Staying Alive in the Supermarket


The modern supermarket is designed to appeal to three of humanity’s baser instincts: firstly, to gather as much food as possible in the shortest possible time; secondly, to minimise effort; thirdly, to avoid contact with strangers.

It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, when people recognised that town centres were effectively being killed off by supermarkets and started to speak in wistful terms about human contact and being able to choose your own food, the supermarkets responded by pretending they were just the same as a high street, only with all the shops under one roof. Morrisons called its meat, cheese and food counters “Market Street” and publicised it with pictures of beaming apron-clad staff welcoming customers to an Elysium of retail.

But very soon after that, supermarkets began to offer Internet shopping. And then, perhaps, they realised that engaging socially with strangers is never entirely comfortable. It makes our caveman minds apprehensive, nervous of those outside our tribe. It is an effort – as anyone who has gone to any social gathering with a group of friends or colleagues will appreciate: we tend to cling to our gang, and, if we make forays away from it, gravitate back towards them.

Once this was recognised, supermarkets knew which way to go. Maximising ease, and minimising effort, including that human contact which represents wasted effort in our atomised society, determines every aspect of the modern supermarket trip. There is the smooth drive though the spacious car-park, where there are always spaces free and where the shortest destination from your car is always the brightly-lit door of the store itself. Once inside, there are wide aisles, where you need never move from your path to avoid another person; “Deli Express” fridges where cheese and ham are neatly sliced for you to take without pausing or asking; and a soothing mash of unremarkable music so that nobody feels that the silence ought to be broken.

Normally it’s unremarkable. But occasionally they slip up.

The other night I was wandering round Morrisons, wondering if intensive care would feel a bit like this, when “Stayin’ Alive” struck up over the sound system. Now, I don’t listen to the Bee Gees by choice when I’m feeling sad or philosophical, or when I wish to generate an atmosphere of quiet study. But I do have a massive affection for them. When we were teenagers I and my siblings used to celebrate them by dressing up in a parody of 1970s disco – mocking what we really loved, as teenagers do. For me, they still represent a dream of a brighter and lighter-hearted age, in which three oddly-coiffured men in garish suits could conquer the world with their enthusiasm and falsetto.

So I was smiling to myself as I rounded the end of the drinks aisle. And then I saw – or rather heard – someone whistling along, under his breath. It was a man, fortysomething, shabbily-dressed – and I swear he was strutting slightly in his grubby trainers. In his head, surely, he was dressed in sky-blue diamante-studded flares, and any minute now he was going to spin on the heel of his platform shoes and strike a pose.

He saw me smile and looked away, embarrassed.

Of course he was embarrassed: isn’t it transgressive to wander round the supermarket whistling along to the Bee Gees? You’re making a noise, for one thing, which is only permitted to children. And you’re revealing some degree of emotion or inclination beside mere acquisition, within that atmosphere of enforced apathy. And above all, you’re demonstrating human contact – with the absent Barry Gibb and his brothers and with anyone else who might notice the tune on your lips and the spring in your step.

Which just goes to show that being transgressive can sometimes be a good thing. When you are in an environment which effectively forbids so much of what makes us human, it’s good to have a chance event that assists us with – stayin’ alive.






Charmaine Sings “The House Carpenter”.

The Cumberland Arms Come-all-Ye is both remarkably predictable in terms of its format and remarkably unpredictable in terms of its atmosphere. Once a month, a collection of people assemble in the pub’s back room to sing songs at each other, working strictly round the room, with an air of decorum and ceremony.

There are nights when it almost approaches Outsider Art. Those are the nights when everyone forgets their words, or not enough people turn up, or those who do just aren’t that up for it. Then the back room – battered panelling, friezes of torn flyers, and rips in the seats – loses all its chic and becomes merely shabby.

The Come-all-Ye’s best nights are those where people are able to genuinely enjoy each others’ singing, and the gathering coalesces into a good-tempered gang, safe in the Cumberland’s unadorned Arms. Occasionally, then, something magical happens.

When Charmaine started to sing “The House Carpenter”, the semi-occult account of a wayward wife’s comeuppance, I almost resented it in her. For I love everything about that song, in every version I’ve ever heard of it. I love its plaintive and unsettled melody, and the sense of inexorable doom which is present in the lovers’ first parley and ends with their sight of the Hills of Hell. It’s also, oddly enough, the only song that my husband has ever actually told me I ought to sing. Like a good father who hates the thought of a boy pawing his daughter, I didn’t want to hear anyone else carelessly taking possession of and sullying something that I thought belonged to me by virtue of my love for it.

