Radio: How supermarkets took over the world

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The Independent Culture
The first supermarket ever, in all the world, was in Memphis - that's Tennessee, not Egypt, silly. They haven't been going that long. It was called The Piggly-Wiggly Stores and it was designed like a maze so that you couldn't get out until you'd seen everything. It started trading just after the end of the First World War and it's still there, though it's a museum now (and probably haunted by Elvis).

The first in England, however, opened in Southsea 50 years ago. That's enough to set the alarm bells ringing. Somebody somewhere must be making a fortune out of alerting radio producers to these milestones, because anything at all that reaches 50 wins a rose-tinted radio retrospective. Even supermarkets.

There's usually a jokey title and this was no exception. Laughing in the Aisles (R2), with its implications of enough raucous hilarity to tip you from your seat, was a mite deceptive. True, Caroline Quentin was employed to read the script, but even she couldn't put much zest into lines like "the new way of shopping was an unstoppable trolley", or "plastic utensils and bowls made life so much more exciting." In fact, I'm not sure that it was she who read that one: it might have been someone referred to as Mr Supermarket, but he was such an anorak that concentration wandered to the special offers. His own was an instant dump-end display of the ingredients for Jimmy Young's recipe of the day. Wow.

There aren't many old pop-songs about shopping, so the soundtrack was the kind of vintage newsreel that sounds like a sergeant-major shouting through a megaphone into a high wind some distance away during a Morris- dancing display. And then suddenly, galloping from the mist, came Mr Crisp. He is a fourth-generation retailer in Saxmundham who challenged Tesco to single combat and won. Mr Crisp knew that if the mighty chain had erected its planned shopping village outside town, the centre of Saxmundham would move from High Street to bypass. He mobilised support, the bully was defeated and Saxmundham survives.

It's an important victory, but it's not the end of the war. Skirmishes continue and the new lure devised by these cunning giants is the Singles' Night. Lord, what a demanding notion: to ensnare your man you'd have to fill your trolley with oysters, Haagen-Dazs and Armagnac - and then creep back on a Housewives' Afternoon to stock up on frozen chips and loo-rolls.

Picture this: you and one other are manning a remote lighthouse and the other dies. What do you do? Well, you call for help and secure the body - after all, if you ditched it, you could be accused of murder. But suppose your relief is delayed by bad weather? For more than a month? Ah well then, whatever hair you have turns white overnight as your sanity departs with the tide ...

Such chilling tales are slipping into history. Automation has overtaken all but one of our coastal beacons and next month North Foreland, where there's been a lighthouse since 1499, will be empty too (you'd think they could have held on another couple of months and hit the half-millennium). The loneliness of the Last Lighthouse-Keeper (R4) was a genuinely moving tribute to centuries of service in the country's most isolated and storm- tossed residences.

These men are a special sort: they positively relish the isolation, the sense you get, say, on Wolf Rock - where the sea breaks over the tower as a solid wall of water - of being inside a submarine. They are tough, of course, but adaptable: when not trimming their wicks or rescuing the foolhardy, they fill their time with cross-stitch, embroidery, reading and baking as well as fishing, and putting ships in bottles.

There were many good stories, including one about fishing for lobsters off Longstone. Apparently, one day a boat bobbed into view, full of tourists wanting to buy them. On being shown a crawling box-full, one of them exclaimed "Look Mary, they're alive!" "Ah yes," said Mary suspiciously, "but are they fresh?" It seemed a pity that so solitary and heroic a life is to be terminated. The lighthouse-keepers' sadness, as all this rich variety of human endeavour and resourcefulness is brought ashore, to be replaced by a computer in Harwich, was almost akin to bereavement.

Now to blemishes. Spots in History (R4) was a daily, er, spot, presented by Helen Weinstein and produced by Matt Thompson, a reliably quirky team. Sure enough, they found an unusual American professor, who expounded the old theory that looking at freaks ensured that you'd give birth to one. This could be turned to advantage. For one thing, if a pregnant woman were beset by a particular craving, she'd better be given it pronto, lest her child be disfigured by the image of her craving: this, apparently, explains strawberry-marks (though I've never seen anyone with an avocado mark). The other useful trick was a way of disguising adultery: while en flagrante, picture your spouse and the child will resemble husband, not lover. The Professor herself plans to have a child by donor-insemination.

As the week continued, we heard another historian, fascinated and appalled, examining the "ghastly sickle with a stiletto at the end" that might have been used to remove a fistula from the posterior of Louis XIV. This operation, performed of course without the benefit of anaesthetic, must have been horribly painful, but you had to feel more sympathy for the fistula-free vagrants rounded up to provide practice for the surgeon.

I'd vaguely hoped to learn of medieval remedies for acne, but it was not to be: Thompson and Weinstein preferred to draw a bizarre comparison between St Francis of Assisi's stigmata and contemporary body-piercings. I also caught the end of a piece about the embarrassment of developing freckles in ancient Egypt (Memphis, probably). This expert threw in a challenge to balding men to try the Egyptian cure: strap a live lizard to your pate. Roll up, gents.