Friday 25 June 2010

The Circumnavigation of the Modern Super Market

It is a curious thing, but this whole business reminded me of that lively evening back in Africa when I had to tiptoe across a sandbar littered with crocodiles. Big fellows they were, too. Of course, I did not have my revolver with me that time, and in any event this was only a visit to the premises of J. Sainsbury esq, albeit my first.

Naturally, you will be wondering what possessed a gentleman to patronize such an impersonal and unsuitable establishment but I can assure you that I was compelled to do so by a bizarre series of events that concluded with my entire domestic staff rendered unconscious. Before my man Hodges fainted dead away, he confessed in a faltering voice that we no longer kept an account with the village grocer and that the only hope of securing provisions lay in what he referred to as a “super market”.

Under normal circumstances, I would have never have entertained the idea of “shopping” – ghastly word – certainly not with so many perfectly edible animals roaming the estate. However, I remembered that the Wilberforce-Smythes intended to call that same evening and fancied that little Jenny might turn her nose up at Shetland pony sandwiches.

Clearly, there was nothing for it but to mount an expedition. Immediately, I was faced with my first problem – what was appropriate attire for such an excursion? I consulted “Haverstock’s Compendium of Sartorial Elegance for All Occasions” but drew a blank. The closest approximation was “Correct attire for touring unfamiliar areas of the Continent” but, as it turned out, the recommended tweeds and walking boots proved quite suitable for the job.

I elected to take the larger Jaguar, which started at the first attempt, and roared down through the village. My next challenge was to establish the whereabouts of Mr. Sainsbury’s place of business, but my luck was in as I fortuitously knocked Jones the postman off his bike while negotiating one of the blind corners on the Underminster Road. After assuring the poor fellow that he had not damaged my motor car, I quizzed him for directions to the “super market” Hodges had alluded to. Gamely struggling to his feet, Jones indicated the most direct route and, once we had staunched his bleeding, I bade him farewell and was away once more.

At first, I thought I must be mistaken. As a gentleman, one is unprepared for the immense nature of these so-called “retail parks”. Fearing that Jones’ directions were confused by his injuries, I was on the point of driving away when I noticed the fellow Sainsbury’s name, written large and rather tactlessly, across the front of a soul-less grey building. Judging by the size of the place, this chap had obviously done well for himself, but the plethora of gaudy orange signs were in extremely poor taste, the tell-tale mark of first generation money.

Driving past the tiresome ranks of modern vehicles, I swept into a large, convenient area outside the main doors and parked without incident. Noticing many people of indeterminate class milling around, I thought it wiser to remove the keys from the ignition and even took the precaution of instructing a loitering market worker to keep undesirables away from the Jaguar.

Passing within, I thought I had strayed into the warehouse and spent several minutes searching for the shopkeeper’s counter before I realized that the whole place seemed to operate on some wretched self-service basis. Finding this intolerable, I resolved not to lower myself to the level of the other miserable patrons. Quickly locating the nearest member of staff, a discourteous youth sporting an unsightly clip-on tie and third-degree acne, I asserted my authority and instructed him to appropriate the items I desired. Seemingly baffled by my orders, it took him several moments to get the gist, but a couple of swift whacks from my walking stick finally stirred him into action.

At this point I must confess that my inquisitive nature got the better of me and I followed my reluctant aide into the garish aisles.

Never have I seen so much luridly coloured cardboard in one place. Utilitarian shelves arranged without the slightest respect for the values of taste and style, piled high with gaudy packages… vulgar signs shrieking their gibberish with no thought for punctuation or grammar, and everywhere stained by the unholy glow of fluorescent tube lighting. My assistant seemed untroubled by this riot of bad taste, but I saw that he was a simple soul, clearly content to push his little wheeled basket around the labyrinth that was his workplace.

I instructed the poor devil to seek me out when his task was completed and, taking an apple from a huge pile, set out on my own to explore.

I had been walking for some time when I finally came upon something that I recognized. There before me, stood a fishmonger’s counter. I made my way to the front and cleared my throat to get the apron-clad youth’s attention. Sadly, the unfortunate fellow had some sort of hearing problem and I had to rap him on the shoulder several times with my stick before he turned to me. At this point, quite inexplicably, several nearby hoi-polloi started speaking in their charming regional accents, waving small scraps of paper that appeared to be raffle tickets. I was quite patient with them but eventually had to shoo them away with a large trout as this was, after all, a fish counter and not a tom bola.

Using my stick to instruct the deaf lad, I indicated that I wished to sample some of his smoked salmon. He went through some unnecessary rigmarole involving a bag and a label before handing it to me but, after trying a few mouthfuls I concluded that it wasn’t up to much and handed it back to him. The poor fellow was obviously quite shaken to discover that his wares were below par as he started babbling about something or other, but I sympathetically told him to buck up and we’d say no more about it.

By now, I had grown weary of the not-so-super market experience and elected to wait in my motor car where, I was sure, my youth and his basket of provisions would have the sense to seek me out. Retracing my steps, I picked up a newspaper and another apple and made my way through the doors towards my vehicle.

At this point, my story took a turn that I still do not fully understand. A youth in a dark jumper and an ill-fitting peaked cap accosted me, droning on about unpaid goods or some such nonsense – his mastery of the Queen’s English was tenuous to say the least – and invited me to accompany him “into the store”. I did not like the look of him and declined, politely but firmly, to visit his store room or any other of his haunts. The poor fellow nearly lost his front teeth when he impudently laid a hand on me but, not wishing to cause a scene in the presence of ladies, I merely gave him a harmless right to the stomach and left him quietly propped up against the base of a large fountain near the entrance.

I returned to the Jaguar, dismissed the man I had engaged to guard it, and enjoyed a pipe while I read the Times obituaries. In no time at all, the clip-on tie was at my window and I gave him permission to place my provisions in the back seat. I tipped the poor creature more generously than he deserved, especially as I had to roar “On account!” at him several times before he stopped bleating on about the bill. I later discovered that most of the dozen eggs he had given me turned out to be broken, probably due to the inexplicable bumps on all the roads leading in and out of the place. Confounded things give you quite a jolt – I very nearly had to slow down.

That evening, I recounted my adventures to the Wilberforce-Smythes and we all had a jolly good laugh at the peculiar people who inhabit such strange places as these super markets. Before retiring for the evening, I left instructions for my man Hodges that our account with the village grocer was to be reopened at his earliest convenience, as I have no intention of returning to Mr. Sainsbury’s establishment.

In summary, I would advise against even one visit to such a place. While the experience is undeniably new, it is not pleasant, and gentlemen of taste would be better served by a good safari or a trip to the Himalayas. However, if exceptional circumstances force your hand, I would counsel you to adopt the same approach as you would in any other uncivilised place: accept no backchat from the natives and carry a sidearm at all times. Good luck to you all.

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