What I had forgotten was that when Charmaine sings it is as though a certain self-protective layer that most of us keep on all the time has been stripped away like orange peel, leaving the tender flesh underneath entirely visible and, for the same reason, entirely bruisable. So, without any apparent modulation of her voice in terms of volume or timbre, she lays the pathos of the tale at our feet. Through her we hear the demon lover’s insistent desire, the wife’s despair when she realises she has left her child for ever, and the quiet horror of her fate.

Perhaps it struck me more because I know that it isn’t just an act. Charmaine’s had serious emotional turmoil in her life. Despair, and sinking, and losing contact with children, are remembered, not imagined, by her.

Now, I’m wary of any critic who puts too much value on “authenticity” in art. It’s a problematic ideology, one which, taken to extremes, can establish a series of barriers to participation – wishing to control people’s access to particular songs, or whole genres of music, on the grounds of their background or life experiences; judging the performer’s fitness to perform rather than the performance; and tending to disdain practice and learning in favour of the more romantic “inspiration”. All art has an element of artifice, and we wouldn’t expect actors only to speak the lines they felt – because then they wouldn’t be acting. Didn’t Laurence Olivier sigh at a method actor, “Why not try acting, dear boy?” And of course, if authenticity implies truth, then it can’t possibly apply to a legend about a demon lover.

Besides, it doesn’t even follow that you sound like you feel. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is so polished it’s almost inhuman. Comparing it to the original, people muttered, “Ah, but you can hear that Dolly Parton really meant it.” Which, I understand, she may well have done; but it turned out that the self-abasing vulnerability which the song expresses may have haunted Whitney much more.

All the same, Charmaine’s performance stands out as an example of how no state of mind, however dreadful, is entirely without consolation if some inspiration can be drawn from it. Her singing has a liminal quality – part performance, and part entering for real into the trauma of the ballad and living it again. It is almost painful to hear it, and I don’t think it is easy to live it; but it gives her a touch of genius.

The Beliefs we Don’t Know we Have

I believe that the sky, on a sunny day, is blue.

Of course, in a way, that’s indisputable; the way that light behaves as it passes through the atmosphere causes the sky to appear to human eyes in a shade which, in English, we call “blue.”

But I also believe that the sea on a sunny day is blue – that it’s the same sort of colour as the sky. If you showed me pictures of the sea, the sky, and a glass of red wine, and asked me to choose the odd one out, I’d pick the wine (I often do.) So would you, probably, since you are reading this in English in the twenty-first century.

If you are a classicist, you’ll know where I’m going with this – Homer wouldn’t. He famously referred to “the wine-dark sea.” It’s an odd and striking phrase to us – did he set off at night? Was the sea red with blood? Or was Homer actually colour-blind?

According to Guy Deutscher’s fascinating book “Through the Language Glass”, the phrase made perfect sense to Homer because the form of Ancient Greek which he spoke had a poorer colour vocabulary than English, in which the principal distinction was between “light” and “dark”. Relatively speaking, the sea is dark, almost as dark as wine. The sky is light. They are nothing like one another.

From our birth, we learn how to see the world; and we learn what to think about it, too. And, just as our perception of the colour of the sea seems indisputable, it’s the assumptions about culture that we don’t know we’re making that can sometimes have the deepest roots, because we don’t know they can be questioned. When we observe other cultures, we are more likely to notice the attitudes and behaviours which we do not share.

Perhaps that’s why, lately, it’s seemed to me that every film from the USA that I’ve seen ends with an endorsement of the American Dream and, in particular, the version of it which ends with a hard-working man getting his just deserts in the form of a country farmstead that he can pass on to his children. This even applies to narratives which entail an explicit or implicit criticism of mainstream lifestyles and attitudes, and encourage us to sympathise with those who challenge them.

In Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic”, the titular character has brought up his children off-grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. They learn self-sufficiency and political theory, celebrate “Uncle Noam” Chomsky’s birthday in lieu of Christmas, and despise wealth. However, when a crisis forces them to re-engage with the outside world, the patriarch comes to question the rigidity of his position. The compromise reached at the end of the firm is that the family settle down in a sunlit smallholding. The eldest boy joins the Ivy League and his siblings go to school.

