In praise of Sunday's material pleasures

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The Independent Online
AS THE Commons voted this week for the Sunday shopping revolution, I suddenly realised how far my attitudes and behaviour have changed in one short year, despite my best intentions. Twelve months ago I was largely opposed to unrestricted Sunday shopping, worried about shop assistants forced to quit family lunches for supermarket tills, happy enough with the status quo.

Then, six months ago, with a month-old baby completely disrupting all semblance of normal routine, I found, one Sunday morning, that I needed urgent supplies for some unexpected guests. I went to the local supermarket at 10am and found it humming with people, quite a few of whom were fathers with young children.

For the life of me I couldn't see what was so wrong with it, after all. Why, with so many domestic responsibilities, shouldn't I take advantage of being able sometimes to spread them over seven days?

This feeling was confirmed at the checkout: I asked the cashier if it was always so busy, and if she resented working Sundays, only to be met with a chuckle. She was a student, working part-time. She told me many of them were. While the pay is not generous, supermarket staff do not seem, in the main, to be downtrodden.

Two weeks ago I found myself in Regent Street on a Sunday afternoon, on a highly enjoyable family shopping trip. I had acted on the shops' advertised decision to open in the run-up to Christmas. It suddenly seemed a perfectly natural thing to do: parking was easier; all around me ordinary people were reclaiming their city centre. Why not go shopping, after all, instead of visiting a museum, going for a walk, or simply lazing in front of the fire?

For those fearful of declining Sabbath observance, I can only say that Sunday shopping need not interfere with church-going. One of the oddest things to adjust to, having married into a Roman Catholic family, is the pragmatic way in which Catholic churches hold a range of services at different times, including Saturday evenings (which count for Sundays). Observance will find a way.

The sense that shopping habits are changing rapidly, that we no longer have to drop everything to shop, is not restricted to Sundays. Until this summer I was a staunch supporter of home-delivered milk. I loved the advertisements promoting the practice, showing animated bottles marching up to one's doorstep at dawn. But since I returned from my holidays I have stopped. It was partly a passive decision, because the milkman, victim of a declining business, had been given a greater area to service, and failed to make contact again to resume my delivery.

And then I came to dislike the face-to-face dealing: payment was never at a regular time: usually he rang just as I had settled down for a cup of tea. He seemed depressed and oppressed by his job whenever he came for payment.

Nor was I entirely sure of the exact price of a delivered pint, except that it was much more - 15p or so more - than supermarket milk. I kept losing track of the bills as the weeks rolled up. No wonder the proportion of home-delivered milk has slipped from 80 per cent in 1986 to 60 per cent last year. The problem - and I am sure I am not alone here - is, I think, that milk tastes nicer from a glass bottle than plastic containers. The cartoons I opt for sometimes leak. But is that worth an extra pounds 100 a year?

The other question I'm still pondering is whether I am going to be tempted to shop at Costco, or one of the other high-volume discount stores that seem to be having such a beneficial effect in forcing the main supermarket chains to make selective price cuts. I think the discounters have been vastly hyped and most busy people will neither drive miles for the pleasure of buying gallon jars of mayonnaise and 48 yoghurts, nor will want to expend energy recreating the co-operative spirit with shopping clubs.

But what I am really desperate to see is some form of home phone shopping and weekly groceries delivered to the door. Here is a tip for all those harassed milkmen: why not adapt the nation's network of milk floats to deliver, not only milk, but also supermarket orders? Then household shopping wouldn't leave me shattered. And that is worth far more than pounds 100 a year to me.