The sign on my local grocery store reads "Food and Wine at Clapton Village", although a quick glance at its environs reveals that Clapton is anything but a sleepy hamlet. In fact, it's an area in Hackney, north-east London, abutting a road that used to better known as Murder Mile. Yet to call it a "village shop" somehow seems accurate, providing as it does the sole physical place in which an otherwise fragmented multicultural community rubs shoulders and, hell, even talks to one another occasionally.
The shelves are a comestible collage of the local population – Polish biscuits, Turkish pastries, industrial bags of rice and spices, soya milk for the trendies, as well as standard Brit fare such as Marmite and Tetley tea. There's a proper coffee machine and a couple of tables outside.
And in the unlikely event you can't find what you need (although I notice Clapton-ites are expert at identifying the one flavour of Pringles missing from the seven others on offer), you can write it down on a pad by the till and it will magically appear the next time you pop in. So what we really, really don't need is the Tesco Metro that is planned next door.
The march of these mini-versions of the mega-chain has been relentless in the past few years; in the East End of London, high-density housing projects seem to include a ground-floor Metro as standard.
They are, of course, perfectly suited to urban living – insofar as they reinforce its worst aspects. The Metro is designed for convenience or, more accurately, speed. There isn't enough space for lingering, nor enough produce to ponder over for more than a few seconds (the choice generally as inspiring as shopping in Soviet Russia must have been). The harassed cashiers' scripted "How are you today?" contains no danger of a conversation.
It couldn't be more different from the ambience in my local store, where you can rely on a gentle exchange, jovial banter or some spirited flirting alongside your groceries, depending on which generation of the Turkish owner's family is manning the tills. It's only a couple of minutes in a day, but little by little this is how you get to know at least some of your neighbours.
We are primed to recognise a shop or Post Office as the heart of the community in a small village, but it may well be in urban neighbourhoods, where there are few ties between various sections of the population, and even between individuals, that they matter most. We might not worship or drink together any more, but buying our groceries together is not such a poor substitute.Reuse content