The Joys Of Modern Life

45. 24-Hour Supermarkets
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The Independent Culture
IN HIS 1978 essay The Colonisation of Time, the sociologist Murray Melbin contended that "the spreading of wakeful activity throughout the 24 hours of the day" constituted "the last great frontier of human immigration". Increasingly, even our shopping habits support Melbin's rather grandly expressed theory. With the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury now offering a 24-hour service at certain inner-city stores, we can procure a jar of pesto in the still of the night if we so wish.

If your lifestyle and occupation lend themselves to unsociable hours, 24-hour shopping is a boon. At 3am on a weekday, my local Tesco offers its nocturnal customers an experience that is antithetical to the checkout jams and trolley rage of peak-time shopping. The aisles are so uncluttered that you might be a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. There are no wailing kids blackmailing their mothers for Coco Pops, and as you leave, heavy- laden, nobody will shake a collecting tin in your face. Sadly, the alcohol aisle is cordoned off and the delicatessen and fish counters close at 10pm, but the chance to shop in a stress-free environment more than compensates.

Shopping in the wee small hours can be a meditative experience. With only sleepy shelf-packers and fellow night owls for company, the pace slows, and the atmosphere becomes conducive to the perusal of previously un-enjoyed lines.

Better still, you can indulge the fantasy that you are The Omega Man, stocking up on Cuppa-Soup in the face of human extinction. Oddly, the with croutons/without croutons dilemma still seems to matter.

Things are equally civilised at the checkouts. Nobody's breathing down your neck for that all-important "next-customer please" partition. No need to pack your provisions quickly. The till operators will even strike up conversation. The woman at my local Tesco the other night even congratulated me on an inspired choice of biscuits.

What kind of people shop in the dead of night? A recent newspaper story described a woman with an autistic son for whom 24-hour opening really is a godsend. Apparently her son keeps very late hours, and at 4am her local Tesco is one of the few places they can go to de-stress.

Finally, a word of warning. If it's really late, you can enter what I call the "somnambulant zone", and the judicious shopper in you disappears. There's no real danger, but the propensity to return home with a selection of provisions that even the chefs on Can't Cook, Won't Cook would struggle to improvise with increases tenfold. Have a coffee before setting out, and remember to take a shopping list.