Friday, 23 January 2009

Somerfields and the local demographic

We moved into the region, into this town, into the very middle of it, during the last recession in the mid-90s, so the house - an old butcher's shop, then various tiny restaurants, and lastly a failing gift shop - was dirt cheap. There are only five streets to speak of in the centre though the town as a whole extends in estates, so, altogether, there are some 12,000 people living here. There are in fact plans to build another 3000 houses in it which would add about 50% to the population, but that's another story.

Our tiny sixteenth-seventeenth-eighteenth century one-way street was then two-way, and buses and trucks went up and down it occasionally scraping against the upper storeys of the various jettied houses. Next to us was a decayed house-security agency manned by one bluff pipe-smoker who saw little business (the house had rats), opposite us one of the only three gunshops left in this farming county, its gentle and kindly owner continually standing over a bunsen burner, filing and polishing. There was a dress shop that would have done Wigan Pier proud in 1940, a bicycle shop, a stationers, a tattooist,and a decent caff making standard comfort-food steak-and-kidney pies and Yorkshire puds, with tables outside on the narrow pavement. One of the attractions of the street was its invitation to sit out on a sunny morning, imagining I was living Norfolk's version of Viennese cafe society, scribbling in a notebook with a fine fedora on my head and a mug of sloppy tea on the table, leafing leisurely through the New York Review of Books and the Wymondham and Attleborough Mercury. Besides, the house was fascinating, with a circle of rooms at top and bottom and a steep narrow winding stairs curling round the central fireplace, the shop with its wide picture window making a good studio for C, and the old kitchen and washing-up area serving as office for me. To top it all there was a direct view of the old Benedictine abbey from the upstairs window.

It was idyll, but run-down idyll, which is the only sane form of idyll in my view. The high street, which was the main through-road cross-country, was about fifty yards up from our front door, and there was a burgeoning crop of charity shops, the usual harbingers of recession. Besides the banks and two chemists, there was in the high street: a florist, a baker, a butcher, a chippie, a jeweller, a hotel, an optician, a tea shop, a betting shop, two shoe shops, two electrics shops, three pubs, a branch of Woolworths and the Somerfields supermarket.

The local population shuffling up and down the street was mostly on the far side of seventy, old boys and old girls who did not live down our street, which had become faintly bohemian, but behind the high street in a vast and extending gerontopolis consisting of sheltered housing and old people's homes. The old women would sit in the tea shop while the old men limped in and out of the betting shop. Kids would gather under the market cross in the centre or practice their bands in the youth club, which soon disappeared.

It was a pretty town, so bohemians, arties, stray university professors, and a few second-homers were attracted to it. When the region organised open studios our small street was, and still is, well provided for.

In other words, the demographic was mostly elderly retired rural working class, a few poorer families living on scraps, bohemians, arties, academics and, in the larger houses, a few toffs including an eccentric reclusive cousin of the Queen Mother, Lady Tetley, who wore a shaggy coat and dragged bags around.

One of our more-prosperous arty neighbours referred to Somerfields as Scummerfields. It's a horrible term and I wouldn't myself use it, but the store certainly was, and remains, basic. The poor went there in the mid-nineties and they shop there now. We go there for milk, bread, and standard fruit and veg. Then we scarper off to Waitrose on the outskirts of town. We ourselves are arties, after all.


Since the mid-nineties we have had the years of boom, including re-paving, re-signing, a clutch of pretty nick-nackery shops run by women with a bit of time on their hands, and the inevitable baskets of hanging flowers. Some of those women might secretly have been novelists or journalists. Mostly they liked buying in stuff that others like themselves would like to buy from them. Now, whatever Gordon Brown says, it is bust time. Nor can he keep saying, as he does, over and over again - as he did on the radio again, again, again, this morning -that it's not bust, certainly not his bust, but global, as if global didn't include, even **star**, the UK. The female novelists and journalists are not sitting at the Viennese steak-and-kidney caff on the corner, nor do they flaunt their Jimmy Choos and Dolce & Gabbana at the check-out in Somerfields. I still, regrettably, fail to engage in book-chat with them in the cereals and household items aisle. Instead there are the aged, the lame, the obese, the chain-smoking, the slightly-off-their-heads, harassed, fast-food-and-lottery-ticket-buying poor.*

Maybe I should try Attleborough instead.


*Note carried over from post below but appropriate to this: As Dubois rightly points out in the Comments, the Cross Keys is now closed and boarded up. Then there were two pubs.


Poet in Residence said...

A lovel piece, George. Beautiful writing. Chapeau!
Early warning sign: The global UK crunch has sent me and my ever dwindling index-linked but pound-tied pension scurrying back to EU's Hofer for the weekly shop (or Aldi as it's known in the UK). At this rate I'll be shopping in Pennymarkt before I know it.

Dubois said...

You will need to brush up your Polish, Lithuanian and Essex to shop in Attleborough. A different world yet only up the road. You forgot to mention the Cross Keys is boarded up and no where for the boys to go and talk football and cars anymore. Gordon likes to keep saying global, I noticed it too last night; it makes him feel better.

Billy C said...

Bravo, George. I enjoyed that. You should take up writing.

Oi, PIR, I shop regularly in Pennymarket. Get used to it! Mr Brown will bring all you arties down to my level soon. And then I'll be King of the Pennymarketeers. We get a different breed of Greywolves in Pennymarket. Mostly old men discussing porn while admiring Nora Batty clones. From behind the tins of baked beans of course. :)

May said...

I found this post interesting and well written. I am anticipating coming back later and reading it again, at a slower pace.

Dubois said...

I always enjoyed the narrow streets looking in the bedroom windows from the upper deck of the bus but it was never more than unmade beds that I saw.

Billy C. said...

Just to clarify matters in my previous post. It should have read...

"Mostly old men discussing Health and Efficiency while admiring Nora Batty clones.

How on earth did I make that error? :)

Poet in Residence said...

Billy C,
thanks for the timely warning about the Nora Batty clones and the Greywolves in the Pennymarket shops.
The Cross Keys will probably open as a Pizza takeaway. A boy with a ring through his bottom lip and acne on a clapped out red moped will bring your el tonno and corn niblet otherwise known as a tuna paradiso direct to your front door.
Meanwhile at Pennymarket, if you heed Billy C's warning you can get your out of date but still taste ok, if you don't mind the metallic tang of chinese aluminium, tinnies for half price.

mikeovswinton said...

George, you'll be pleased to know that if the takeover goes through your Somerfields will be becoming a branch of the Co-op fairly soon. See what your "arty" neighbours say then. Perhaps you might like to join the Co-op and get involved?

George S said...

Very happy for the Co-op to take over. I've heard stories about the takeover too. We used to shop there in London when I was a kid.

Poet in Residence said...

Co-op? I still remember mum's original co-op number. Next to the Co-op was an Aladdin paraffin shop, and then a paper shop and a pub with an off-sales door., also nearby a betting-shop, and a church with a strange smell, not wax polish or holy smoke, but something sinister that I've never really been able to place. All a bit like George's nightmare village.