What have they done?

Rookwood, Going Postal
“Sainsbury’s – ‘Making life taste bitter'” by Dominic’s pics is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I generally hate supermarkets. Memories of being dragged by my neurotic mother, quite probably screaming, around the shops as a dysfunctional, short-sighted and asthmatic child probably doesn’t help much. While most people focus on the glitz, the colourful baubles of mass consumerism, the fancy packaging, I mither over the soulless atmosphere, harsh lighting and dense crowds of rude people determined to grab that last bargain or ensure they are first in line at the checkout. I laugh at the ironic and circular evolution of the cut-price supermarket, once bare and decidedly functional – does anyone remember Fine Fair and Safeway? Once palaces of luxury and excess during the superstore era of the Eighties, chains are returning to first principles now that austerity, debt and competition has dented, if not smashed, the cartel of greed and excess consumption. I should know, once turning up at the checkout as a young lad with a trolley full of groceries, I will never forget the humiliation I felt when I didn’t have enough cash to pay for everything and had to put the items back. I now religiously add up the price of everything in my head as I go along. Combine these experiences with the relentless pressure to “Buy, buy, buy” and shopping rapidly becomes a chore, especially if one is minding the pennies.

Since becoming a homeowner many moons ago, my attitude changed towards shopping, just a little bit. Living in London at the time, I was spoiled with a wide variety of “Ethnic” supermarkets, and coupled with my love of cooking and pretty much preparing everything from scratch, I found these shops a treasure trove of spices, herbs and new ideas. Not only that, but I found quite frequently I could save a bob or two buying in bulk, especially when it came to oil and rice etc. The nasty, raw consumer edge was taken off the experience, and I actually started to enjoy shopping for quality, discovering new ingredients and broadening my culinary horizons. The chats I had with various proprietors bore much fruit as I learned not only about food, but foreign culture, the good, bad and indeed the ugly. Then marriage and offspring arrived, and shopping slid back into drudgery and an essential chore. While our diet avoided processed food on the whole, the opportunity for “Experimental” cooking (as our daughter calls it) diminished. Mince beef, chicken and stewing beef were regulars on the shopping list and exotic spices were reserved for the occasional Friday or Saturday night special treat. Naturally, the boat was rolled out when friends or relatives came to visit, but these special meals were limited to weekends due to shift patterns and pressure of work. Many a night saw Mr or Mrs R come home very late, for evenings and weekends were not sacred territory in the IT industry. You were effectively on call 24/7, although your contract stated a 40 hour week. Many employers were very reasonable in these circumstances, and looked after their staff with a decent bonus and extra rewards. Some, not so much. After we moved out of London (Better quality of life and we wanted a safer environment for our daughter), we discovered that the choice of produce was quite limited outside of the larger conurbations. It seems that those living in the boondocks have very basic needs, and such luxuries as garlic granules, cous-cous or fresh herbs were often hard to find, apart from in the larger supermarket branches in towns and city. The local speciality supermarkets (Such as the Co-Op, Booths and Waitrose) indeed stocked such items, but at a mark-up that would make Dick Turpin blush. A while back when some friends turned up unexpectedly for dinner, we had to make a mad dash to get the ingredients for a 2 course pasta based supper, plus some wine. I remember my abject horror at the final bill at the checkout, it was around £60 as I recall, and we hadn’t gone for caviar and fillet steak either. This cemented my rigorous food budgeting plan, Aldi or Lidl for the majority, plus the occasional raid on one of the bigger supermarkets for the speciality ingredients that a picky home chef like Monsieur Rookwood requires. Apart from the immense joy I received from cooking for family and friends, my tour of the supermarket, reading labels, finding the best bargains and discovering new ingredients, is one of the simple but relatively inexpensive pleasures in life for me. Good food, good company and a decent bottle of red and I’m a happy man. I need no Ferrari, silken dressing gown or cigar, although a decent espresso accompanied with some Grappa and a roll-up is not a bad substitute. One day I will get around to treating myself to another packet of Turkish cigarettes or some Gauloises.

