I popped in to one of my local Woolworths last week, visiting not as a customer but as a kind of deathbed hoverer.
It was this particular branch's last day of operation and it presented a pretty sad spectacle, the shelves and fittings being dismantled at the rear of the store even as a small crowd milled around the front of the shop picking over the tattered carcass of this once-vigorous enterprise. If I'd been in the market for a door-back laundry hanger or the latest Little Britain DVD I'd have been laughing – they seemed to have large stocks of both, but I wasn't really tempted by either to be honest, and the general sense that icy water was advancing up the promenade deck was distinctly gloom-inducing so I left empty-handed – just as far too many customers had been doing for months.
I can't really claim to be a Woolworth's nostalgic myself. I never stole PicNMix there – as a startling number of commentators have claimed they did in their youth – and it never featured as a penny cornucopia in my own childhood. More recently it seemed more like a joke about a shop than a shop for real – visits to find useful needed household items resulting in a surreal encounter with objects that appeared to have been selected for their peerless lack of necessity. You imagined the buyers selecting their stock by pinning a catalogue to the office wall and hurling darts at it.
All the same I could understand the little pang of bereavement that was palpable last week – not just in the shop itself, but in much of the commentary on the business's passing. It was, after all, part of the texture of British life for a very long time – one of those shop-fronts that let you know you were at home, whichever high street you happened to find yourself in. It was – if you accept T S Eliot's broad and generous definition (one which includes Wensleydale cheese and beetroot in vinegar) – part of British culture, notwithstanding its American origins.
Not, though, a part of the culture that we think worth preserving. Discussing the closure on radio a few days later I noted in passing that this wasn't a bit of the heritage that the National Trust or English Heritage were likely to sweep in and save.
Since then I've found myself wondering why not. The National Trust, after all, describes itself as "the nation's heritage guardian" – and it isn't at all sniffy about trade, with 49 industrial monuments and mills in its roster of national treasures. English Heritage, for its part, describes its mission as being to preserve "our heritage for future generations" and "ensure that [England's] past is researched and understood". And since we've been described as a nation of shopkeepers it wouldn't be inappropriate for a shop – particularly one as familiar and historically significant as Woolworths – to feature as part of either institutions' architectural portfolios. Given the passion for merchandising of both organisations they might even be able to turn a profit.
There would be curatorial problems, naturally. Do you replicate the Woolworths of 1909, when the first branch opened in Liverpool, or does your living museum attempt to capture 90 years of trading history, including the surreal disorder of the last few years? And which branch would you seize on for preservation, given the chain's ubiquity?
None of these need to be overwhelming though – and I suspect that in 10 years' time an intelligently-preserved Woolies would prove a far more popular draw than yet another mediocre country house. Like those final shoppers last Thursday, The National Trust and English Heritage should be rummaging through the remnants right now looking for a bargain.
Wintour of diplomatic discontent?
I loved the rumour that Anna Wintour, left, was being considered for a diplomatic posting under the Obama administration – this being the woman whose idea of conflict resolution was reportedly to send out roast-beef sandwiches to vegan animal rights protesters picketing the Vogue office in a campaign against the fur trade.
It's true that she has first-rate experience in sucking up to powerful moneyed interests – in negotiating deals with cosmetic companies and Hollywood celebrities – but even so, her notion of diplomacy looks as if it would be a good deal more bracing than the usual Foggy Bottom high-flier.
I take it there's no truth in this rumour – that it's just a sly joke that jumped the fence. But should it turn out to be true, we should be ready to respond. If Wintour turns up as Ambassador to the Court of St James (and would a dame this grande settle for anything less?), I suggest we recall our man in Washington and replace him with Dr David Starkey.
My faith is in responsibility – and practice
As a testifying atheist I flinched on seeing the word "probably" in the slogan chosen for Ariane Sherine's atheist advertising campaign. It doesn't do justice to my confident faith in His non-existence (and yes, it is a faith – I can offer no conclusive proof). But regret at that capitulation to religious sensitivities was easily outweighed by a dissatisfaction with the rest of the copy-line: "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Is that really the best secular humanism can offer? A paraphrase of "Woo-hoo! The grown-up's gone ... let's party"?
Religious types are condescending enough about the atheist world-view (its notional "emptiness") without this implicit self- portrait of non-believers as grasshopper hedonists. Besides, if the ASA wants something substantive to worry about, it misrepresents the deal – which is that you have to stop praying that a supernatural being will sort out the world's problems and take responsibility yourself. It should involve more worry not less – that might not be a big draw to would-be joiners.
Good news for nerds from the Disney Corporation, which plans to bring a guitar game to market later this year. Guitar Hero, which currently dominates, encourages players to achieve Hendrix-like virtuosity on a plastic guitar that bears no relation to the real thing. Disney's version hooks up a real guitar to the software, so the unconscionable amounts of time players devote to achieving virtual proficiency might result in a real world talent – one that could even get them laid, if they can be coaxed out of their bedrooms. If the same principle can be applied to the piano we may have discovered the penicillin for all those fiercely-inflamed rows about practice.
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