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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Diary of a Consort

stillettos

Wincing, she sinks down into the pink, upholstered couch in her suite, reaches down to ease off the shiny, nude Christian Louboutin shoe with its killer four inch heel. The skin underneath has inflated into a padded blister. She sighs. At least there will be some familiar faces at this evening’s banquet.

This afternoon was a crushing bore of traipsing around, taking tea. Tea! Who likes fucking tea? Everyone knows Americans drink coffee! And she was expected to have some kind of orgasm over the tea set she was given. A tea set! Apparently it’s been made by some fancy British designer she’s never heard of. Oh yes-she went through the motions, said ‘wonderful’, claimed to know this Bridgwater person’s work. She rubs her foot. It might  make a Christmas gift for one of the staff, she supposes.

Then she’d had to trail after Don Fatso while he looked at golf trophies and had to pretend to be interested. As if! She’d have liked to have walked into Harrod’s store or to have sat in the front row at a catwalk show, or to have spent the afternoon in the spa, but no-she’d had to look at golf trophies.

No-there is still more than a week of this interminable tour before they can go home; more boring tea parties, banquets, politicians and their frumpy wives and husbands. More tedious hand-shaking, small talk, having to be entertained while he has his meetings, does his interviews, makes more embarrassing remarks.

She rises and limps to the dressing room, where rails of designer gowns swathed in dust covers jostle and shimmer, sighing as she runs her hands over the luxurious fabrics, pulling a sequinned bodice across her chest, remembering the last American wife who visited the palace and wore a cardigan. A cardigan!

Of course she’s made her own errors, like having her hair loose and wearing a floaty scarf for their arrival at that tiny, scabby airport, where she’d had to walk across the tarmac with hair and scarf across her face and then, to top it all he had to grab her hand again, like the last time and he knows how much she hates it; so at least the breeze gave her an excuse to brush his hand away and it looked like she was holding her hair back. Whenever she clicks the giant screen on there it is again-her image, her hair blown across her face, the silk scarf whipping sideways like a garrotte.

A glossy pink nail has chipped and she clucks in annoyance. Soon it will be time to ring through for a bath to be run, for the beautician to start her make-up, for the stylist to create the casual sweep of her hair, for the dresser to attend.

He’s in one of his moods this evening; pissed because he didn’t get to line up with Prince Harry and that bitch, Meghan! And not the other two, not William and Kate, either. She’s glad, though. It meant that there was no competition in the style stakes, not Kate’s skinny, model-like body, not Meghan’s dusky beauty, not either of their dewy, youthful looks. She peers into the mirror. Her own procedures have stood up pretty well to the travel and the late hours- with a little help from the beautician of course and that old hag, Camilla is no contest.

Not much more of this. Soon they’ll be back in The White House and she can go back to choosing the flowers and getting her summer wardrobe together. With luck he will be too tired and too busy to make any demands and maybe she should think about having her face re-lifted? That should string things out for a while. He can always buy some women in. She smiles into the mirror-as much as her lips will stretch…

 

 

Cheering Myself Up-

You have only to take a glancing interest in the news on a regular basis to begin to feel that the world is a gloomy place-and becoming gloomier by the day.

  • In various parts of the world there are the usual, horrific subjugations of parts of society by other parts [such as in Myanmar]. [It is difficult to understand, in this case how a woman with a history of persecution cannot bring herself to support and alleviate the suffering of her fellow countrymen].
  • Ill-conceived and pointless terrorist attempts continue to be made-the latest a horrific explosion on an underground train in London, in which a number of innocent people were injured for merely going about their business.
  • In the UK a debt mountain is growing and threatening to eclipse all previous peaks.
  • The USA and North Korea between them seem to have decided to blow the planet to smithereens.
  • Our beleaguered health service is [yet again] facing a crisis winter without sufficient resources, staff or funding, although if the previous story goes the full chapter the health service will not be necessary…

But overall, all of these grim stories almost pale into irritations compared to the ghastly weather incidents that have been occurring on an increasing scale this year. The Caribbean and the Eastern part of North America has seen devastating events as has Asia, with hurricanes, unrelenting rain, flooding and ravaging winds destroying the lives, homes and livelihoods of thousands.

