Shopping with Mother

No, not shopping with mother as of recently…the scythes on the hubs of the wheelchair, the walking device held in rest as if pricking into the lists and the purse providing a safe environment for elderly moths…..

Shopping with mother when I was a child and we had just moved to Surrey.
We moved further into Surrey a little later, but this is the period I remember – perhaps because it was all different.
Different accents, different houses, different schools.

We could go in two directions.

To the right it was a long walk along the ribbon development of thirties houses, detached or semi behind their gates and hedges – privet much in evidence with the sharp smell of its flowers in summer; old man’s beard showing its feathery heads in autumn.

We would pass the unmade up lane with the wooden weatherboard houses one of which was home to an elderly maiden lady who would give me moss roses in season while she and mother drank tea under the trees….
We would pass the house on the corner with the monkey puzzle tree – home to a cantankerous and incompetent doctor who is responsible for the damage to my middle ear (I have a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to health professionals)…
Further on there was the house ruled by the whims of an African Grey parrot, companion of an old Scottish lady – relict of a minister – who used to give me Beauty of Bath apples from her tree while my father tidied up her garden…
Then to the parade of shops near the church to which I was despatched for Sunday School on the dominical afternoon to allow my parents time to dispute the nature and availability of marital rights.
For some little time I suffered a confusion between marital rights and Marian rites – probably due to the High nature of worship on offer at said church as commented upon by the minister’s relict – but kept my confusion and subsequent enlightenment to myself.

The fish and chip shop…working up for its lunchtime trade…the sweet shop next door, beautifully positioned opposite the zebra crossing serving the children from the school opposite.
I remember the dragon of a crossing keeper who would shout at children who crossed the road to visit the sweet shop only to want to cross back again with their booty once selection had been made among the pear drops, wine gums and chocolate bars.
I used to wonder whether she was responsible for the accidents to children on the sharp bend by the church back down the road…but, again, kept my thoughts to myself.

Past the photographer with wedding pictures in the window where mother would drop in rolls of film to be developed or collect the results in heavy paper envelopes, strips of negatives tucked into the special pocket.

The pet shop opposite was not on my mother’s rounds…my father would take me there to buy biscuits for my dog,Sandy; large ones of different colours…I remember beige, red and green…and black, charcoal ones, said to counteract the flatulent effect of the green ones.
Clearly, no one had told Sandy. I learnt to take cover whenever he would stir, heave himself up from his rug and take a stroll down the hall; seconds later the lungs would be overwhelmed by a smell so virulent that you would think that thirty school canteens had simultaneously decided to boil cabbage to death.
Silent but deadly…that was Sandy.
The pet shop was a delight as its owner had a mynah bird which could imitate …as I recall…every regular customer and I was thrilled when I in turn had the mark of its recognition as it gave forth what was evidently my standard cry…’There’s the mynah bird…’

But, back on mother’s path, the road began to run downhill into the main shopping area…butchers, bakers, grocers and – to me the high point – the Co-op.
The Co-op did not stock food…but it seemed to have everything else and above all it had those wonderful change machines…little metal tubs on wires which would whizz at ceiling height between the wooden counters and the cash desk.

There was a Marks and Spencer but we did not darken its doors. Mother objected to their prices and to that fact that they had no changing rooms, so that if something did not fit you were obliged to make a special trip to return it.
I wonder if they were placing their money on the markets overnight even then…
If so they made nothing from mother.

British Home Stores on the other hand, did have changing rooms and their quality was every bit as high as that of M and S so while knickers and liberty bodices – was there anything so ill named – were bought at the Co-op, dresses blouses and skirts were bought at BHS.

This was as far as we went, unless taking the train to London, or when, occasionally, my father would walk us all down to the old fashioned pub near the station where we would sit in the beer gardens – lush borders worthy of a country house garden – while Sandy would eat crisps – the twist of blue paper containing salt having been removed and added to my bag – and I would sip at my sharp, fizzy lemonade.

If we turned left when leaving the house then the walk was shorter…but steeply uphill. We knew no one on that stretch and clearly did not enter The Cock Inn which had no beer garden but did have a door mysteriously labelled Snug.

At the crossroads at the top of the hill was a large pub….white, with car parking space in front. Going straight ahead led to the swimming baths to which schoolchildren would be bussed to have their heads held under chlorinated water in a laughable attempt to teach swimming. Luckily I contracted what was unblushingly known at that time as African Foot Rot which released me from that particular torment.

