Editor-At-Large: Let me put the wonder back into Woolies

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The Independent Online

My first job was in Woolworths, Shepherd's Bush, west London. In spite of studying for loads of exams at school, I had to sit through a formal interview and pass the in-house intelligence test before I could sign on as a Saturday girl. My best piece of advice from a fellow worker: look busy at all times, especially when the supervisor walks in your direction.

I had hoped to spend time on the pick'n'mix or make-up counters (and do some sampling in the process), but unfortunately I was given ties, underpants and socks. Positioned behind an array of man-made patterned hosiery, my task was to watch out for tramps who wandered in from the Green outside, where they spent their days swigging cans of beer and reading discarded newspapers. The smart ones generally managed to nick stuff on a regular basis, but I turned a blind eye. That year I spent in Woolies is etched so strongly in my mind: the horrible pale green nylon overall, with its unflattering, long circular skirt (no chance of pulling any local lads in that get-up); the creaky noise of the parquet floor; and the smell of the spray we used to polish the glass – a bit like boiled sweets.

I feel guilty about the demise of Woolworths. It's like an old friend you stopped calling and lost touch with, and then you discover they've got a terminal illness. The last time I visited the store I bought a strainer and a can opener. The kitchenware was basic, but good value. My previous purchases include DVDs (I once spent a weekend watching every Father Ted episode back to back after a trip to Woolworths in Rye), fairy lights and CDs. I don't want to be sentimental but this is definitely a brand worth saving. Obviously it lost its way – the stores became unfocused and tried to compete with big supermarkets. They took out the lovely wooden floors and revamped their distinctive windows so they ended up looking no different to Currys or Costcutter.

Now, a year short of their centenary, the whole brand is on the brink of the bin, with 800 stores and 30,000 jobs on the line. There are parts of Britain, though, where Woolies is really valued, such as Kirkwall on Orkney, where they recently held a party to celebrate their local store's 50th anniversary, and locals think it's an irreplaceable part of their high street. Surely the way to save Woolies is to cherry-pick the places where it can still work – the small market towns where the big supermarkets don't dominate the main drag.

Last week a panel of experts named Skipton in North Yorkshire the best street in Britain. As a regular visitor I agree it's a pleasing mix of small businesses, independent shops and retailers selling local produce. There's a Woolworths, but the exterior is dreary, and not up to the standard of the shops nearby.

Shopping is about smells, sounds and surfaces. Even when money is short, we still want places that are quirky and individual, that deliver a memorable experience, that we feel are our friends. Woolworths should be the place to furnish your flat and equip your kitchen on a budget. It's great for DVDs. Kids love the sweets. Stop saying that Woolies is worthless – it's part of our national heritage. It just needs a visionary to put back that sense of wonder. I'd love to do it.

Freedom fighter Combating sexual harassment

For four years, Lance Bombardier Kerry Fletcher was subjected to abuse from her boss because she is a lesbian. Miss Fletcher served in the Royal Artillery, and when she was stationed at their stables in North Yorkshire, Staff Sergeant Ian Brown claimed he could "convert" her. After complaining about his relentless attempts to have sex, she found her car was vandalised, she received weird phone calls and she was routinely belittled in front of other soldiers.

An employment tribunal described her treatment as outrageous, awarding her nearly £187,000. There has been criticism at the size of the payout, with some people claiming it's high compared to awards to those injured in war zones. I disagree. Soldiers sign up to fight and face possible injury – it's part of the job description.

Unless the Army demonstrates it treats all men and women equally, it will never attract recruits of the right calibre. With so many allegations of bullying – at Deepcut, for example – the armed forces need to demonstrate this behaviour is unacceptable. It's not just equipment that needs to move into the 21st century: attitudes among those in charge have a long way to go.

Another flipping daft idea

Further proof that some of the police work in mysterious ways: local bobbies in Torquay, Devon, have come up with a novel way of dealing with female drunks.

They are buying flip-flops printed with messages about safe drinking, which they plan to give away outside pubs and nightclubs so that women can ditch their high heels and stagger home without causing themselves any harm.

By that time, I doubt whether inebriated females will be able to read the slogans on their shoes, let alone keep them on.

A "Stay Safe" bus will be handing out rape alarms, condoms and sexual advice, as part of a £30,000 Safer Communities initiative. They should stick to handing out mops, as they do to men who urinate in the street.

Tormented by machismo

How entertaining that the chief constable who was found dead on Snowdon is described by reporters as "tormented", now that it's emerged he managed to have close relationships with 38 women and do his job at the same time.

Proving beyond any doubt that the upper ranks of the police force are full of macho chaps with pretty weird standards of acceptable behaviour, the independent inquiry into Mr Todd's death is expected to conclude that shagging dozens of women while married in no way affected his ability to carry out his demanding job as chief constable of Greater Manchester Police.

Of course the inquiry isn't exactly independent, as it has been carried out by Sir Paul Scott-Lee, head of the West Midlands Police. If a woman had 38 affairs while running a large business, she'd be pilloried as a slapper, but Mr Todd is "tormented". Classic.

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