Can there be anyone left other than Donald Trump who still refuses to believe that the Earth’s climate is changing?

I can’t help feeling we have an obligation at least to know about terrible news events, rather than ignoring it all. But knowing can induce a sensation of helplessness-even despair. In order to mitigate these reactions I determined to trawl through the news and attempt to find some uplifting, heartening or entertaining snippets:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I read some years ago and recently watched on TV has won the prestigious Emmy award. And quite right, too! Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers with her thought-provoking tales of dystopian futures.
  • Some wonderful movie posters dating from the 1930s and 1940s have been discovered under a carpet near Cardiff in Wales, UK. They were sold at auction for £72,000. I like to hear that discoveries such as this are still possible!
  • A Polish lemonade company wanted to market a new product and call it ‘John Lemon’. What a relief they were stopped! Yoko Ono massed some big legal guns; now it’s to be called ‘On Lemon’ which would be unlikely to offend anyone.
  • A Welsh [yes, Wales again] teenager walked up Mount Snowdon [for the uninitiated this is the highest peak in England and Wales] wearing only his underwear, in order to raise money for a dementia charity. He gained the top but became very ill with hypothermia, having not realised that the temperature would be considerably colder than at the base of the mountain. Fortunately the lad was transported down on the train and treated by paramedics. That he recovered goes without saying-or I would not have included the story in the ‘uplifting’ section.

There you have it! Bad news/good news-a game we played as children. The second list was harder to find. Make of it what you will…

Thoughts in the Aftermath…

We are in one of those grim periods following an Islamic terrorist related incident, when the news is laden with endless analysis, eye witness interviews, past incidents of a similar nature recalled and the same, frightening, inevitable images relayed repeatedly on our screens.

Will our children and grandchildren and their descendants ever know a time without threats, suspicion, random acts of violence and hate?

Those of us who were born in the fifties, in the aftermath of the Second World War experienced childhoods of peace but relative austerity. There wasn’t a great deal to go around. In the countryside where I grew up our parents cultivated gardens, kept hens, made things last. We were not hungry or deprived, neither were we unhappy. As children we knew nothing of the hardship, terror and atrocity that the war had created, perhaps because of the resolve our parents had to look forward and put all the horror of war behind them.

The random acts of terrorism that democratic countries are experiencing in our times cannot be compared to those wars. A war in the old-fashioned sense would have a conclusion, however many years it lasted. The Jihadist incursions into Syria and Iraq are on the run as they are routed from their strongholds and this can only mean relief and freedom for the oppressed people they have bullied for so long. But the success of the armies fighting them in these far away, Middle Eastern countries does not mean that the extremists will have disappeared or can somehow filter back into conventional, peaceful, happy life. Because whatever it is that is eating away at them will not go away.

I don’t believe that the perpetrator of the Westminster attack was a normal, balanced human being. While IS may have claimed the incident as a successful strike by one of their ‘soldiers’ this man was no more than a dysfunctional, disaffected petty criminal, whose life had been one of disappointment and disillusion. Such spiritually impoverished people are easily deceived into believing in some kind of cause, however distorted and hate-ridden it may be and can turn to extremism as a release for their built-up frustrations.

Sadly, as the war in the Middle East grinds slowly to a conclusion it is likely that we’ll see more isolated attacks by unstable, lone aggressors. But while the violence is devastating and life-changing for any victims involved the perpetrators must be regarded as sick individuals who’ve grasped at a distant, evil organisation and deluded themselves into thinking they belong, rather than elevated members of some dystopian group.

