Radio: How supermarkets took over the world

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam