Looking under the desk to see what was lying on the floor, there was a Tesco Clubcard, unused for the past year for there is no branch of Tesco in the county of Kilkenny.
Tesco occupies a place in childhood memory as somewhere different. When the branch in Yeovil in Somerset began opening until eight o’clock on a Thursday evening, people thought it extraordinary. In those days when men tended to be those who went out to work, taking the family car with them, the opportunity to shop after coming home from work was something revolutionary. It meant that Saturdays could be kept free for something else.
Perhaps that evening opening was a milestone in the decline of village businesses. Our village had a milkman ‘Nipper’ Knowles who called six, if not seven, days of the week; the crates of gold and silver topped milk bottles announcing his progress along the road. By mid-morning Alan White, a newsagent from Langport, the town three miles distant called with that day’s paper. Maisey’s bakery van called three times a week with fresh baked bread; loaves that came with thick crusts and which were cut in thick slices with a breadsaw; slices that were thickly buttered (and, if you could not see your teeth marks in the butter, you hadn’t enough). On a Monday, Macey’s mobile shop came at teatime; there were neighbours who would have bought shopping, but for children the attraction was the selection of sweets he carried. On a Monday evening Mr Bryant, the hardware merchant from Somerton did a round; we bought paraffin for the heaters from him, though he presumably carried a stock of other items. On a Friday lunchtime, a fishmonger did a round, in those days when people still ate fish. By Friday teatime, there was the sound of the Reema ice cream van, though he never seemed to get the level of custom enjoyed by the Wall’s ice cream van that came down the road on a Sunday teatime – Wall’s ice cream still evokes memories of Jess Yates on television introducing ‘Stars on Sunday’, a programme that brought with it the sinking feeling that there would be school in the morning.
Along with the travelling merchants, there was Spearing’s, the village shop, where you went to the counter and asked for those things that you wanted, and, around the corner, there was the post office, where Miss Hunt at one time kept sweets and lemonade, as well as stamps and postal orders.
There were the informal merchants as well, Cliff who called on a Saturday with vegetables; Harry, who sold vegetables along with scrumpy; and various other people at various times.
The supermarket changed the entire rural economy, but let’s not pretend it was anyone but ourselves that made it possible. Like the people who complain at the closure of railways, when they drive their cars everywhere, the triumph of the supermarket over local businesses was a matter of popular choice. Perhaps those Thursday evenings were the thin end of the wedge.