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.  

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Travelling by train

Every weekday I travel by train. I have travelled the same line up and down, Monday through Friday, for the past 10 years. I must now be an expert in train travel.

I am an expert, but there is still more I can learn. After 10 years the danger is that you stop seeing. After 10 years you think you’ve seen everything there is to be seen.

There is always something new to be seen. A white flash of bunny-tail, the growth or fall of a tree, a new crane on the horizon, a building burning, the way the sun’s rays fall on the golf course this morning.

The people are the same people, but different. Each morning a different configuration; each evening, a different conversation.

I am an expert. I know just where to stand on the platform so that when the train stops the door is nearby. I board in an unhurried way. There will be seats, there is always a seat somewhere even if it’s on the floor. I let people board the train before me. I let people exit easily. After 10 years, there is no hurry.

I know the trains and their configuration. I know from the front of the train whether the door will be at the end of the carriage or the middle, or spread evenly at regular spaces. I know which seats will be free. I know where to sit so the persistent drip doesn’t drip on me. I know how to avoid the wobbly seat.

I like to travel on a new route, an unfamiliar branch. I like the surprise of it, the sense of taking a journey, safely, into the unknown. Arriving at a new station and learning its secrets. The basic configuration is always the same: there are platforms, there are trains, there is a ticket gate and people in neat uniforms to check the tickets and provide customer support, there is a ticket office, there are boards announcing arrivals and departures. They are the same, but different. Each has its own character.

I love the old trains, the rickety decrepit trains with windows that open (and don’t always close), an engine that rumbles and clatters. Old trains are characterful.

The new trains are slick and aerodynamic. They are all about efficiency. They are slick, but inside there is little space for people. Inside a new train, people are a nuisance.

Riding a steam engine is like riding a horse. It is personal and animal. It breathes, its flanks heave, it roars. Driving a steam engine is like breaking a horse. You must treat it tenderly and determinedly. I drove a steam engine once. It was exhilarating.

I love travelling by train. Each journey is a gift of sensory experience. There is always something to see, the vista is always changing even on a familiar journey. The trains are warm or cold, the glass of the windows either clear or hazy with condensation. The seats are comfortable, or not. You may sit or stand. Every day there are different conversations, a different yet familiar set of people. People come and go. There are birds and trees and unexpected clumps of flowers. If you’re lucky the occasional glimpse of fox or deer.

A train journey is a gift of time. You can learn, you can read. On a train, you can meditate. You can relax. On a train you’re free to dream. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Irritating things

People who walk along staring at their mobile phone. They are like a stone in the shoe, impeding movement. This is especially irritating in cities.

Competitive misery.

When someone says "With all due respect..." and what follows is invariably less than respectful.

Stock phrases such as "to be fair; to cut a long story short; at the end of the day; I hear what you're saying...". Rarely do these phrases serve any other purpose than to fill a silence.

Media sites that deliberately seek to goad or annoy. Why do they feel it necessary to spread misery and anger?

People who check their mobile phones in the middle of a conversation or meeting. How rude!

Dog excrement on the pavement.

People who throw their rubbish out of car windows. This behaviour is simply lazy and inconsiderate.

People who complain about the behaviour of others, but smile and accept it when in that other party's presence. *

Mobile phones.

People who say they are going to do something, but never do.

*I may be guilty of this, on occasion. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Enviable people

A young woman, unconscious of her innate beauty and grace.

People who can speak more than one language, and learn new ones with apparent ease.

People who know exactly how to dress for their figure. Their elegance and style appears effortless.

An elderly couple walking slowly along, hand in hand.

Men with deep, measured voices. No matter what they say, people listen.

A child at play.

Two women sitting at a cafe table in the mid-afternoon, each with a glass of wine. By the way they talk to each other, the way they laugh, it is obvious that they have nothing more pressing to do than enjoy each other's company.

People who have followed their dreams. Though their life may have followed a difficult path, the result is rewarding.

Young boys playing at war. Their freedom and spirit is enviable.

Monday, 22 September 2014


There are clouds that blanket the sky like a shroud, flat featureless swaths of grey.

There are clouds like great snow encrusted mountains resting on the horizon some distance away.

The cumulonimbus cloud as it descends is quite dramatic, darkening the air with electric shadows.

The clouds I like the best are cirrus, wisps of translucence like the gentle stroke of an artist's brush. It is astonishing to think that so many miles up, it is raining.

I enjoy the sky in the evening. Skies preceding turbulent weather when many cloud types - cirrus, altocumulus, altostratus - compete to catch the vibrant colours cast by the receding sun.

Flat-bottomed cumulus on a sunny day remind me of days out at carnival or an amusement park. They way they form in neat, patient rows is quite charming.