Some designs just don't change!
Once we had all breakfasted and my father had caught the bus to work, it was time for my mother and I to write our list and head off for the shops. Like all the other families in the flats we had neither a fridge nor a freezer to keep food fresh, and no controllable means of reheating food or of keeping it moist. Food was bought, cooked and consumed on the same day, so food shopping was more or less an everyday chore. Most of what we needed could be found on our doorstep which was ideal because, like the other families in our flats, we had no car. On the same road as our flats, there was: Dickens’s family bakery, a post office, a pharmacy, an ironmongers, two butchers, a greengrocery, a newsagent's, a flower shop, a hairdresser’s and a wool shop.
The shops were close by but shopping still meant a lot of walking, not just to and from the shops but in between the different shops we needed to visit as well. Buying meat meant a trip to the butchers; fruit and vegetables were sold at the greengrocer's; buying firelighters (small kerosene-soaked slabs) meant a trip to the ironmongers. The post office was the only place to buy stamps and birthday cards, just as the chemists was the only place for our toiletries, prescriptions and any other medication. Whatever the weather, we often trailed between three or four different buildings to buy the things we needed before we could carry our shopping home.
These small shops were family businesses and often the family home; many of the owners lived in the small flat above their business. Across the entrance to each of the shops was an elaborately hand-painted sign which announced their owner’s name alongside a short slogan like:
‘Breens – Family Butcher’ Lester Hall, the hairdresser, had a much longer slogan that suggested elegance and fashion, I can’t recall exactly what it said but I do remember the overpowering scent of hairspray which wafted out on to the pavement. I vividly recall watching, awestruck whilst the hairdresser styled a woman’s hair with a cut-throat razor rather than a pair of scissors.
Our daily shopping trips would usually begin at the Co-op, the only shop with a manager rather than an owner. The building had an elaborate cream stone art deco frontage, a little like a cinema, with the words ‘Co-operative Society’ picked out in large stone letters. The shop itself was the biggest of our small parade and, for most of the year, I needed a cardigan to feel warm whilst we were inside. Its black and white floor tiles were laid out like a chequerboard. Hopping from one to another without treading on the joins provided passing amusement but otherwise, there was little entertainment there.
Being neither a baby nor a toddler, I accompanied my mother into shops. Prams and pushchairs were very bulky, so babies and small children were suitably wrapped up, harnessed safely and left outside to amuse themselves whilst their mothers shopped. Children who cried or made a fuss were considered badly behaved and an embarrassment. But leaving small children unattended did not always work out well. One morning I watched gleefully the astonished expression of a toddler who was busily munching the contents of the bag of kippers his mother had left on his pram whilst she chatted with a friend.
In the co-op, as in every other shop, service was personal. The ladies behind the counter were always extremely polite to all their customers. My mother was always greeted with ‘Good morning Mrs Taylor’, usually followed by an observation about the weather or a look at me and a comment about my growth. If the shop was empty and the conversation carried on, I would often be in trouble for slumping either against the counter front or, more annoyingly, against my mother. I wasn’t small for my age, but my view of the world was limited by my height and standing still whilst adults talked was very dull, unless they had other children with them.
Putting together the tins and jars and packets we needed didn’t take very long but buying things like cheese which had to be cut and weighed seemed to prolong matters dreadfully. Those Co-op ladies were expert at cutting just the right size for the required weight, though the process seemed always to need the ‘little bit over/little bit under’ addition to the conversation with my mother, perhaps just out of courtesy.
Biscuits, stored loose in glass-fronted boxes, had to be bagged and weighed too. My mother didn’t have a sweet tooth, so they didn’t appear in the cupboard unless I went shopping with her. Apart from the treat biscuits like Chocolate Fingers, Iced Gems or Café Noir, Fig rolls were my favourites but then I was very happy to munch on Rich Tea, Marie biscuits, Digestives and Ginger Nuts. I didn’t much care for Garibaldi biscuits as the dried fruit inside often had suspiciously crunchy areas and I absolutely hated Nice biscuits!
Buying bacon was horrible. Not only did time drag whilst my mother explained what type of bacon she wanted, how many rashers should be cut and how thick those rashers should be, but the actual cutting process was awful. The bacon slicing machine was ferocious. A large slab of pig was thumped down on its spikes, clamped in place and hand-wound to and fro past a sharp revolving blade which made a screaming noise at every pass. Each rasher was carefully placed on its greaseproof wrapping paper and the final amount was weighed on the flat, shiny metal pan of enormous white scales. I watched its long red needle swing across a dial covered with numbers in tiny squares and wondered how on earth the ladies made sense of the information it provided. Once weighed, the cheese or bacon was neatly parcelled into a paper bag with its price written in pencil on the outside. The pencils were attached to the counter by a long piece of string and shaped just like the ones at my Gran’s house. They had long, thick leads that were almost rounded at the end, not pointed. They must have been sharpened the same way that my Uncle Bert used to sharpen pencils for my Gran, with a knife, not a pencil sharpener.
