Mad Malls or Sad Streets?

I grew up in a series of three small villages, each of which was served by one, modest grocery shop. The first, which I was sent to from age four, was a minute, dark, cavern accessed by a house door and called ‘Mrs Russell’s’. She had a big old, dark wood counter, sold everything, including cheese by the slice-which she cut from a cylindrical block with a wire-and ‘Fruit salad’ or ‘Blackjack’ chews at four for a penny; also ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder which she ladled into a paper bag so you could tear off the corner and suck the powder from it directly.

When I lived in Putney, south London in the seventies, Tesco had a store in the high street which still used counters to serve shoppers-and not a trolley or a basket in sight.

In the UK shopping streets are dying and our own, small town’s high street is no exception, with fourteen coffee shops in one relatively short stretch [making local headlines], too many salons, too many tattoo parlours, too many charity shops and most crucially-too many empty shops.

If shops are empty it can only mean that the rents and rates are much too high. Some of the premises have been languishing unloved and uninhabited for so long that vegetation has taken root inside the windows and you could be forgiven for thinking the shop was selling weeds [like the old dead wasp joke].

We are all too used to supermarket shopping; too used to dashing in, picking up packets of this and that and dashing to the checkouts.

But I believe the only way to revive town centres is to return to smaller stores and  specialist stores like greengrocers, butchers and bakeries. Towns that have such shops are mostly thriving. It would also begin to address the horrors of the plastic mountain we are constructing. Once, people took a shopping bag to the greengrocer and the assistant would pile the items straight into the bag. You would take the bag home and sort the items out at home. Nothing bad happened. Some of the vegetables may have needed washing-a chore that should be done whether they’ve been bagged or not.

Meat or fish would be wrapped in some paper. Bread was the same. Milk got delivered in glass bottles. Cakes were placed into a beautiful cardboard box so that it really felt like a special treat when they were bought.

Aside from these essential shops I’d love to see some real recycling, some ‘upcycling’, a repair-anything shop and a swap shop-or perhaps all of these in one, bigger store.

But all of this would take much more imagination, foresight and gumption than we are ever likely to see from our local council, who would far rather leave shops empty and falling into ruination than lower the rates [or better still, waive them for an innovative project].

Perhaps you, reader have a wish list for your local shopping centre. What would be on it?

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Festival Blues

At home we do summer things. We throw ourselves into our usual music festival preparations. The preparations are less absorbing than you would think. It is mostly paperwork. Of course-these days it isn’t so much paperwork as virtual paper, though there is still ream upon ream of it. Veritable cyclones of emails, requests for certificates, requests for risk assessments, requests for electricity checks, requests for this and that.

The potential stallholders drag their feet; attachments dribble across the ether, some up-to-date, some not.

In the council chambers a woman sits thinking up more demands. At the eleventh hour she has a brainwave-we must hire 17 portaloos. The public lavatories adjacent to the site are not enough for the needs of the thousands who will be flooding through our gates. We hold an emergency meeting, form our response, write to the chamber-woman, explain that we cannot, now go ahead with the festival since the £1000 required for portaloos is beyond our tiny fund. Chamber-woman relents [this year]-then demands we hire a qualified electrician to place a plug in a socket for the dancers in the square.

The festival week arrives and somehow it begins to take shape, the huge marquee erected in a morning, the various components arriving and being installed.

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An unexpected turn of events at the Football World Cup means that England is to play a quarter final match with Sweden on festival Saturday. A mood of disquiet descends among us. ‘They’ll come afterwards’ I say, since the match is at 3.00pm.

On Friday evening we are ready-and they come. ‘Saints of Sin’, the headlining band bring a substantial following of loyal fans, which is encouraging. We feel optimistic. The ticket office is kept busy and many more than usual purchase weekend tickets.

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Saturday dawns fine-continuing the heatwave we’ve enjoyed for a couple of weeks. We open at midday and the musicians get going, attended by a trickle of festival goers. It is eerily quiet. A woman berates us for the lack of attendees, demanding to speak to our ‘head office’. I’m confused. Head Office? I explain that she still has the entertainment and that we are only a community, charity event; that we are all volunteers, that there is no ‘head office’. Enraged, she abuses the security staff and is barred for her pains.

Those that have drifted in are mostly enjoying themselves and it is calm in the sunshine on the quay, a smattering of drinkers at the tables by the bar tent, a handful of people sitting inside the marquee.

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On Sunday, as usual we have to allow free entry due to an ancient by-law and as usual many take advantage and choose this free day to attend. But not as many as normal. An elderly man complains ‘I don’t understand why it’s free today and it was £7 yesterday. We had Ozzie Osborne when we went to Donnington’. I explain the by-law. I explain that we are a charity, not-for-profit event. He understands.

The low numbers don’t make clearing up any less tiring and it has been a long. hot weekend. A few days later we know what we suspected. The takings are down so far that next year’s festival is less likely to go ahead.

We are England fans too, we festival volunteers. Ours is not the only event to have been scuppered by the scheduling. It is only a minor tragedy. But it is ours…