On the right was the wool shop. I dreaded mother turning that corner as it meant sitting on a chair for a long time while she and the owner discussed exactly what sort of wool would be suitable for yet another knitted skirt and jumper set to make my life unbearable. To this day mention of ‘heather mixture’ can depress my spirits and make me start to itch.

On the corner itself was a butcher’s shop. A proper one. Poultry with ruffs of feathers hung head down; rabbits swung by their hinds, blood at the nose. No turkeys…it was before turkey time…but geese, yes. What were called ‘green’ geese in the autumn, fresh from feeding on grass, and ordinary geese at Christmas.
No meat on display…everything was kept in the cold rooms behind and I used to position myself to catch the waft of cold acrid air as the door was opened.

To the right was the row of shops leading to the cinema.
I remember the Home and Colonial Stores with its gold lettering on a black ground, where mother bought tea and bacon – often, all too often, the ultra salty Ulster for boiling – and J. Sainsbury, all marble topped counters and white tiled walls, where she bought breakfast sausage…a liver based delight which I would gladly meet with again.

On that road too was the bus stop where the chocolate and yellow coaches of Surrey Motors would pick up passengers for day or afternoon trips in the good weather.
Mother and her sisters would sometimes book tickets for themselves and their children; cream teas figured largely as did historic houses, though I also remember a trip to the Cheddar Gorge notable for one young dare devil standing on a cliff edge shouting
Look, Mum…no hands!

No, not one of us.

And on the same road was the ironmongers, delighting in the name of Sprange, which I used to think might be the name of one of the utensils sold there…for it sold everything from buckets to mouse traps via sink plungers and tools.
Crowded shelves lined the walls; there was a wooden counter in the middle; items hung from the ceiling and the men in brown warehouse coats who served knew where everything was.

They might have been traditional, but they were not behind the times.
At a time when aerosol cans were a novelty they stocked them, bearing a product for disseminating scent for use in the loo, which came in colours supposedly appropriate to the smell of the contents….pink for roses, blue for lavender….
Several ladies were interested in these delights to the detriment of their family budget and they were selling fast on a day when I followed mother inside.

What was to happen next would confirm for me that the British – at that time – were a very self controlled race.

One of the brown coated gentlemen approached the elderly lady at the head of the queue.

Yes, madam. how may I help you?

I want an arsehole.

Not a twitch from the man at the counter. Not a sound from the customers.

Certainly madam. Which colour would you like?

A blue one.

Certainly, madam…I’ll just have it wrapped for you.

No comment was made, no knowing looks were exchanged even after she left, purchase tucked in her shopping basket.

Once mother had bought the steel wool she had come to buy we too, left the shop.

Did that lady say….

Yes she did.

And then we both had to sit on the seat by the traffic lights, laughing until our stomachs were sore.

53 thoughts on “Shopping with Mother”

  1. Jumper and skirt sets ! And Fairisle cardigans , whose sleeves cut off your circulation .
    Loose biscuits by the half pound and cheese being cut for you with a wire and wrapped in greaseproof .
    Camp coffe , Fruit salts , Bisto and mustard powder to be mixed up an hour before Sunday lunch .
    Nostalgia ….

  2. New Zealand was much the same. One grocer kept a jar of broken biscuits under the counter, to be given to a tired, fractious child. And he certainly could tell the difference between tired and fractious and hell-raising feral!

  3. Wonderful tour. Wonderful recall. My brother would have been on the edge of the cliff. Or any other hair raising opportunity that presented itself.

    1. This post is down to you….your comment on the last blog about all the different places you go to to shop.
      It brought back shopping as a child…and this is the result.
      My cousin John would have loved to be on the edge of the cliff…but his mother terrified him into ‘good’ behaviour when out with her sisters.

