The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…


Cracking the Second One-

We are in southern France, attempting to find some vestiges of the summer we felt cheated of in the UK.

I had also meant, whilst here to attempt to get the first draft of Novel 2 knocked off. In the event it’s proving more difficult than I’d imagined, for a number of reasons.

When I wrote the first novel I thought it was hard; now I realise that it was a proverbial walk in the park compared to the wild, flapping, untameable story that is the second book. Novel 1[ The Year of Familiar Strangers] ’s central character is loosely based around a person I knew in the past and many of the episodes in the story are real incidents that only needed a little embellishment, a little alteration, to form the basis of what I still consider to be a ripping yarn. Several of the peripheral characters were also lifted from real life and very little invention was needed. I even had the locations in my head [no surprise that much of it is set in France!].

Novel 2 is as different to 1 as a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. All of the characters are inventions. I’ve had to get to know them as the story has progressed, never sure if their actions are true to type or too far-fetched for credibility. The plot continues to escape my direction, twisting and turning and having a mind of its own. The nearer I think I’m getting to the denouement the longer it appears to be taking to crack it. There is a constant need to refer back in the text to ensure continuity and half the time I forget who did what, and when. I want to tie the ends up, bring the threads together in some semblance of logic, a conclusion that leads the reader to say ‘Ah, so that was why/where/ what, but like Alice, every step I take goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go.

A further difficulty is that having chosen to set the novel in the moderately near future and then taking too long to write it leads to ideas getting high-jacked by reality. Did George Orwell have this problem with 1984? I am now loath to tie it down to any date due to the rapid technological developments that are catching up with-and in some instances overtaking those in my novel! This is frustrating-technology moves along faster than my novel-writing! And the future is BIG. HUGE! It is a mistake to try and corral it into a novel.

Choosing to hand-write the last section hasn’t helped. Having visualised sitting in the sun scribbling away and penning the final words with a flourish I’m contending with strong breezes, insects and the lure of cycling, walking and sightseeing. Ah yes-I should be so driven as to eschew such pleasures. This morning we woke to rain, so if you will excuse me I can’t be frittering away my time on frivolous blog-writing; I need to get on before any more innovations come in…

A Leap with a Leaf

On the whole, vehicles are one of my non-interests, along with football and cricket, talent shows, fast food, misery memoirs and a few other tedious topics.

In a discussion on cars I’m interested in reliability first, followed by comfort and economy in equal measure. In a blatant betrayal of gender stereotyping I have opinions on colour, preferring black over any other but accepting of anything except pink, orange, red or lurid.

My first car, like many first cars, was a humble, ancient, faded turquoise Austin A40 with steering wheel so huge that steering around a corner was akin to half an hour’s workout on a rowing machine. Subsequent vehicles became newer, though never new. My least old car was also the worst, an indigo VW Polo that exhibited some kind of electrical fault and let me down with irritating frequency-most famously by giving up at traffic lights at a busy roundabout whilst I was wearing nothing but a bikini and flimsy sarong. Let this be a lesson, readers. This was also before the days of mobile phones.

Now, however it is time for my trusty, comfortable, economical, black Peugeot to find a new owner. It is also time for Husband and me to put our money where our mouths have been for so long and leap into the unknown with an eco-friendly, electric vehicle. They are cheap to run, cost nothing to tax and, most crucially do not belch noxious fumes into the environment. What can go wrong? We’ve adhered to our rule regarding no new cars and have purchased a two year old Nissan Leaf, an alien road ghost with a mysterious array of buttons and beeps.

We’ve begun to learn the ways of this enigmatic machine. We’ve learned that it drives as an automatic, that your left foot must never stray unbidden on to the ‘hand-brake’, which nestles on the floor under your left foot in a sly, provocative challenge as the result is a screeching kind of emergency stop. We know that it will refuse point-blank to cooperate unless your right foot is on the foot-brake [a more benevolent pedal].

We’ve begun to unravel the secrets of the ‘rapid’ charger at motorway services, having spent a frustrating half an hour unravelling the cryptic instructions for insertion, another half an hour in the dispiriting cafeteria [where you are at the mercy of the provision and the prices] and a further half an hour of mild panic discovering how to remove the charging nozzle.

We now know that the extravagant claims of 100 miles per charge are somewhat exaggerated, that a degree of planning must go into any journey of length and that the prices at motorway cafés render the price of the ‘rapid’ charge a little less economical.

We don’t expect to use the car for long journeys and we no longer have regular commutes to make us dependent. The change is a leap of faith in a time when leaps of faith may seem foolish or imprudent. It isn’t possible to make radical changes in the volatile climate of this unstable world but perhaps taking a deep breath and helping to clean some air is a miniscule step towards improving our immediate environment. Who knows?

