As someone who would choose shopping as her special subject on Mastermind, there's not much I don't know about at the cutting edge of retail. From Prada to Post-its, I know where to shop and what to pay. But yesterday even I was astonished. Read this slowly and marvel.
At Woolworths in Gisborne, a small cattle and farming town on the eastern cape of New Zealand's North Island, I purchased sun-dried tomatoes, olive and rosemary focaccia bread, and locally made Camembert. Have you picked yourselves up off the floor? I'm not even going to bore you with the 25 varieties of Chardonnay (after all this is a wine-growing region), the organic eggs or the 10 kinds of honey. Plus the fact that the check-out lady actually packed my bags. Woolworths in New Zealand is a supermarket, and it has zero in common with Woolworths as we sad Brits know it.
The slow decline of the UK version of Woolworths seems to sum up what is so wrong with our high streets today. You can be in Bath or Bicester and what do you find? Featureless branches of the same chains selling the same stuff, from Boots to Next to Woolworths to Iceland to Monsoon to Marks & Spencer. Britain has been blended into a retail mush, where nothing is too startling, too original, too local or too innovative. Shoppers are fed a diet of predigested taste with all quirkiness ironed out by central control. It's not surprising that farmers' markets are springing up and craft fairs abound (no matter how ghastly those knits and tea cosies are, they find a home). It's the fightback of the individual.
Once Woolworths was a high street institution, a place where you could buy everything from lightbulbs to knickers to cheap make-up. Now it's a desperate rudderless enterprise majoring on pick'n'mix, pop CDs, the odd bargain wok and plastic food containers. I don't know how they fill up their shelves as the range of merchandise seems so perverse and small. Most of the staff are gum-chewing teenagers oblivious to the fact that they are toiling in a pallid watered-down version of what was once a great shopping experience.
My life-long love of retail was born back in the 1960s when I landed my first job, as a Woolworths assistant, working Friday evenings and Saturdays at the Shepherd's Bush branch (now demolished of course) in west London. Even then, I was six feet tall, a stick-like creature with attitude, favouring self-made Mod garb and ludicrously clompy shoes. I was not a classical example of the kind of servile material that makes a helpful shop assistant.
But as it turned out, attitude was the least of my worries. In order to get the job, with its much-needed pay packet, I had to pass a Woolworths intelligence test. I was taking 10 O-levels, including maths, but that counted for nought in the world of Woolies. Could I work out the total price of 10 light bulbs at two shillings and sixpence each, three pens at three and three apiece, a writing pad at one and eleven, and give the correct change from £5? (For all readers under 30 – this was in those dark days before calculators and computerised tills.)
Luckily, I passed the entrance exam and was issued with an overall, with a tightly buttoned bodice and a circular skirt that went way past my knees. Dior's New Look translated into pale green nylon. Even today I have nightmares about the scarring effect of wearing that garment for up to eight hours a day. No wonder any teenage boys entering the shop ignored me.
I was allocated to the sock and men's underwear counter, and my instructions were to "look busy" at all times. The "look busy" skill is something that's stood me in good stead ever since, by the way. Here it involved sporadic dusting and spraying glass surfaces with a cleaner, followed by careful rearrangement of the merchandise into neat serried ranks.
Next, I had to learn how to spot a tramp at 10 yards and be prepared to prevent him stealing socks by loitering within two feet, no matter how bad he smelt. At that time, Shepherd's Bush Green was a magnet for dossers, and Woolworths, with its lavish array of socks in every shade of grey, black and navy acrylic, was a magnet few could resist. After a couple of years I was so skilled at looking busy and preventing theft that I progressed to a holiday job as a trainee handbag buyer in an Oxford Street department store.
My final encounter with Shepherd's Bush Woolworths occurred in the late 1970s, when I was making a television film about shopping. I was standing outside my old employers, babbling to the camera about nylon overalls and the like, when an assistant ran out of the shop and claimed to be my half-sister. Sadly this historic moment wasn't captured on film, and when I telephoned my mother later she just laughed. It was only when both my parents died that my real sister and I discovered lots of family secrets. I'll never know now if I have a step-sister who toiled in the same branch of Woolies as I did, but somehow it seems unlikely. In the meantime, I have renewed my love affair with Woolworths of Gisborne, and spent 300 New Zealand dollars (about £90) on food for the beach house I've rented.
My first night in paradise was somewhat ruined by a large crash at 4am. Convinced that a burglar was in the living room, and armed with a fishing rod, we discovered piles of poo all over the furniture. "They're too big for a rat," my partner said helpfully. Eventually we saw a fat possum, the size of a fox, clinging to one of the ceiling supports. In the end it just waddled out through the front door. This morning I sat in a small puddle of possum urine. Sod Woolworths, I'm off to buy a gun.
New Zealand has given us Peter Gordon, the fabulous chef who started the Sugar Club and now co-owns Providores in Marylebone High Street in London, a place that's had great reviews for his "Pacific Rim" or "fusion" cuisine. In his hands this works, but back in his home country his influence can be a mixed blessing. Cooking with the freshest fish and locally grown vegetables, it's hard to go wrong. But the other night I ordered a dozen oysters and they arrived on their shells sitting on a redundant bed of frisée lettuce out of which I plucked several strawberries. It took three chefs to assemble a leaning tower of Pisa constructed from a rack of lamb and mint and pea mash. The whole edifice was studded with baby leeks, and stone cold. Let's leave "fusion" to the master, please.Reuse content