21 DECEMBER 1991, Page 57


It's always Christmas in the supermarket


Sociology magazines like to scrutinise supermarkets to unearth left-wing points. I read an article in one of them recently which claimed that the average income of customers declines steadily from the 9 a.m. opening onwards. The rich can 'choose their time' to shop, so go early, 'missing the crowds' and 'getting the freshest produce'. The poor shop late, are hustled and has- sled, get battered fruit and veg, sometimes at reduced prices. The theory is insular and collapses completely once you go to Ameri- ca. When I was a Visiting Professor in Washington, the hypermarket I used on M Street was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the only correlation I noticed between customers and time was that, dur- ing the small hours, even more lunatics than usual were at large.

The theory doesn't work here, either, to judge by my regular visits to Sainsbury's with my wife Marigold. We go as soon as it opens and the people there are of every age, sex, colour and class. The one thing they have in common is scruffiness and, still more, impatience. If the staff are a bit late opening up, an angry crowd collects, usual- ly led by a male shopper of the type the police describe as a 'loner', and who fea- tures in serial-rape/murder cases. There are some testy, short-fused female shoppers too, beefy ladies, not necessarily members of the Jackie Onassis Fan Club, who grip the handles of their trolleys fiercely and look as though they would like to use them to batter the doors down. I call this phe- nomenon Trolley Fever.

There is no question that supermarkets are a boon. The pair of us can collect a month's supplies in less than an hour. But I miss the old-style grocers' shops I visited as a small boy with my mother: the pungent smells, the enormous white aprons worn by the oleaginous assistants, the dazzling skill with which they cut cheese and bacon, and tied up the neat parcels they lovingly wrapped, while my mother sat near the counter on a tall stool studying her list. Most of all, the dramatic climax when the money and bill were put in an aerial railway and whizzed up to the lady in the high cash- box, then came crashing back with the change, bells ringing furiously. Children today get none of these pleasures, though it's true they enjoy riding on the trolleys.

My other complaint is that the taxonomy of our supermarket is eccentric, rather like the arrangement of books in the London Library, and seems to follow the workings of a woman's mind, rather than mine. I find myself hunting in vain for Bovril among Sauces and Condiments, where it logically ought to be. Instead it is to be found under Meat. Well, you may say, it is a meat prod- uct. So it is, but then what is Marmite doing there too, and that fearsome Australian favourite, Vegemite? I also have trouble with starch, which is not as you might expect under Washing Materials but jostling the hair-sprays. But I can see why a female, even say Baroness Blackstone, would lump them together.

Needless to say, Marigold's list has all the interesting items on it, as they require expertise. I get Detergents, Dishwasher Salt and other dull things. It is not so easy as one might suppose either, as she is most particular and explicit. No use getting Fresh Care Automatic Non-Biological, when what she wants is Non-Biological Per- sil Original. I am sometimes bewildered by the variety. I find it hard going when I am told to get 'too-paper', or what I would call bumf. Should it be Bio-degradable Nature, or Low-Grade-Waste Greencare, or Recy- cled Environment-Friendly Revive, or Non- Chloric Bleached Nouvelle, or just old- fashioned Luxury Supersoft?

There are times indeed when, as I anx- iously scrutinise the shelves, all their regi- ments of clamorous products congeal into a shiny mist. Here, for instance, are the mul- titudes of punchy-named cleansing-fluids: Vax, Vim, Jif, Oz, Bif, Barn, Bash, Flash, Ajax, Wham, Fresh and Bim, not forgetting Shiny Smiles and Lime Light. But what I

have to get, when and if I can identify it, is Mr Muscle Spray Trigger-Top, and none other. What is more, Mr Muscle, discov- ered at last, turns out to have his own fami- ly, all different. Well might Captain Cuttle say, 'When found, make a note of.' Dizzy and dazzled by it all, I lean against the shelves, my mind wanders and I am liable to go off with someone else's trolley, often with an indignant toddler in it.

The mind-boggling fecundity of capital- ism, in short, has its drawbacks. There is almost too much choice. I used to feel this even more strongly in Washington, espe- cially when I visited the up-market hyper- deli in Georgetown, which has 150 different kinds of bread and over 200 cheeses. It is not surprising that Russians, on their first visit, can't believe it's real. When, some time back, a Soviet pilot absconded to the West with a new-model Mig, and was in due course taken round a Californian supermarket, he thought it had all been put on specially for him, like a Potemkin vil- lage. The idea that it was everyday stuff for 250 million Americans was impossible for him to grasp.

Supermarkets sometimes astonish me too. I only discovered last week that the magic eye at the check-out can differentiate between orange, green and red peppers, and mark them up accordingly. But, as always, the real surprises are the human ones. This gaunt, hungry-looking fellow, just checking out in front of me, what has he got in his trolley? Why, nothing but six Harpic Red-Tops, three dozen tins of Kleenoff Drain-Opener, a large yule-log cake and 12 Mars Bars. He's a loner too, or perhaps a visiting member of the Addams family. Has he carved up his wife, and is he about to dispose of the pieces, fol- lowed by a rich celebratory feast? The girl at the desk tots up the bizarre contents of his argosy without batting one false eyelash, and he pays with a £50-note. Outside, it is freezing, and an ancient, crumbling figure, wearing a crushed top-hat and straight out of Gissing, is playing 'White Christmas' on a hurdy-gurdy. The Kleenoff man gives him a pound coin before loading his purchases into a smart new Volvo. A supermarket makes me feel like a character in Pirandel- lo, unable to distinguish between illusion and fact: does the real world lie within the glittering shop, or on the cold pavement outside? And will there be spiritual super- markets in Heaven?