  4. I am going to leave at least 2 comments on this one. This is just my first impression… I am still laughing so much I can hardly type. I know I need to think about it more, and read it to Mark….who grew up in Tadworth in Surrey. I actually believe Tadworth still holds onto some of the characteristics you describe so beautifully. However,I realise you cannot have gone shopping in Tadworth, no M&S, no BHS…but maybe it was Epsom. Mark is going to love it… so I’ll be back tomorrow, when I’ve read it to him. Brilliant, brilliant. Jx

      1. Well, Mark has now read the post, and has just loved it. The monkey puzzle tree in Tadworth just happened to be in the Dr.’s garden. The coach livery also had him smiling. Those ironmongers were amazing places weren’t they, stocking arseholes and fork ‘andles as they did. In the north London suburb I moved to in 1959, our local shop parade had 2 of them, and people developed very particular loyalties. We only ever used one of them, and I have no idea why. There is an old fashioned iromongers in Hebden Bridge. It is still possible to buy nails by weight, or a particular shaped washer rather than sealed plastic packets of several which turn out to be the wrong size when you buy them from the big DIY chains.
        Visiting Tadworth, to see my, now deceased, in-laws, was always a bit like visiting 1957. Housewives with baskets on their arm, calling into the butcher and then the green grocer, on a daily basis, even in the early 1990s. The only change really was that the post office had become a “One Stop” post office, newsagent and small general super market. Mark’s 90 year old father became quite fond of it. He treated it like all the other local shops, stopping for a chat, and being treated with delightful respect by the assistants.
        Thanks for posting this….Mark and I will be talking about it all day. Jx

        1. What is it about monkey puzzles and doctors!
          Ironmongers here are still sources of unexpected treasures…you have to look out for a dilapidated looking one, though, as the modern ones just have the infuriating sealed packets.

          I can remember the parade of shops on the road to the station at Tadworth, one being a deli, but on my last visit all sorts of things had sprung up round the corner…estate agents, goodness only knows what.

  5. We used to live in Mitcham, which although Surrey, was a very different kind of Surrey to the one you describe.

    I remember that there was a butcher’s, a baker’s, a grocer’s and a greengrocer’s at the end of our street, and that’s where we did all our (food) shopping for years and years.

    Until my mother bought a freezer, in fact.

  6. Oh I just love this post Helen. So many memories have come flooding back to me now. Similar experiences of shopping. I remember J. Sainsbury when it was primarily a fishmonger, with just a few other provisions. We had a shop which might have been Home and Colonial (not certain) but it was at the top of the High Street, after the visits to the butcher and greengrocer, and where my mother would buy a huge bag of broken biscuits as a treat. We had a department store that had those money machines that wizzed through shutes along the ceiling…fascinating for a small child. Shopping these days is nowhere near as exciting.

    Thanks for a lovely trip down memory lane xx

      1. Ah now I’ve just remembered…it wasn’t J. was Mac Fisheries, which if my memory serves me right was bought out by a supermarket chain. But that’s where my memory fades somewhat.

  7. Wonderful evocative post. My parents used to park us at Saturday morning cinema while they went shopping. I could never decide what sweets to buy from the sweet shop. 🙂

  8. Reigate was my town and the Sainsbury’s was where you had to queue at each ‘department’ for the different goods and pay separately as well.
    A couple of years ago we had a chinese meal in a green & white tiled place that was a Sainbury’s back in the day. It looked very smart.

    1. Friends lived in Redhill…but I wasn’t often in Reigate. I can remember the same system in force years afterwards in Schmidts in Charlotte Street and in La Roche grocers in Soho…

  9. I walked with you on this wonderful wander down memory lane and so many whiffs of my own childhood came wafting back. And interesting that it all came back to you as the result of a comment from someone – Janice has done this to me recently! I love these sketches from the past and absolutely adore the arsehole anecdote!! Just hilarious; nay, genius. Axxx

    1. Yes, she gave us Woolworths…and then Saltaire!
      The thing was about ‘that word’ that nobody used it….the Americanism hadn’t taken root…so it was all the more shocking.

  10. Ah what memories, now with supermarkets the fun has gone out of shopping. My mother used to walk into the butchers and ask for 10 lbs of leopard meat, (Yes we were bringing up a leopard that was found after the mother had sadly been killed), the people in the shop used to stand there open mouthed but the butcher knew exactly what she wanted. Maybe not quite as exciting as an blue arsehole though 🙂

    In later years my Mum and I used to always giggle at the same things and shopping with her was always the best thing ever. Eleven years now she has been gone and how I still miss her. Diane

    1. I loved the leopard meat!

      It is tiny things that bring back people you love….and tiny things last over the years.