Crisps weren’t something that either of my parents liked and so they didn’t appear in my mother’s shopping basket. Crisps came in one flavour – potato. They weren’t even ready salted. Inside each bag, the salt was separated from the crisps in a twist of dark blue waxed paper. The idea was to unwrap the paper, tip the salt into the opened bag of crisps, hold the bag shut and shake the contents until everything mixed together. Disasters did occur, such as the crisp packing machines adding an extra twist of salt to the bag which was then inattentively chewed. Once when I visited my cousin Kate’s I found a mountain of packets of crisps in their pantry. Apparently, the manufacturer was running a competition. Inside a few of the twists of blue waxed paper were coupons rewarding the finder with £100. Others awarded them a free tin of twenty packets of crisps. Kate’s family was still munching their way through three tins worth of winnings.
Once we had gathered all the groceries we needed it was time to pay. The Co-op’s counter always held a pile of different sized scraps of paper threaded on to a thick string. These were torn off and used by the ladies for adding up the cost of our shopping. The calculation was all written down in columns of pounds shillings and pence, rapidly totalled and then my mother was asked for the final amount. Like everyone else, she paid in cash.
It was important to do as much of our shopping as possible at the Co-op. Whenever my mother paid for her groceries she was given a handwritten slip of paper, the size of a long, thin postage stamp, showing her Co-op membership number and the amount she had spent. The writing on the slip was always blue because she was given only the carbon copy from the transaction. The Co-op branch kept the top copy so they had a record of how much money had been spent. Co-op members like my mother were given an official sticky backed sheet to hold all their record slips. It was important never to lose any of them and always to make sure they were firmly stuck in place. At the end of the year, all Co-op members spent a long time adding up the record of their spending then they took their sheet to their local Co-op. This was sent away to be checked and when the sheets and totals were verified customers were given back, in cash, a fixed percentage of everything they had spent that year. This was your dividend or ‘divi’ as it was known locally and was often spent several times before it arrived. Co-op members were treated in the same way that private companies treated their shareholders which had always been the idea behind the whole co-operative movement.
As well as the daily shopping we usually had a weekly food delivery. The Co-op offered this service free of charge, but it still took time to organise. My mum had a small soft-backed exercise book. Every week, on a separate page, she would write the date at the top and then list of all the foodstuffs she wanted delivered, like: Bacon (6 medium cut rashers, smoked), Cheddar cheese (8oz.), Eggs (6 medium), Sugar (1 lb). Then she would leave her book at the shop. The completed order arrived outside our door in a cardboard box with individual items weighed, wrapped and carefully packed. My mum’s exercise book was returned with the groceries. Every item now had its cost added with the total amount due at the bottom of the page and the order was paid for the next time we called in the shop. The Co-op employed a young lad to deliver orders directly to the customer’s front door - even if that meant he had to climb several flights of stairs. This young man, who looked thoroughly grown up to me, was referred to in conversation as ‘that lad’. He always seemed to be the cause of any problems which arose with deliveries and spent a lot of his working life being shouted at by the ladies. The manager was a mythical figure, required only for matters of extreme consequence. He inhabited an office ‘in the back’ and was rarely seen.
Sweets are always the most easily available treat for children. We didn’t have a sweet shop on Cheadle Road, but our newsagent had a few tall glass jars of boiled sweets like pear drops and pineapple cubes which had to be weighed into paper bags. Their main stock of edibles was the chocolate bar display of Cadburys, Rowntrees, Fry and other branded deliciousness. There was a small chocolate selection on offer at the Co-op as well, so there was always the chance that even a quick trip to the Cheadle Road shops might mean something nice to eat.
Chocolate and caramel were my two favourite flavours so I loved Caramellos, Munchies, Mars bars and, the masterpiece of the age, Caramac. It had the presentation and texture of chocolate but the colour and taste of caramel – perfection! There were fruity flavoured treasures too like Fruit gums and Fruit pastilles and chewy Fruitellas. New treats appeared constantly and for a while, these would become my total favourite, until I overindulged and moved on to something else. Nana was particularly good about posting sweet treats to her grandchildren. The only problem was that we didn't keep her informed as we moved on to our latest craze. We would still be getting Bounty bars months after Picnics had become the flavour of the moment.