The Muddle that is Memory

As I grow older I realise more that memory is a capricious servant and not to be relied on. It unnerves me, this haphazard facility, as it would anyone who has more years behind them than in front. We joke about senility. ‘He makes new friends every day’ we say about close relatives suffering from Alzeimers. But it is a state to be feared as we age, even though research turns up new developments in treatment all the time.

We have travelled down the west coast of France more times than I can either count or care to admit-certainly, during the last twenty five years or so far more times than to London. And yet it takes re-visiting to stir my memories. I am as unable to grasp the gist of a place from Husband’s descriptions as I am able to recall what I went upstairs to get when I’m at home. ‘You must remember’ he says, ‘there was an Irish couple’ [there are many Irish couples] or-‘there was a small bar by the entrance’ [true of so many places].

We visit old haunts, reluctant this time to be intrepid adventurers, having done enough pioneering on the house move front this year.

We find a site, new to us. We cycle out along the salt marsh, a wide, flat expanse of watery fields criss-crossed by irrigation channels. Grey eels undulate along in the water, darting from one clump of weed to another. It all looks eerily familiar then we approach an oyster farm and there, there is the little sea-food shack and bar where I took Husband’s photo on our anniversary-memorable in that his chin rests on his hand and his expression as he peers over the top of his beer is nothing short of grumpy.

We did remember Pornic and eventually the site we’d stayed in. We’d walked there last time and caught the train back. I had a sudden recognition; a path over a deep, rocky cove peopled with dozens of naked men-many in couples. Such sights are not unusual on French beaches. I’ve long since adopted a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ strategy for them.

We travel further south to another small, seaside town I’m sure we’ve visited before. The large town square bordered by the post office and the town hall seems familiar, as do the narrow streets lined with bars, ice cream parlours, ‘churros’ counters and stalls selling bracelets, hats and keepsakes. Here in September there is a throng of tourists-many our age or older-wending their way along and pausing to browse the proffered nick-knacks as they chew on sugary, doughnutty churros or tuck into mountainous ice cream cones.

So the memories are there-not readily available as a neat, annotated and dated time-line but in a jumbled, half-buried pile in the cobwebby cupboard of my brain. When one is prompted to surface it is a pleasure. The offspring jest, as I myself would have done when stories are repeated or exaggerated, but this will happen to them, too at some unspecified future date.

Punctuating the Years

I began as the third of three bullet points, like this:
• Child 1
• Child 2
• Me
Life continued in a small way, but developing, gathering commas, growing, learning, shuffling, crawling, walking, attending school.
School was a series of quotations. ‘Don’t be late’ ‘Do your homework’ ‘Read this’ ‘Take notes’ ‘Write that’ ‘Line up’ ‘Don’t talk’ ‘Sit up’ ‘Wear this’ ‘Don’t wear it like that’ ‘Too short’ ‘Too untidy’ ‘Get changed’ ‘Get ready’ ‘Sit down’ ‘Stand up’. Sometimes the orders were exclaimed: ‘Stand!’ ‘Sit!’ ‘Quiet!’ ‘Girls!’ Sometimes they were questioned. ‘Where’s your kit?’ ‘Where’s your book?’ ‘Where’s your homework?’ ‘Why are you late?’ ‘Why are you early?’ ‘Have you practised?’ ‘Have you finished?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why not?’
I became a student. Student life was all about ellipses… We stayed up all night… We got drunk… We tried various substances… We got up late… We skipped lectures… We went on the pill… We had unsuitable liaisons… We had suitable liaisons… We shared flats… We somehow managed to stay the course…
The world of work seemed, initially to be a place organised into neat brackets. I rose [early], went to work [walk, train, tube, walk], taught my class [reprobates], went to meetings [tedious], received a salary [a relief].
I became a married woman, at which point I was hyphenated-a mere adjunct-even more so when motherhood occurred-. “What do you do?” I was asked-but before a reply was supplied-“Oh of course-you don’t work, do you?” They were the wilderness years-the 1980s-my ten years of hyphenation-stagnation; but punctuated with babies-[!]
They grew older. I returned to work, [brackets again] but harder {{{{more stressful}}}. There was ‘accountability’. There were computers [!] There were inspections [!!!] But there were also colleagues…who became friends…I took up running…and exercise classes…
I became an ‘unmarried woman’! … Moved house…Ellipse life returned… with interludes of exclamation! I was happy-or unhappy-by turns.
I met Husband, moved house again, changed job, settled, waved goodbye to the offspring, said hello to them again, [by turns]. Then a grandchild made an entrance! Grandparenthood was embraced with some bemusement-. Where had the years gone? Why so fast? How had all these events occurred [behind my back]?
Older age was here- The bonus-the consolation was retirement. I travelled. I read. I wrote. I followed pursuits I’d always wanted to. Bits of me hurt more when I exercised. I gave up running [for walking]. The return to work came back to haunt me in the form of chronic disease. I was diagnosed: it was all about the colon; which had deteriorated into a semicolon; somehow, for now it survives; even if-in the future-the colon gets discarded-after all, what is life except one, long series of ellipses?…

