Returning to the Happy Hunting Ground
I wonder if people under forty today ever mull over why – beyond Borisconia, the City State formerly known as London – they need to get into a car and drive eight miles just to buy some food. When you think about it, this isn’t a great leap forward from the days before cars or even wheels when we all got our spears suitably sharpened and chased squealing hogs around for several hours. Friday nights at the supermarket when I had young kids didn’t involve bringing down deer with a Stegasaurus bone blowpipe or anything, but it did mean pushing your way through crowds of people spreading arms and trolleys across every aisle as if they might be traffic-calming cops. It also meant saying “Excuse me” in a increasingly irritated tone as the quest unfolded. And it did mean hunting.
Just as hairdressing salons for women in the 1960s became unisex, so too had supermarket hunting undergone the same sad process by about 1972. Not mess-about, play-at hunting: real hunting. The routine – we’ve all been suckered in – begins when the bloke tries to alleviate the supremely impersonal pain of supermarketing by asking if he can get something, you know, on his own without any apron strings being involved, and his missus says, “Er, yeh – cinnapenne paste”. So Mr significant other nods and asks what TF cinnapenne paste is and wifey rolls her eyes, tells you it’s in the spices section and adds for good measure that she might just as well go find the bloody paste herself.
The guy doesn’t find the paste, but his wife says “never mind” which roughly translated means “what exactly is the point of you?” and picks out the cinnapenne jar two minutes later while heading a cabbage and flicking two anchovy tins into the trolley. This is her way of showing she can multi-task and you can’t. After dinner she’ll tell you how crap you are at loading dishwashers, and if you sneeze going upstairs to bed – vaguely expectant but not overly optimistic – she’ll make a crack about Man Flu.
So no, I didn’t see car-drive unisex shopping at the supermarket as any kind of move forward fun-wise from wrestling mammoth to the ground armed only with a slither of sharpened flint. And as those supers have turned into hypers wrapped in malls and surrounded by parking lots about as communitarian as a Lambeth Council health-and-safety overseen firework display, my attitude problem hasn’t been addressed. This is probably because I don’t want to address it: I vastly prefer the decades before I was inna relashurnship, when all the shops were a few ambling strides away from my flat. Or, just before that, my Mum.
Having been on my own for three years now (terrifyingly, that’s the longest I’ve been without a partner since 1966) I have learned many things as a lone hunter freed from the demands of provisioning a deux. And the main lesson for others either on their own or empty-nesting with a Ms is don’t go to mainstream supermarkets. Find the crappiest looking épicerie or Lidl or independent retailer in the area, and shop there because:
- They don’t do impulse purchases: the ambience is crappy, so nothing is tempting.
- Most of them have everything you’d need, and something supermarkets won’t have (like cured Schwarzwald ham or clothes pegs).
- Their fresh produce is at least 20% cheaper than that preservative-ridden stuff the Big Boys are knocking out.
- The cheeses are local and taste like cheese rather than gruyère-flavoured Sellotape.
- Ethnic independents in particular have high quality unusual stuff to die for.
- You’re putting the commune back into community.
- The independents are putting the entrepreneurial back into capitalism.
As you walk down your local High Street now, try to remember this: all those charity shops, boarded up places and financial service outlets used to be fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers, hardware stores and greasy spoon cafés (‘caffs’)….way back when nobody was very rich – but everyone could afford to shop there and thus didn’t need charity shops. Don’t write me off as a grumpy old starry-eyed git: slot me in the ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone pigeon hole’. It fits me to a tee. And don’t label me a poncey bourgeois with time on his hands: I’m a busy bloke existing on €23,000 a year fixed income before taxes.
The beauty of community is that the suppliers know you and each other. When you are in trouble, they will help rather than say “Have a nice dayeeenow”. The pharmacist will recognise you as a local – not a druggie trying to scam the Health Service. The bar owner will still serve you with beer and say “drop in later with the balance” if you forgot your wallet and are a few cents short.
I’ve just bought a very expensive printer, and installed satellite internet. Both came from large multinationals, but both were supplied by independent shops offering personal back-up. The Epson printer decided (the way they do) that it doesn’t want to print app-related stuff; the retailer spent 20 minutes with me this morning taking me line by line through the process of debugging it, whereas the Epson call centre I tried yesterday put the phone down on me. This morning, the TV I also get with satellite web access wouldn’t talk to the digibox. The local supplier gave me the step by step solution patiently – it took under three minutes.
The problem with the word ‘communitarian’ is that it is very easy for neoliberal gargoyles to put one down with the standard clichés about sandals, tree-hugging, trestle pigtails, brown rice, peace camps and fart-recycling. But there is nothing fluffy-hippy-bonghead about communitarian capitalism: its mutualism is good for social stability, its self-perpetuating equality is economically sound, its citizen support reduces mental illness, and its insistence on an entrepreurial capital loan emphasis is a far better driver of innovation and wealth creation than either Big State socialism or globalist monopolism.
Most important of all, communitarian capitalism – marrying cooperation with competition – obeys the dictates of our species via social anthropology. It isn’t settled science (there’s no such thing) but at least it isn’t the bad science of financialised capitalism wherein there is no hierarchy of value whatsoever. Even in its ancient barter form, communitarianism offered recognisable relativities of ‘price’: it was in fact the ultimate free market in which foodstuffs and comestibles found a natural value level. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the signature on paper of a derivative certificate versus twenty metres of copper can rival that?
I have no desire to put the recent past of genie economic escapism back into the bottle: apart from anything else, the bollocks wouldn’t pass through the neck. But I do very sincerely believe that nimble, creative small will always – on a level competitive paying field – win over dull Bigger-Wigger process. Remember the old nonsense poem of yesteryear:
The bigger-wiggers lived upon a mountain top/ they ran about all day/ because they could not stop
The problem for us, the real citizens, is not that we are fluffies: the problem is that the Blue Meanies will not give us a level playing field.