Occasionally we had to buy a birthday card. Christmas was an unending blizzard of post but there really wasn't the same level of card writing for the rest of the year. The Post Office on Cheadle Road was the place where we chose from a very limited selection. There were special cards featuring births, condolences, Valentine’s day and anniversaries but there were no ‘blank for your own message’ cards and those displaying ages ended at 21. (An 18th birthday was of no consequence at all.) The price of each individual card would be written very faintly in pencil on the back. On taking the selection to the counter to pay, the assistant would carefully rub off the price and put the card into a paper bag to make sure it didn't get dirty before it arrived home to be written and later posted.
Every family, by which I mean the ladies of every family, had an address book where important contact details were handwritten. These consisted of postal addresses (postcodes did not yet exist) with the odd telephone number which was for emergencies. An address book was the sort of present which might be given to a grandparent at Christmas, possibly wrapped up with a long calendar that had spaces for recording family birthdays. An address book was usually only intentionally replaced when its pages were becoming dangerously loose; copying over its contents to the new book was a tedious process. Losing an address book all together was as disastrous as losing a mobile phone nowadays - instant loss of communication with no means of retrieval!
The chemists was always our most interesting local shop. It was dark inside, partly because a sunblind filtered the light from the shop window and kept the heat from the medicines and cosmetics, but also because its walls were filled from floor to ceiling with glass-fronted mahogany cupboards crammed with neatly arranged bottles and packets of all sizes. There was very little floor space for customers because in front of the cupboards were display cabinets stuffed with yet more products on show. The glass tops of the cabinets served as counters and every possible inch of counter-top was covered. There were make-up testers, novelty soaps, brightly coloured hair clips and packets of things that looked like sweets but really weren’t – like Tunes and Fishermen’s Friends. Everything on the counters was at just the right height for me to see and whispered, ‘Touch me!’; the expression of the lady behind the counter was a silent ‘Don’t you dare!’ - but then, she wasn’t always looking, was she. The shop had its own subtle smell - a combination of the scented wonders on show and the icy liquid rubbed on your arm just before an injection.
The chemists was the only place we could buy over the counter medications or exchange our doctor’s prescription. If it was just a question of counting pills this was a fairly quick transaction, but often a liquid would have to be mixed by the pharmacist on duty. She would appear from her mysterious room in the far regions of the building wearing a white lab coat and provide instructions about shaking the bottle’s liquid contents, as well as when and how it should be taken. If my family wanted advice on regular remedies we spoke with our own pharmacist, my Aunt Fran, my mother’s sister. She had her own equally fascinating pharmacy over in Widnes.
But the chemists wasn’t only the source of all things medicinal, it was also the place that sold shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, hair dye and any other kind of personal grooming product. Everything for a baby’s health and well-being was stocked there too. They had baby bottles and teats, formula milk, tins and jars of baby food, bibs, teething rings, dummies, gripe water and other baby medications like nappy rash cream. (Nappies were made from soft towelling and, if needed, required a trip to the wool shop which stocked all sorts of similar children’s goods like pants and socks.)
If you were lucky enough to have a camera, the only way to have your photos developed was to take the finished film along to the pharmacists, hand it to the lady behind the counter in exchange for a slip of paper and a comment of ‘Be back in about a week’.
The greengrocers always smelt promisingly of edible fruits but the shop was, at best, chilly. The front door and the door to the stores at the back were always open. During winter Tony, the owner, and his wife dressed as if they collected everything directly from a secret farm behind the shop. They wore boots and layers of sweaters and aprons and had thick rubber gloves which is, I suppose, how they coped with the cold.
Tony’s fruit and vegetables were limited, seasonal and lived in colourful piles waiting to be weighed out. Summer fruits like strawberries and raspberries were only available in the warm months. These came ready weighed and priced in flimsy little green baskets called punnets. Spring cabbage was available in the spring. I had never seen different varieties of cabbage until I was in my twenties when cabbages of different colours, shapes and sizes seemed magically to appear for sale. New potatoes were available early in the year when the new crop was dug. Potatoes were delivered to the greengrocers in sacks and sold to their customers in requested quantities, weighed out into brown paper bags. All the vegetables we bought, even lettuce, needed to be washed before it could be eaten to remove remnants of the soil they had grown in, especially the potatoes. The few potato varieties available to shoppers depended on whatever was grown locally, we seemed to eat King Edwards mainly. There were no such things as baking potatoes - just potatoes. What you did with them was up to you. I always liked mushrooms but the big raggedy-edged field specimens on sale were holiday treats, our greengrocer didn’t stock anything more exotic. Fried tomatoes to go with bacon and mushrooms were delicious, but shoppers just bought tomatoes, not plum, slicing, beefsteak, vine-ripened or cherry varieties. There were brown papery-skinned onions for sale, but my mother was always happiest to buy these from the Onion Johnny who called at our flat. Onion Johnny was the name she gave to a Frenchman who travelled around by bike and arrived at our door with threaded garlands of onions hanging from his shoulders. My mother would buy several ropes, hang them out on the balcony and cut one or two onions free when she needed them.