Mars-Travelling Hopefully-Never to Arrive

If the writers in my writing group, The Spokes had begun writing whilst young I’ve no doubt that any one, or all of them would, by now have become best-selling authors. As it is we have left starting on the writing journey much, much too late. This is not a catastrophe-as we none of us are dependent on writing for an income [just as well] and all most of us want at this stage is some recognition.
This week there were a variety of readings as usual; one extremely hilarious on the subject of political correctness gone mad, another a whimsical tale of neighbourly domestics, one a police drama, one an extract from a [very promising] mystery novel and one a science fiction short on the subject of a manned mission to Mars. The Mars story got me thinking. An expedition to establish a human colony on Mars is no longer the stuff of sci-fi drama and written fiction. It is most definitely on the cards and is, as I write, being planned.
I understand that humans are programmed to want to know about everything within their world and beyond it. I understand that exploration and science are vital for any improvements in any area in the future. But I do think it dispiriting that having made an unholy mess of one planet, man is now set on going off to another one and messing that one up, too. It is not difficult to imagine how Mars will be in the future-over-populated, polluted and beset by tribal, religious and power wars. It all has a depressing predictability. Humankind as a species is programmed to cock up…isn’t it?
There is a wonderful children’s book called ‘Dinosaurs and all that Rubbish’, about a wealthy industrialist who, having destroyed his own environment sees a beautiful star and wants to travel there. In his absence Earth is restored by the forces of nature, becoming beautiful again and unrecognisable to him. Thinking it is another beautiful ‘star’ he returns and is taught his lesson. Simplistic, yes-pertinent, also yes.
In 2013, more than 200,000 people applied to become part of the Mars mission.          Although there is no upper age limit [applicants must be over 18], a cursory glance at the application criteria is enough to demonstrate that an attempt from the likes of me would be futile since I am defective in most areas. Besides being dependent on medication I am also prone to aches and pains, as well as inclined to believe the apocalypse has come when there is a power cut.
But surely we should be putting our own house in order before going off and getting another one?
Once you have reached that age where there is more of life behind you than in front, do plans such as these seem to ease the pressure of life ending? Or are you excited enough in your dotage to want to know the outcome of such exploits? Myself I feel we are most fortunate not to have the choice.

Tech Talk

                A news item that amused me this week was the announcement that children are to be taught ‘computer language’ at school.  The first thought that struck me was ‘Good!’ because a large [and larger by the year] number of children entering school have no language whatsoever, or none that can be understood, and perhaps they will gain some means of communication. In a class of 5 and 6 year olds I taught a child repeatedly came to me and said ‘Srink!, srink!’. It took me some time to work out that this meant he would like to get a drink.

                And then I wondered when this teaching of computer language is to take place. During the last twenty years, any number of bits have been added to the school curriculum, and as far as I can tell, nothing has been subtracted. All this adds up to a mighty long day, surely? If they are to get enough sport-and this is in response to the growing obesity problem, begin to grow and cook their own food [does anyone besides a teacher know what the logistics of gardening and cooking with a class of 30 kids entails?], do enough literacy and numeracy [we are told every day how innumerate the population is becoming], study ‘citizenship’, learn how to be healthy, get a bit of religion and pick up some art, music, history, geography and dance [oh-and what about science and technology?], when is this language learning to take place? Did I leave anything out? I wonder, seriously if they should be allowed to go home at all, since they will have no time to eat dinner, wash or sleep.

                And who is going to teach it? During the 90s we all had to undergo some stringent training to be able to use and/or teach information technology-and yes, we did teach quite a bit of programming, even then. Remember the turtle, ‘pen down’ and programming it to draw patterns on paper the floor?

                I can see the time approaching when the middle man can be cut out entirely. Let’s not bother with teaching anyone about talking computer speak-let’s just let the computers talk to each other. I feel convinced they will make a much better job of conversation than the majority of humans will in the future. As I said in a long distant [but still much visited] post, The Art of Conversation is struggling to survive anyway and most people seem to commune exclusively with some kind of screen. In fact, I suppose in the end machines will rule the world and mankind will simply fade away to become an exhibit in a museum visited by robots.