local shopping a feel-good factor.  Sainsburys is a quarter of a mile away in a bleak retail park that also boasts a boarded-up Comet, Blockbuster and newsagent.  Our little parade of shops feels like the last outpost of the small businessman in a world that has already been conquered, exploited and deserted by the giants.  The traditional high street has long since been colonised by the smaller chains, and then all but wiped out by the edge-of-town retail parks.  And those out-of-town giants could ultimately go too, as we do more and more of our shopping online.  There’s a slightly chilling article about the rise of the ‘dark supermarket’ here.

I do my fair share of online shopping,  as well as stocking up weekly at Sainsburys.  Supporting my butcher is at best a token gesture, I know. But local shopping with independent retailers means face-to-face contact with real people who try new things and get it wrong, who sometimes have a bad day and have the temerity to let you know.  People, in short, who might get on your nerves far more than the anonymous drudge who picks your order in a windowless warehouse.  And maybe that’s no bad thing.  Maybe we need reminding that the long chain of production that puts food on our plates is made up of human beings not automatons.  They have money worries, health worries, child care worries just like me.  Am I really too busy to acknowledge that while I’m shopping?  My butcher and every shop keeper like him provide our neighbourhoods with a heart and focal point, and vital social contact for every local person who happens not to work full time.  If that went, I’d miss far more than just the tasty sausages.

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Nee Naa: a visit to the National Emergency Services Museum in Sheffield

We set off in high spirits, all four of us excited by a day out with friends arranged at relatively short notice.  9YO chats non-stop in the back of the car, giving us a running commentary of her DS game, apparently regardless of whether anyone is listening.  3YO is like Pavlov’s dog on car journeys at the moment; the movement of the car, the ringing bell which makes her salivate.  We’re not even on the M1 before a plaintive “Can I have something to eat?” chimes across the Monster High monologue.  So the chicken sandwiches come out at 10.30am, and before long we all realise that we’re hungry.  Call it brunch.

Our destination today is the National Emergency Services Museum in Sheffield.  Its publicity leaflet must have been scooped up by 9YO on another day out in Yorkshire somewhere.  She thrust it in front of me and her father a few weeks back, announcing that we simply HAD to go there.  I suspect the various How to be a Fire Fighter/ Cop programmes on CBBC have inspired her.  So off we go, a day out to Life on Mars for kids.

Having lived in Sheffield throughout the 1990’s, I was always vaguely aware of the red brick building with the air of an elderly fire station just outside the main city centre on West Bar.  Turns out it opened as a combined Police and Fire Station in 1900, and was a working building until 1965.  It opened originally as a Fire Service Museum in the 1980s, the Police exhibitions added in the 1990s.  Recently rebranded as the National Emergency Services Museum, it’s a fascinating, drafty old building with lots of open courtyards and a seriously impressive fireman’s pole.  It’s pleasantly quiet on West Bar when we arrive just after 11am, and there’s plenty of parking just across the road. Entry for a family of four is £14, and a welcoming member of staff gladdens our hearts by telling us that we’re welcome to climb in the back of any exhibits which have their doors open, and there’s a fire engine ride at midday!

At this point, no doubt a more accomplished blogger would be able to reel off fascinating facts about all the exhibits on display.  As we wander round,  I’m vaguely aware of the HUGE variety of fire engines, some dating from the 1700’s, ambulances, police cars from around the world.  I don’t have a chance to look at anything in detail though, because my whole attention is taken by rampaging children having incredible amounts of fun, scrambling in and out of exhibits, jumping down steps, ringing bells, … Meanwhile the Dads are clearly indulging in some childhood wish fulfilment dressing up as policemen and firefighters.  There’s something about the layout, and the accessibility, and the sheer number of vehicles on display that fires (see what I did there?) our enthusiasm, and for a while it’s all gloriously chaotic and fun.  Then before we know it, it’s midday and we’re climbing into the back of the modern-day fire engine that’s pulled up outside.  Having a fire engine ride is one thing, but we weren’t expecting to be raced round the block with sirens blaring in true Fire Brigade style – another big hit.

Then it’s lunch in a cosy basement cafe, in front of a roaring log fire.  The food’s average, but warm and filling, and it’s lovely in front of the fire.  Just across the way is the little shop, and we can’t resist plastic fireman hats and Fireman Sam aqua-draw sets.  Upstairs there’s a model railway, some educational displays which the kids drag us past and more dressing up opportunities.  We leave when the little ones are starting to wilt, after a fun packed three hours, all in a very good mood and definitely open to the possibility of going back for another visit some day – when hopefully I might actually manage to find out a little bit more about what is probably a fascinating history of some of the vehicles on display.   Until then, thank you National Emergency Services Museum – definitely recommended as a family day out.

And so I write

A blog in the making. It’s been a long time coming, but the things in my head must, finally, have a voice.  I call them things, because they’re not words yet, nor even thoughts.  Rather feelings, drifting shapes in the dark spaces around the edges of my conscious mind, waiting for me to name them and mould them into shapes in ink on a page.

Why am I writing this now? I’ve wanted to write since I knew what words were, what books were.  Why have so many indifferent jobs that were never exactly what I wanted to do, stopped me from doing the one thing I was sure I did want to do?  Why not any time in the last year as I’ve ploughed through a life time of sad memories and tried to rebuild my motherless world, full of thoughts and feelings to express?  Why now?

Because of two men.  One, a neighbour who was slowly becoming a good friend, who died suddenly a few weeks ago.  I thought we had years ahead to chat about all the many things we had in common, watching our kids grow up, running in and out of each other’s houses, but sadly it wasn’t to be.  The other, a boss I worked for fifteen years ago, whose blog detailing his battle with cancer I discovered this week. His writing, determined, stark and  funny in equal measure, reminds me that we all have words that need to be heard.

There have been times when sitting down to write has felt like trying to build a cathedral out of individual grains of sand.  The sheer enormity of it has made me slink away from the task defeated before I’ve even begun. So I need to start small.  Just words on a page.   And these first words are dedicated to two men:  our much missed neighbour and friend, and a thoughtful, principled former boss who gave me opportunities and taught me a lot, who I’ll probably never see again as we live in different parts of the country,  whose journey I can only read about from afar.  Both have helped me realise that writing can’t wait any longer.  I can’t keep putting it off as too difficult, waiting until some mythical moment when the time is right.  Time is, after all, limited, and we never know when we’ve missed our last chance.

So this is me, now, taking a stand against procrastination, against the fear of failure, against the indifferent dead end jobs, the cleaning up after the kids, and the ironing, the crap telly and the pointless arsing about on Facebook.  This is it.  I write.