There wasn’t a huge variety of fruits to choose from. Eating apples in the greengrocers seemed to come in two kinds - red and green. The latter were crisper to bite and much sharper to taste. The only green variety I knew by name was Granny Smith. (Watery Golden Delicious didn’t appear until I was at secondary school in the 1960s.) We flat-dwellers were lucky. The apples and pears which grew in neglected orchards in our grounds tasted much better than anything in the shops. We bought occasional oddities like pomegranates (broken open and eaten with the aid of a pin) and chestnuts (roasted in front of a coal fire-charred on one side and chewy on the other). Other treats appeared only at Christmas time, but that season’s food belongs in its own chapter.
Once selected, fruit and vegetables were weighed into a pan that looked like a giant silver scoop. The scales were different to the ones in the Co-op so the weight of the produce was balanced against thick circular metal discs with their weight value embossed on the top 1lb, 2lb, 8oz. They looked like enormous black coins which Tony juggled until the two sides of the scales balanced. Then the vegetables were emptied into a brown paper bag and twirled shut with a final flourish. A trip to the greengrocers always meant heavy bags to carry home.
The shop I hated was the Co-op butchers, next door to the main Co-op building. It smelt strange. There was nothing remotely interesting to look at and the only thing to do was to scuff the sawdust on the floor into patterns with my feet which earned me no praise whatsoever. It was also very, very cold; the butcher’s hands always looked red raw. He was often ‘in the back’ when we arrived. I could hear thumping noises, probably of things being chopped up with a cleaver. Then the butcher would appear with red-brown marks on his long white apron. When he was going to cut up meat for something like a stew, he would pick up a huge knife and in his other hand something that looked like a poker with ridges on it. Then, for some reason, he would scrape these two items against each other making a horrible screeching noise; apparently this process kept the knife really sharp. The poker-like object was apparently called a steel and every time I saw it I thought about our poker at home with its heavy brass handle. Every Christmas my father would use the weight of the handle to break open shelled nuts, but only when my mother wasn’t in the room. He would smash them on the hearth showering sharp splinters everywhere which were generally discovered by the insteps of other family members.
Even on warmer days the ironmonger’s shop was always dark and cold and crowded with an enormous range of all kinds of stock from flower seeds to wellingtons. It was the place to buy everything for the home and garden that wasn’t food, clothes or medicines. Some of the stock had been there for so long that the printed instructions on the packaging had almost completely faded. There were seemingly random collections of items for sale on every possible surface, some even hanging from hooks on the ceiling. And yet somehow my mother had only to enquire about an item and it could be discussed with authority and located in an instant. The ironmongers was the place where those with a tilley lamp who wanted to buy paraffin. A tilley lamp was a heater that looked like a small satellite dish standing on a rounded jerry can. Nana had one which she used to heat her kitchen on cold mornings. I would sit on one of the wooden chairs with my feet tucked inside my nightie to keep them warm, watching her furiously pumping the paraffin into its burner until it burst into life. I liked the smell it made and the strange colour of the light that filled the room when it was finally aglow. The ironmongers always smelt like a giant firelighter, as if a single lit match would unleash a conflagration of biblical proportions. Luckily this was never put to the test.
My mother and I didn’t have to carry milk back when we went shopping. Milk was delivered by the Co-op milkman, with the glass bottles left just outside our front door. I very seldom saw our milkman. He existed as a series of early morning sounds. His milk float hummed as it turned into our grounds, bottles rattling as it jarred to a halt. His feet scuffed as he climbed the stairs, bottles clanking in the crates he carried. He knew exactly what kind of milk to leave because flat owners left out clean, empty glass milk bottles and the coloured plastic tokens they had bought in the Co-op; the colour of each token represented one bottle of a different kind of milk, one colour for the very creamy gold top, another for sterilized milk and yet another for ordinary milk. If a customer hadn’t managed to buy the tokens they needed it was fine to leave money and a note for the milkman instead. He carried a leather change bag fastened around his waist to collect that too.
None of our shops, apart from the newsagents, opened before nine in the morning and they all closed by five at the latest – even before Christmas. Closing for lunchtime and re-opening in the afternoon was the norm apart from Wednesday which was early closing day when all the shops closed at lunchtime for the rest of the day. Shops were certainly open on Saturday mornings, but some closed at lunchtime on that day too. On Sunday only the newsagents opened at all and they closed at lunchtime. Sundays were far too quiet.