In David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water”, two bickering brothers rob banks, pursued across the dusty and dilapidated Texas landscape by two bickering cops. The picaresque tale takes a nasty turn when a heist goes wrong. People are killed – including one of the cops and one of the robbers – and it looks as if the game is up.

But there’s a twist. The surviving brother’s motivation for his crime spree is to pay off the mortgage on his family ranch with the money he’s just stolen from the lender. Having done so, he’s able to install his sons and ex-wife, and the discovery of oil beneath the land further ensures their prosperity. The surviving cop works out the full story, but takes pity on the survivor and allows him to escape.

Both films are excellent. They are funny, nuanced, insightful, and deftly evoke a spirit of place. But in both cases, the ostensibly bohemian protagonists end up living the American Dream in its most fully realised form. The patriarch of “Captain Fantastic” has taught his children libertarian socialism, but nothing in either his original isolated establishment, nor his more sedate farmstead, indicates co-operation or redistribution involving anyone apart from his own progeny. The ending of “Hell or High Water” at least seems to imply that if you are working hard for your family’s benefit, then it is only right that you should become rich – even if becoming rich involves robbing banks. (The surviving robber rails against the bank’s extortionate practices, but his eventual solution is not really to challenge them, but to work within them.)

Why does this matter? There is a lot that is good about the American Dream. A belief in potential, in equality of opportunity, and in working towards desired goals, are all good things.

Well, firstly, a philosophy that believes too firmly that the relationship between effort and destiny is predictable – that people create their own destiny by how hard they work – and that any right-thinking person’s desired destiny must entail the accumulation of wealth, is likely to end up socially stratified. Those who are not born to money, and aren’t fortunate enough to make it, will be left behind by a society that doesn’t feel it has to cater for them – and then despised as people who obviously haven’t made the effort.The belief that the individual’s primary responsibility is to his or her own household doesn’t lend itself to helping those who are outside it

But I think an even more significant problem, in this age of climate change, may be the American Dream’s impact upon efforts to bring about a more sustainable society.

Individualism is a poor philosophical framework for dealing with shared assets. Without a sense of collective possession and responsibility, the “tragedy of the commons” results – that which is available to everyone (land, fish stocks, the atmosphere) becomes used to excess so that it is less useful to everyone. In “Hell or High Water” the surviving robber will become rich due to his oil reserves. That’s wonderful for him. But, even in the sweaty, arid Texan setting, the idea that burning his oil might have undesirable impacts is never mentioned. Too much of a belief in individual liberties doesn’t sit comfortably with environmental protection, which requires regulation of resource consumption and waste disposal.

The belief that a family ought to aspire to a ranch, or, at least, a large house with grounds, isn’t compatible with sustainable patterns of development. Lower-density development – many detached houses set apart from one another in mass-produced individualism – is greedy of land. First World cities sprawl across the landscape, replacing habitats, farmland and carbon sinks. It is hard or impossible to serve low-density suburbs with public transport, and walking routes are often absent; the distances involved are too great. So everyone drives, wherever they go, with consequences in terms of carbon emissions and land-take for roads and parking.

It might be seen as foolish or arrogant of me to criticise a culture other than my own as particularly socially and environmentally damaging. However, we are talking about global threats here, and the culture of the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2 can’t be ignored.

Furthermore, the culture of the UK interacts with that of the US – and always has done. I think it would be stretching a point to argue that there is an English Dream which is entirely like the American one, but we still believe in the figure of the “local boy made good” and one of the signs of his having made good is the house in the country. The higher prices developers can command for detached houses – even if their detachment is achieved only by inserting a narrow and functionless gully in between each house and its neighbour – shows that this country, too, puts a high value on individualism. So does our appetite for narratives berating “benefit scroungers” and our recent decision not to co-operate with Europe.

Bringing about behavioural, institutional, and political change, which is required for carbon emissions to be reduced, requires attitudinal change. When a set of beliefs inimical to environmental protection run so deep within a culture that even such adept film-makers as Ross, Mackenzie and Sheridan don’t notice them, and attribute them even to their counter-cultural characters, it seems to me that we have got a long way to go.