Purchasing basic goods at local shops was once a bovine, introspective affair, which also provided opportunities to socialise, for oddballs so inclined. It has now become a treacherous web of bizarre arms-length interactions, conducted according to government rules whose meaning no one seems to quite agree on. A century ago, Whitechapel grocer Jack Cohen revolutionised food buying in London. From the austere 1920s, people poured freely into his Tesco stores. He’d be amazed by what goes on in them just now.
I write here not of giant superstores, but that “village London” fixture, the neighbourhood Tesco Express. After the interminable and still weird distance-conscious queuing – this is, of course, before even entering the shop itself – customers are ushered in one by one by a familiar, forlorn shelf-stacker whose financial reward for placing him or herself in the way of potentially lethal customer exhalations for hours a day, every day since at least the middle of March and for Lord knows how many months to come, would barely pay the rent on a shared garden shed in Harold Hill. You pass them holding your breath. The intention is to lessen their chances of infection, but they might think you’re implying that they smell.
Inside, the bland have become tactical mazes made deadly by undetectable disease and uncertain social mores. You turn a corner primed to sharply pivot and retreat should you find a fellow consumer coming towards too. Homing in on particular items – let’s say a tin of pineapple cubes, but readers may insert a product of their own choice – can become an undeclared game of tag meets hide-and-seek, as you stand well back from the person perusing cans of Ambrosia. What next?
You might make a small performance of your public health-minded politeness, hoping they recognise their own obligation to move away once their deliberations have ceased. You might hide round the corner and spy, ready to move fast into the human-free space freshly vacated or to dash down a parallel corridor of shelves and approach your target from the opposite end. And all the time there is that dread of bumping into some chatterbox of your acquaintance, perhaps wearing a mask like muzzled terrier, eager to chirp inanities about David Icke or Priti Patel straight in your face. Such are the perils of plague retail.
The route to the check-out places you on firmer ground, thanks to those strips of hazard tape stuck to the floor. Yet as you draw nearer the tills, disorientation mounts and multiplies. Staff ring up your purchases from behind perspex screens and layers of PPE as if performing major surgery back there. You half expect to be handed someone’s appendix with your change.
You feel for these valiant Tesco personnel, so suddenly elevated from lowly sales assistants to votal “frontline” warriors, and it seems wrong to increase their burdens with even small requests, such as reaching down a pack of double-A batteries, or by asking where are all the Easter eggs have gone. And it’s all a bit exhausting – a challenge, an endurance test, an ordeal. This is not the usual way of “village London”, and neither is it what Jack Cohen had in mind.
John Vane writes word sketches of London and sometimes makes things up. Follow him on Twitter.
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