So my recent trip out to a large London branch of Tesco (my first in many months), was faced with a degree of trepidation in this new age of social distancing. Regular readers will know how much contempt I hold for such a dangerous policy, especially when forced upon young children. While thankfully I was not challenged at Tesco for not wearing a dehumanisation dongle, I still felt a bit out of sorts with approximately 70% of people conforming to a very Eastern principle. In such heavily centralised societies, when the Government says “Jump” the reaction of the majority of the population is “How high”. Over here, we are losing our precious, hard won freedoms by the day, and nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated in the atmosphere between Tesco and a moderately large Sainsbury a few miles further down the road. Whereas Tesco could be considered your average supermarket, both by demographic and sector target, Sainsbury’s has always considered itself a cut above the rest. Nestling in a market niche between Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose, you can be guaranteed that a number of factors will come into play apart from a wider selection of more specialist foodstuffs and a premium price. There is something very English and middle class about the brand, while the onesie and tracksuit may be flouted with pride in Aldi and indeed Tesco, such a dress code is consciously and subconsciously frowned upon here. Like the close relative Waitrose, disapproval is rarely openly voiced but demonstrated in the looks, body language and tone of voice. While some would place the Rookwood household firmly in the middle class, if not “Posh” bracket, our roots are in truth, very working class. This is especially true of my gem of a wife, who has a habit of dropping certain letters of the alphabet on the floor with a ensuing crash. Despite years of elecution lessons from yours truly, certain words are frequently cauterised, castrated and condensed much to my inherent irritation. Mrs R however, makes up for any linguistic shortcomings in character, honest and integrity. I trust her with my life, and a better friend or companion one would be hard pushed to find from anywhere on the social strata. Indeed, we are very much chalk and cheese, which probably accounts for a major reason why our marriage of many years has lasted the test of time. We cover each others blind spots, and compliment each other. Like a tart fruit with a sweet desert, individually we can be a bit much, but together a brand new synergy is formed, greater than the sum of the individual parts. Which is why I am perplexed by why Mrs R is attracted much more to Sainsbury’s than am I. While I really appreciate the variety and quality, the inherent pretentiousness and background spirit of “Hyacinth Bucket” from Keeping Up Appearances, sets my teeth on edge. With the chances of me keeling over mid-shop becoming a more realistic proposal (freezing cold air from an over enthusiastic chiller unit in Asda almost resulted in a 999 call when my lungs shut down in protest), I can think of no other shop than maybe Waitrose or Fortnum and Masons where the actual certified cause of death would be shame. I know this is exactly the same faux middle class value as cleaning up before the daily comes round, but somewhere in my psyche, this tramline is set for posterity. So armed with my exemption lanyard, we ventured forth, a Darby and Joan couple, one sans mask, both a few years short of retirement. Or we would be if the bastards hadn’t retrospectively changed the rules. What would we find inside the hallowed walls of the orange temple dedicated to oral delicacy?

My first observation was the almost complete subservience to the elasticated lip lock. In Tesco, it didn’t take long to discover those who either chose not to wear a muzzle or had inadvertently forgotten theirs. It took a good 5 minutes or so before I discovered a fellow facial freedom fighter, who I witnessed furtively browsing the aisle. Perplexed as to why this individual seemed so coy and insecure, it rapidly became apparent why. Moving deeper into the store, I discovered large partitions had been erected between the checkout tills, making the exit from the store appear in the same light as the guided channel in an abattoir, so that the doomed animals cannot see their fellow creature on the path prior to execution. The floor was adorned with social distancing stickers, mocking our multi-dimensional physical universe, as two people cannot “Safely” pass in an aisle six foot wide. A strict one way route is the only solution, but this had clearly been abandoned due to impracticality and was certainly not promoted. On every shelf and gondola there was a reminder to wear a mask, which was reinforced with pre-recorded audio messages demanding obedience, played over the public address system at regular intervals. The mood was sombre, and the lack of Muzak or even the occasional announcement of a special offer was notable by their absence. The only relief I obtained from this monumental sociological experiment and corresponding guilt-trip was a short message saying that customers should be respectful of those who could not wear a mask for health reasons. Whoopie Do. After spending a fortune trying to get people to conform, here was a token gesture of sanity. Did it make me feel more confident or reassured? Nope. Apart from one young girl from some Eastern block country judging by her accent, shopping in Sainsbury without a mask seems to be a moral and social crime. This was reinforced by a mask embracing woman, certainly no older than thirty, who turned into our aisle to be confronted with a maskless, greying, Rookwood. The look of sheer terror in her eyes was palpable, and before I could say anything, she had turned turtle and scurried off like a frightened crab being pursued by a starving alligator. I doubt if I could have induced the same level of adrenaline if I had been wearing a gimp mask, was simultaneously clutching a long, bloody, entrail encrusted knife, with my hairy reproductive organs left freely dangling in the breeze. I’m no oil painting, but I’m really not that scary. And yes, I had remembered to secure my front flaps that day.

