Stepping into the Adult World

‘The proportion of teenagers working in Saturday jobs has almost halved in the past 20 years as staffing tills, stacking shelves and delivering newspapers have gone out of fashion and people have turned online to earn cash.’ [Guardian newspaper 04/01/2020]

I must have been around ten years of age when I first went out to earn some money for myself. We lived in rural Norfolk, in East Anglia, where agriculture was all there was; vast, flat fields of crops without breaks for trees or hills. A landscape such as this shapes the lives and personalities of those who inhabit it. I’d cycle to a field where a harvest was taking place, grab a sack and pick beans, peas or potatoes, getting paid by the sack. There were no qualms about employment rules-anyone could do it. I’d cycle home clutching my half-crown [25 pence in today’s money] and feel elated.

Later, our family having relocated to Kent, I was able to get a Saturday job as a shop assistant in a toy store where a school friend worked. There were three or four of we schoolgirls helping out in the tiny shop, which was crammed from floor to ceiling with every kind of toy and had an old-fashioned counter and till. Pre-decimalisation meant that money was still pounds, shillings and pence, calculations being totted up on a paper pad with a pencil. When a customer came in to buy about 100 tiny items the store owner, Mr Cue [not the jocular character you might associate with owning a toy shop] hovered nervously over my lengthy addition of £SD like a broody hen.

It was all going swimmingly, not least due to the fact that we earned several shillings more than the Woolworths girls and that during the lunch hour when the store was shut, Susan Fort and I frittered away our time on the shop floor winding up the clockwork toys and setting them off. Sadly, Susan and I were bad news for our employer, falling about giggling and gesturing at each behind the customers’ backs, resulting in our combined sacking. It was a lesson learned.

Offspring 1 and 2 both acquired weekend jobs in supermarkets once I’d established that the weekly allowance pot was finite. Any initial reluctance was soon quashed by the euphoria of receipt of wages-a feeling I’d experienced as a 10 year old in the fields of the fenlands. By this time both had gone along with their educational establishments’ lip service to employment in the for of ‘work experience’, an initiative as far removed from the realities of real work as watching ‘The Apprentice’ on TV.

So what do today’s teenagers do for an income? Wealthy parents presumably subsidise them-since all appear to own any number of devices and pairs of trainers. And of course, the range of opportunities for casual work is not what it was, with High Street shops disappearing almost in front of our eyes and newspapers on the wane. Who has a newspaper delivered these days? Some, according to the Guardian article are enterprising enough to make money from the internet, which is impressive.

But going out to do part-time work was a great experience, I think, for young people and a right of passage into the adult world.

 

Good Riddance!

The decade is almost over. How was it for you? For some it will have been a life-changing 10 years, as the sixties were for so many of we ‘boomers’. For others it will have been harrowing or depressing. However you feel about the 2010s there will have been amazing innovations as well as gaping anomalies. Since turkeys are so much more entertaining than peacocks, as we close the decade here’s a list, in no particular order, of some of my personal gripes of the last 10 years, the trends I’d like to see die out in the ‘twenties’.

  1.  Built-in obsolescence.

Moving to a house with a spiral staircase led us to buy the wondrous item that is a cordless vacuum cleaner, and delighted we were-except that after 2 years the battery was lasting long enough to hoover a modest sized bath mat. Three hundred pounds worth of cleaner and a battery which costs £299 [or thereabouts] to replace.

Then there’s the growing heap of redundant devices in a deep drawer in our office [‘office’ sounds posher than it is-for office, read ‘glory hole’-a term my mother used for a dumping ground]. Their batteries are extinct, their operating systems superseded. My current laptop [being written on as I speak] is losing its longevity when untethered. It’s time for all this constant consumerism to stop.

2.  The Ghost High Street

The UK is not alone in experiencing the death of its vibrant town centres. Empty shops, flaking facades and litter strewn doorways can be seen throughout Europe’s towns. It is not, however the same for every High Street, since some communities have fought back in a variety of innovative ways. My favourites are those that have replaced tired ‘chain’ cafes and betting shops with delicatessens, independent cafes, micro-pubs, refill and eco shops, fair-trade and recycled or handmade goods. While everyone needs barbers and nail salons you can have a little too much of the grooming business.