We should take heart from the images we’ve seen of random pedestrians running to aid those who were hurt with no regard for their own safety, for the selfless courage of the policeman who gave his life to protect others and from the stoical adherence to ‘life goes on’ that Londoners have shown.

Most people are good. That is what matters.

Travelling Hopefully on a Train

Unlikely as it may seem to many I have grown to like public transport. As a child in the fifties of course it was a great thrill to board a train or a bus. Trains, in particular were glamorous contraptions with long corridors and compartments with sliding doors. I loved tumbling into an empty compartment, fighting for a window seat and sitting on the prickly upholstery. The windows could be opened and bore only a warning not to stick anatomical parts out [especially in the approach to tunnels!].

When I began working life in London I endured a gruelling commute consisting of a 20 minute walk plus a train journey plus a tube journey plus another 15 minute walk. The tube, in particular was an unpleasant experience not unlike standing in a crammed cattle truck. There was never a seat but no chance of falling over due to the bodies on all sides. The station I alighted at, Vauxhall was a dismal, dirty drift of tarmac and I was delighted when I was able to change both my job and my place of residence.

Trains now have come to resemble buses-the utilitarian seats and the maximising of space to squeeze in as many travellers as possible in this age of too-many-people. Travelling jet-lagged and with that stretched feeling that not enough sleep bestows, we took a very early train back from the airport. Too tired to read I amused myself by observing our fellow passengers, most of whom were far more habitual train travellers than we are. They have long since become bored with the views from the windows. What do they do to pass this time they must endure each day?

A very large number indulge in eating and/or drinking. A woman with a number of bulging shopping bags withdrew one bag of sweets or crisps after another and set about each item with a determination that indicated none should remain, proffering the goodies to her companion opposite more out of duty than generosity.

Two teenage girls gossiped whilst one sipped from a giant, cardboard container of coffee and the other, her feet tucked neatly on to the seat beneath her arranged a fruit drink, a plastic container of prepared fresh fruit and a yoghurt on their table, working her way through all of this bounty with tiny bites of her perfectly white teeth and nodding at intervals while her friend talked. Does she do this every day? How can she afford it?

There is always, now, someone bellowing into their phone, unconcerned about the proximity of others whatever the subject matter might be. Others will be plugged into tiny devices to either listen to music or [and this astonishes me] watch films. As one who is barely able to see enough to text I wonder what kind of cinematic experience the little screen can provide?

We alighted at a provincial station where we were obliged to wait for the next train, stepping out into the freezing cold and back into 1950s Britain, where the comfort of a panelled, apple green waiting room provided warmth and an old fashioned café filled with an eclectic collection of objects served us a hot coffee reminiscent of the coffee of my childhood [ie nothing like coffee]. Long may these ancient, curious places remain!

Celeb Spotting-there’s an Art to it-

During the late years of the seventies I lived in Putney, South London. Some parts of the area, even then were considered fashionable and therefore beginning to be pricey, although not the parts I inhabited which were firstly a room on a shared ‘maisonette’ and secondly a two-roomed ‘flat’. The former of these two homes was acceptable, if shabby; but policed by a zealous, basement-dwelling landlady whose unwavering eye focused on our comings and goings [we were four girls]. The second would not, under any circumstances have passed the scrutiny of a housing officer nowadays and is best left to be described in a future post.

I loved living in Putney for a number of reasons. There were wonderful pubs, plenty of green spaces; I was within walking distance of my place of work [a special needs school] and it was an easy hop into central London. But these advantages also made it a magnet for what would these days be called ‘celebs’, so that regular sightings of well-known actors or presenters were commonplace, provided you paid attention.

Those who live in the capital find it difficult to see why anyone lives anywhere else or indeed how anyone copes with living elsewhere, but as the seventies receded I did leave London for the South West of England, which proved satisfactory enough place for me to remain-and here I still am, forty or so years later.

