Saturday 16 February 2008

A nation of would-be butchers

14st 7lb; 3.0 units of alcohol, or maybe a bit more as I don’t know how many units of alcohol there are in each small bottle of Foreign Guinness (the authorities in Nigeria seem to have more pressing things on their minds than drinks labelling); 1,448; Finisterre.

We were dismissed as “a nation of shopkeepers” by Napoleon (quoting the original Sage of Kirkcaldy, Adam Smith) and it is a fact that many of our most successful companies are indeed retailers. Which is odd, really, when you consider how little natural aptitude most of us appear to have for the essential arts of shopkeeping: a willingness to be open when it suits the customer, for example, or to pretend that you are interested in what he or she wants and how to find it. In principle, I am a great supporter of local shops, and felt terribly guilty on Wednesday when a cynical calculation about range, price and convenience of parking led me to go to the spanking new Homebase on the outskirts of Alnwick to buy some replacement secateurs and loppers, rather than one of the established hardware shops in town.

Yesterday I tried to make amends when I went looking for a new ash pan and grate for the fire in my study. I wandered around both packed floors of the fine old hardware shop, looking intently, before seeking help from the man in the coat standing at the desk by the front door. He sucked through his teeth as though I’d asked for his professional opinion of a car repair or wiring job, and said what a pity it was that I didn’t want a Firemaster rather than a Baxi. He didn’t think they had any of those. But, in the unlikely event that they did, they’d be on a stand at the back of the shop. “You can’t miss it,” he concluded.

I resisted the temptation to point out that I evidently had just missed it, and that a bit of service would be quite welcome at this point. And, indeed, with the aid of his clue I found that they actually had exactly what I wanted. So I suppose it worked out all right at the end. Similarly at the delicatessen, where I eventually came away with the cheese I wanted and a pack of expensive chocolates I had had no intention of buying. Though the first interaction I had with the staff was a request to move as I was making the place a bit untidy standing at the counter, and the second, some time later, was a rather surprised enquiry from the proprietor as to whether I wanted something. It’s hard to resist sarcasm in the circumstances. “Well, you see, I made the stupid mistake of thinking that this was a shop, and what usually happens in shops is that people come in and stand in front of the counter looking hopeful, and then someone comes and serves them. Ever encountered that concept before?” He didn’t appreciate my joke about the incredible price of the Duchy Original confectionery, either. Perhaps he’s a republican or a Diana fan.

They were pretty miserable in my excellent local farm shop, too, but then they had all just been fired after umpteen years of loyal service so I suppose they had some sort of excuse. I don’t ever receiving so little in the way of thanks for spending over £100.

Still, at least they were cheerful and helpful in the butcher’s. Leading me to wonder whether the key fact about the English approach to shopkeeping is that we all loathe each other. I don’t suppose the butcher is any different from the rest of them, but at least he’s been able to work out his feelings on a carcase, using a cleaver and a bloody great knife. Whereas the hardware man and the delicatessen owner are full to the back teeth with bottled up anger, just wishing that they could lay their hands on something cold and sharp to do precisely the same sort of thing to us.

The butcher also sold me a truly excellent pie, a re-creation of one from Alnwick’s legendary past. It didn’t do much for my diet but, by God, it was worth it. And perhaps it too, in its compact yet highly calorific way, was intended as a small act of revenge upon society.

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