Wouldn’t it be just great to see 1. on the list above combined with 2., so that each and every High Street had a repair workshop where you could get a battery replaced, a hose for a vacuum cleaner, a new pocket in your favourite trousers, new heels on your shoes, a watch strap or some re-upholstery?

Or how about a swap shop, where for a small charge you could swap the designer dress you’ve grown tired of [or grown out of] for something of equivalent value? Or somewhere you could borrow an item-like a bicycle, a posh outfit or a painting?

Of course all this would require cash-strapped councils to use their imaginations and waive or limit their rates. I don’t suppose many of them are forward-thinking enough to do it…

3. Packaging

At the risk of doing the thing to death, the plastic dilemma continues to run and run. Myself, I’m at a loss. I bought the re-usable vegetable bags. I tried to use them. Each time I visit a supermarket [one of which claims to be in the forefront of recyclable, ‘plastic-free’ goods] there is less loose produce available for those with their own bags. I’ve posted before about the frosty reception I received for presenting my own containers at the deli counter…

I also read that more and more plastic bottles of water are being sold. Water! We do not live in a third world country without piped water. Our drinking water is clean. I’d like someone to explain to me why anyone in this day and age, living in a country with clean sanitation and tapped drinking water needs to BUY bottles of the stuff. Please stop this madness now! Or else the government need to force the companies that cynically sell this over-priced commodity to use glass or compostable containers.

4. Selfies

What an appropriate word ‘selfie’ is! Is anyone else fed up with self-absorbed, pouting, thrusting, leg-out, chest-out, ‘I’m-having-a-wonderful-time-with-all-my-friends-not-you-drinking-eating-drunk’ photos? Last year in Venice we were almost unable to look at anything without posing selfie-takers draping themselves in front of it. Enough!

5. Subscription TV

I’ve done the free Netflix trial. It was pants. I’m not doing Amazon Prime for a variety of reasons [Jeremy Clarkson is one]. I mostly watch BBC. I loath ad breaks. I’m a dinosaur.

6. Celebrity nobodies [and the challenge programmes they are all on].

7. Shoulders sticking out of tops and knees poking out of jeans.

8. ‘Smart’ things.

9. Pompous, egotistical, old, white, male, megalomaniac leaders of nations.

10. Annoying lists.

I expect you’ll have your own ideas about what should die, reader. Feel free to post in the comments! Happy New Decade!

 

 

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?

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…

Keep it Local

What kind of environment would we like generations to come to inherit? Do we even care about the world that we will no longer inhabit?

In a week that has seen a brand, spanking new shopping centre opening amidst much celebration in large city in the North of the UK I cannot help but heave a weary sigh. This has all happened before. In the 80s there was an explosion of shopping centres, vaunted as exciting, innovative temples to consumerism and incorporating restaurants, cinemas-even an indoor theme park with fairground rides [at The Metro Centre, Gateshead].

The UK is entering an era of financial uncertainty. Many areas of trade, finance and employment are already showing signs of slowing and inflation is set to rise after a long, settled period. You have to wonder why anyone would view a large, new shopping centre as a good idea.

My own, subjective, personal view of shopping centres is that they do not represent [as one of the instigators of the Leeds structure suggested] an ‘experience’:

“You can’t just build the same environments you’ve done for the last 15 years,” he says, “you have to create places that people want to touch, want to feel, want to be in. The retail is almost secondary. Experience is everything.”

The retail is almost secondary? Why go then? And what does he mean by ‘spaces that people want to touch, want to feel’? I am imagining crowds of shoppers, bags in one hand, the other feeling along the walls outside the shops or perhaps bending to pat the shiny floors. I can think of more uplifting ways to ‘experience’. Why not visit an art gallery or a museum? Better still, go outside and walk-in a park or along a canal tow path, or across a field.

I can’t remember when I’ve ever spent an entire day at a shopping centre. These days I take the view that if I can’t find what I’m looking for in an hour I won’t bother. And when I shop I don’t want to run the gauntlet of endless traffic to be enclosed in an emporium consisting of malls, escalators and mile upon mile of over-lit, over-heated, stuffy shops. I may want to visit a couple of shops, but not to be stifled. I want to go outside between one shop and another. I don’t want to spend hours trundling up a multi-story carpark ramp attempting to find a space and then not be able to locate my car again afterwards [or even remember which storey it is on].

Not everyone is fortunate enough to live where they can walk to buy items they need and not everyone is willing to do so, but in these times of increasing traffic and pressure on our economy shouldn’t we be looking to work, shop and pursue leisure activities in our local areas?

