Are middle-of-the-night shoppers mad?

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The Independent Online
THERE SEEMS to be a general belief out there that people who go to the supermarket in the dead of night are strange. "They are all loonies," said a friend knowingly.

But I do not agree. Perhaps this is because I have been known to fill a trolley or two of my own in the wee hours. But it is also because it just makes sense to go the supermarket when all those other people aren't there. You know who I mean. The ones who have screaming children and nagging spouses. The ones who think trolley rage is normal. The ones who wreck the banana bunches without even realising what they are doing.

What a relief, then, to pull up in front of Tesco at Bromley-by-Bow in the East End of London in the middle of the night. I use the term "pull up" loosely, because I actually got there by driving the wrong way up a one-way street. Pure freedom, you see: my car was the only thing on the road so it just did not matter.

I park across various lines in an empty car park and walk into the store. Everyone seems pretty normal - but then at midnight standards drop. It was time to do some research. Just who are the late-night shoppers? Are they really weirdos?

I find two men who do not think it strange that I want to ask them all sorts of personal questions. They say they have been smoking "exotic substances" while watching the football and got the munchies. Terry is clutching a package of cheese rolls, while Derek has eight hot cross buns, three Cornish pasties and a Cellophaned slab of bread pudding.

He also has a birthday card with a cute bear on it. "It's for my daughter. She'll be 14," he says. He has three children but does not live with them. "Exploding nuclear family, you see," he says. I say that I have one of those, too. So, as it turns out, does Terry. He has five children and says that he "half lives" with a woman. My eyebrows go up. "That means we both have our own places and it's lovely." Derek nods. "Yes, I always thought that was the best way."

Terry and Derek are in their late 40s and have known each other for 30 years. They are original East Enders and give me a mini-history lesson of the area, starting with 1944 and the war and ending in 1999 with the all-night Brick Lane bagel shop. They are unemployed, although Terry used to run a mini-cab business and Derek claims to be retraining as an aromatherapist.

I look at this tall man in a black puffer jacket and baseball hat and raise my eyebrows. "No, I'm a Renaissance man! You've probably picked the most complex men in this store," he insists. He then claims that this situation reminds him of a Woody Allen movie and heads for the check- out. He spends pounds 3.27 and Terry hands over pounds 1.50. "Ta da, love," they say.

Indeed. I amble up an aisle and am immediately intrigued at the sight of two large men and one half-filled trolley. They are obviously a couple, haggling over whether to get this loaf or that. One has dyed blond hair and four gold earrings. The other has dark cropped hair, a leather jacket and a calculator. It turns out this is their weekly shop. They like shopping at night because they can't stand all those other people. I commiserate about this. The one with the calculator is named Jaz. He used to be a bouncer but is between doors at the moment. Ian is registered disabled with osteoarthritis. Jaz says he adopted the calculator to keep Ian in check. He wants to stay within pounds 100.

There is something wonderfully voyeuristic about going on a weekly shop with two near strangers. I am shocked when Jaz picks up four pounds of sugar. "In one week!" I say. Ian gets an entire case of tinned tomatoes and says that, at 9p a tin, that's a bargain. He does the cooking, although Jaz says he sets a lovely table.

They buy loads of dog food for their bull mastiff and have a long pause at the body spray counter. The end result is that they spend pounds 138.20 and Ian says that it's only because I'm there that Jaz has not started complaining.

I decide I need to pick up a few things myself and wander over to smoked meats, where I find Melissa. She is extremely pretty with long, straight blond hair and a Barbie-type face. She says she normally comes shopping with her flatmate and they spend pounds 160. They buy a lot of make-up, videos and CDs. This week she's by herself, so she'll spend less. Melissa and her flatmate are table dancers and the reason she's alone is that her flatmate has to dance until 2am, while she left at midnight.

Melissa is 23 and originally from the West Country. She is very direct and uses my name in almost every sentence. I ask whether she wants to go to university. "I've done that, Ann," she says, selecting an upmarket frozen meal. "Studied to be an accountant. Gave it up."

I ask her how much she earns. She gives me a sharp look and says that such things are never discussed. It emerges that some girls earn pounds 400 a week, while others can earn pounds 2,000. This shuts me up.

But not for long. There is obviously something about being in a near empty supermarket at 2am that makes you want to talk. Suddenly I start to muse.

I say to Melissa that people might think her life is glamorous. Certainly people seem to believe that journalism is glamorous and yet, if that was the case, why was I trailing round a supermarket at 2am pestering her?

"Yes, Ann, why is that?" she says. "Why aren't you interviewing some movie star in a Hollywood hotel room?" I say that, given that choice, I'd probably pick the supermarket anyway and that I want to find out whether people who shop in the middle of the night are strange. "But why don't you just make it up, Ann? What's stopping you?" she asks, rootling in the chilled foods cabinet for a pre-packaged tuna salad.

I tell her about the people I've talked to and say they seemed pretty normal. "Oh right, a gay couple and a stripper. Yes, very normal," she says. "Look, I'll tell you where the strange people are, Ann. They are all in the table dancing joints. They aren't in Tesco! If you want strange, you are in the wrong place, Ann."

And with that she selected a largish package of mange tout and placed it in her trolley with something of a flourish.

Ian Jack is away.