Here though, celeb-spotting is an art acquired only with practice, but one that we have honed to the point of expertise. For the 18 years we’ve frequented the hostelries in and around the coastal town that is our place of residence we’ve seen dozens of famous personas-far more than I ever did in Putney. How has this been achieved?

At just one of our locals we have seen-on a fairly regular basis-the following: Richard E Grant [actor], Ricky-from-Eastenders [whose name escapes me], Ian McShane [actor] and Charles Hawtry [actor-deceased].

No-we haven’t seen these actors. But since we began to frequent the pub we have grown used to identifying other regulars by their more famous dopplegangers. As a result the names have stuck.

Now while this method of identification has worked for years and enables us to discuss said punters with ease it is not without its difficulties. One of the pseudo ‘celebs’ has subsequently become a friend. Adjusting to his actual name took time and we were often in grave danger of blurting out his ‘stage’ name. We had to overcome the problem by using a type of hybrid name [which coincidentally happened to be the name of a historic footballer] until his real name became glued on to him. There is no question of revealing the history of his stage name since it is unlikely that he would be flattered.

Since we began pseudo-celeb watching, Richard E Grant has had a baby and Ian McShane visits less frequently. Ricky-from-Eastenders, however continues to be a regular. I must confess to a certain reluctance to know their actual handles and so, for the foreseeable future I’ll be avoiding any possible introductions.

Spicy Tales

I didn’t eat a curry until I was twenty years old. In the seventies I was a student in London in my second year and dating a worldly London lad. He must have been thrilled to be able to initiate such an ignorant country bumpkin into the mysteries of the curry house. Until that moment I’d experienced a staunchly conservative, narrow, healthy but unadventurous diet of meat and two veg-roast on Sunday, cold roast meat on Monday, liver and onions on Tuesday, meat pie on Wednesday…readers of my generation will be familiar with this regime. Pasta was cautiously sampled when Heinz came up with spaghetti in a tin and rice was a [admittedly delicious] concoction known as rice pudding made with milk and sugar in a large tin in the oven, where a delectable toffee-like skin would form over the top. This was fought over at our table, with everyone wanting to scrape the brown residue from the sides of the baking dish.
The induction took place at a restaurant in Tooting called The Star of India; a small, warm space lined with red flock wallpaper and smelling of that [now] unmistakeable, saliva-inducing spicy aroma. I have no recollection of what I ordered-or indeed if I ordered at all, given my ignorance. The BF, in his superior position as experienced curry devotee selected something appropriate for one with my raw, untutored palate before choosing his own meal. He tended to choose the vindaloo options and was a fan of ‘Bombay Duck’-a weird, dried fish starter that smells powerfully of glue and which I have never taken to.
Now of course, curry has become mainstream along with Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and everywhere else cuisine.
Cosmopolitan restaurants are no less enjoyable for being different from eateries in their mother countries, though they are different, perhaps as a result of evolution. I’ve no doubt that Italians are appalled by the many establishments that call themselves pizza makers, although judging by their popularity and universal abundance their distaste would not be shared by the world at large. Husband opted for one at a beach café in South West France much frequented by German tourists and was presented with a gargantuan circular mountain consisting of every pizza ingredient known to man. He made a noble attempt to conquer this massif but failed before reaching halfway.
Many years after this first curry I tasted as a twenty year old I was to travel to India for a thrilling taste of that country itself, with the inevitable gastronomic tour that such a holiday entails. It was a revelation to discover that authentic Indian food was as unlike that of the Tooting curry house, or any other UK Indian restaurant, as Heinz Spaghetti Hoops is from Spaghetti alla Bolognese. To travel around the country to different areas was to experience a wide range of cuisines. Generally the further south we went, the hotter the spices; farther north, towards the mountains the food became less spicy.
My last visit to an Indian restaurant, last week, was to ‘Masala’, one of two curry houses in Perranporth, Cornwall, where I enjoyed a prawn saag with cauliflower bajii and pilau rice and I can honestly say it was delicious!