How not to Succeed in the Job Market

                I was surprised when Offspring requested that I look through her application for temporary work. This is because I am the least qualified adult on the entire globe to be able to make a judgement on such matters, since my track record on achieving interviews, let alone the resulting positions, is virtually nil.

                I do remember my first, halting steps into the world of work. My first position, whilst still a schoolgirl was as a Saturday girl working as a shop assistant in a toy shop, obtained for me by a friend who was well established there. The manager, a small, bald, bespectacled man was at a loss to know what to do with us, as we were in a constant state of excited hilarity, creeping downstairs from our lunch breaks to wind things up and set them off across the floor, or executing hopeless addition and calculation of change, or attempting to distract each other whilst serving-all very puerile and immature [which we were]. Eventually I was sacked.

                I was able to obtain work easily as a college student, by being prepared to do [almost] anything at all, including cleaning the local hospital or packing soup powder, [a night shift, and more hilarity as we dysfunctional students were all put at machines together].

                When the serious task of snatching a teaching post came up I had to scrub up and set off looking eager, trudging first to Croydon, where I did my best to appear confident and succeeded only in provoking the interviewer into asking me if I ‘really wanted the job’. Then to County Hall, London, where a representative of the Inner London Education Authority’s only question was ‘are you staying on for a fourth year?’ When I responded in the negative he said, ‘Right, we’ll put you down for Lambeth’. Job done. I was employed.

                Later, as I moved through life and around the country my applications were never a resounding success and such interviews as I was able to get never went swimmingly.

                No, all the teaching jobs I ever had were got from doing them already. I would do a casual day or two then get asked to stay on, then on for the rest of the term, then would I consider becoming a permanent member of staff. When I needed to move on the entire process would begin again, with my useless applications and my boundless talent for failing at interviews. The only successful interview of the latter years was for a temporary job, for which I had been, not only the solitary applicant but the sole interviewee. Of course my self esteem might have been a little dented had I failed-and sure enough, once I was doing the job I was offered the permanency.

                So no, I am no expert on applications and interviews. But I comfort myself that I can’t be all that bad at working…can I?

Boxing Day-a daft party or a bun fight?

                When I was a child, spending my early years in the 50s, Boxing Days were passed with many of the traditional customs of the time. We’d visit relatives or have them visit us. We’d exchange gifts [the meaning of ‘Boxing’] and have tea. The visits would be to aunts, uncles and cousins and the gifts would be toys, games, puzzles or books. One of my favourite toys as a six year old was ‘Fuzzy Felt’, of which I had several sets. A set consisted of a felt board and a collection of felt characters and objects based around a theme. My preferred theme was the farmyard and I could occupy hours arranging the small figures and objects into different positions and scenarios. This, I think, was the beginning of story-telling for me. A cursory look on the web confirmed that Fuzzy Felt is still available, although now often termed ‘retro’. Invented in 1950, it was a ‘must have’ for children of the early 50s. My brothers favoured metal Meccano and occasionally allowed me to play with it, as with their train set, which occupied most of their bedroom floor.

                During the ensuing days we’d have to put in some time writing thank-you letters for all our gifts. My mother would have written a list of presents and donors, some of whom would have sent postal orders [also still available!] for an amount to be divided between the three of us. It could be tricky. One pound was not easily divisible into three, neither was ten shillings. We would receive 6 shillings and 8 pence from a pound or 3 shillings and 4 pence from ten shillings. It is not surprising that despite an innate deficiency in mathematical competency I was always able to remember what one pound, or ten shillings, divided by three was.

                It was a thrill to be allowed to stay up for a party, often held at our house. In those unsophisticated times it would consist of parlour games-in a circle or with pencils and paper. My father considered himself something of a wag and organised all of this including the ‘prizes’-items he’d fastened to the Christmas tree, including packets of indigestion tablets or a small tin of baked beans, all wrapped up.

                So what now, for Boxing Day? It seems vast numbers of people like to spend this next day of their holiday camping outside on a pavement in the cold and the howling gales waiting for a department store to open its doors, in order to join a galloping stampede into the interior and a fight to gain access to a designer handbag they cannot do without. I like a bargain as much as the next person but much as I wrack my brain I cannot think of a single object in a shop I’d wish to queue up all night in the cold for. Can you?