This tells me a number of things. Some organisations are clearly more paranoid than others, and Sainsbury’s are clearly playing it very safe indeed. Mrs R seems to think that I would be challenged if I tried to visit our local Aldi sans mask, and to honest, I’m not going to bother. Unlike a trip to Tesco or Sainsbury, there are very few speciality items to browse there, and if they are going to be so anal about programming their customers, I’m damned if I am going to get stressed out to either tacitly support their policy or spend a few extra pounds. I can memorise exactly what we regularly buy there by aisle, and despite my encouragement, Mrs R is quite comfortable wearing a mask, although she too, sees the complete idiocy of such practices. Maybe it is just the fact that men, rather than women, are more prone to rocking the boat. Or it could be the fact that women are much more bitchy than men, and are unashamed at ensuring the sisterhood stays in line. Either way, I’m ashamed to say the age old philosophy of the stiff upper English lip has been replaced with quivering subservience, if my snapshot of a Middle England Sainsbury is anything to go by. To be honest, I would have thought that Tesco customers would be more compliant, but maybe the shopping demographic has revealed the inherent weakness of those educated to degree level to swallow wholesale the propaganda and social control subtly (and not so subtly), pushed by their favourite brands. If such madness is accepted without question amongst the ABC1 community, the disconnect between the backbone of England, education, integrity, and just “Doing the right thing” has finally been achieved. Those that traditionally carried the banner of moderation, being sensible, or for want of a better analogy, those wearing flat shoes for a long walk, is now over. The number of OAP’s wearing a mask, like the children forced to by their parents, really grated on me. No longer is a trip out to get Tiddles some premium salmon or chicken a joy. It is a journey of fear and trepidation, something no elderly person should have to undergo. While I will always support the right of an individual to wear a mask if they choose either by conscience or rational decision, I cannot condone such actions when driven by fear, guilt or manipulation. For middle England seems to have swallowed a camel while straining at gnats. The collapse of Sainsbury at the feet of the false god of political correctness is inevitable, for as a business they really don’t have much choice in the matter. So another institution rolls over and dies. So congratulations, Sainsbury. Far from making me feel safe, protected and nurtured, you have made me feel like an outcast and destroyed one little joy I had in life. Rather than browsing at my leisure, maybe discovering such delicacies as premium Japanese mayonnaise, I will be constantly looking over my shoulder in case I put the fear of death into a fellow customer. And you expect me to pay for the privilege? Thanks, but no thanks. The high street is dying, and such insanity as this and having to register for a cup of tea and a slice of cake will be the final nail in your coffin. As a business sector you had the weight to lobby government and tell them where to get off. You chose, instead, to capitulate to fear, abandoning the years of knowledge garnered on making shopping a positive experience. You have truly managed that now, for everyone I talk to agrees that shopping is now a positively stressful and unpleasant one. The grey pound, like the pink one, is not to be messed with. By accident or design, reluctantly, my custom is being driven to the online stores.

The following day we returned to Tesco. The young lass in front of us was clearly stressed out, be it due to my masklessness I do not know, but I really hope not. Due to the needless and counter productive social distancing rules, we had to stay a checkout length behind. Which really was a pity for her, as she had left her credit card in the Point of Sale terminal. In normal circumstances, my wife or I could have called out or quickly followed her and returned her card, saving her a lot of trouble. She will now have to either run the gauntlet of trying to get her card back from Tesco (who may just destroy it, if they follow the credit card merchant code to the letter), or getting a new one. Even more needless stress for what exactly? Such straws have been known to break the back of camels. As to British level-headed common sense, I think we can finally lay it to rest in a cold, damp grave, enscribed 2020.

© Rookwood 2020

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file