      When shoppping with mother in December I was trying to decide on a handbag in a sale.
      She only had to say..What about the blue one and the whole aerosol thing came back and we were in stitches.
      The assistant must have wondered if we were all there!

  11. Ah the sweet smell of arsehole! No wonder we have an ozone problem.

    More seriously its’s scary how much we recall of our childhoods – I have an urge to revisit my walk to school – first chapter of my next book actually!

    1. Must be old age creeping up on us….at speed!

      I do wonder why people buy all this stuff for their loos….we’re generations away from the old long drops, squares of newspaper and nightcart men…
      Modern plumbing…with the dishonourable exception of France…works very well…so what is the perceived problem?

  12. The only Home and Colonial Store I remember was in Scarborough, I thought it was so exotic. It was clothes though. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham and exotic ex-pats in Asia or Africa. Must have influenced me more than I realised.

    Read out your aerosol tale to partner who happily sniggered away at it for some considerable time. We never used that spray when I was a kid and apparently neither did his family. The gullible customer – will buy anything eh? Necessary or not.

    Spillers Shapes. That was what our dog ate. We bought them by the sack. And either they or the raw minced beef he ate caused a similar arsehole issue to Sandy’s. Pippa on the other hand is a lavender dog. So to speak. After extensive research (ie five seconds of thinking about previous dogs) I put it down to diet.

    1. Spillers Shapes came later..I remember buying them.
      No we never used and do not use sprays….no need.
      But I wonder about the question of diet…both human and canine…in relation to pongs.

  13. Wonderful, wonderful post, Helen. i’m still giggling at your arsehole anecdote and thinking that perhaps people were a little kinder in some ways back then. These reminiscences brought back such memories of shopping in very different surroundings – Lancashire mill town rather than Home Counties suburb. Yet we too had the Co-op with its change machines and the receipts which we kept religiously and stuck on long sheets to claim our divi. No BHS or M&S but the Co-op sold clothes and there were lots of stalls at the indoor and outdoor markets for the kinds of clothes that didn’t need to be tried on.

    No Home & Colonial, but a Maypole grocer’s in the main street and Dewhurst grocer’s stall in the market hall, with butter in slabs and loose sugar and broken biscuits. 😉 Being less than 30 miles from Fleetwood’s fishing port there was wonderful fresh fish aplenty at prices that almost everyone could easily afford. Imagine a working-class family buying fresh haddock or halibut or plaice today. Oh, I could go on and on…..

  14. This is such a coincidence! TH and I spent at least an hour the other day discussing memories of what came before Tesco… and exchanging our very different memories (his of deepest Cornwall by way of Cape Town and Kampala, mine of Bolton) of the shopping habits of our childhood. TH recalled his mother going to the grocers and putting the shopping on her account, to be settled at the end of the week (noted in a small book by the grocer) and I remembered thrice-weekly trips to town and the markets – the “open” market (Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) and the Market Hall..and Mrs Dean at the sweet shop, where we always stopped after going for a “run out” in the car…those being the days when fuel prices weren’t prohibitive and you could just go out for a drive into the country without worrying about your carbon footprint or whether you would have the funds to fill the tank! Mrs Dean would always give MY mother extra green triangles in her quarter of Quality Street because she knew they were mum’s favourite.
    I was a dogless child. TH’s family had Fergus, whose flatulence sounds as though it was very much on a par with your Sandy’s…

    1. When I moved to East Anglia in the early seventies I used to give my grocery order weekly which would be delivered then settle accounts monthly.
      The staff thought I must have terrible trouble with my ears as I used to order olive oil by the gallon can.

      Perhaps I should do a flatulent dog post…and I wonder if flatulence had anything to do with the model in the photograph in your latest post!

      1. Either flatulence or loose morals….I suspect a flatulent dog post would resonate with many people. Although, on reflection, perhaps “resonate” was a poor choice of word…

  15. Lovely, lovely post.
    The aerosol comment reminded me of standing in a queue in a grocers in the 70s when a small boy rushed in for some Learner for his Mum. The man behind the counter carefully lifted down a bottle of pink Lenor. So overscented stuff was about then………………..

  16. Oh Helen. I just loved reading this. So much in fact that I had to pass it onto Mum (who is still sans laptop sans broadband in her luddite flat – so comes to me for the www).
    And aside from your forever-wonderful writing style , you brought back so many memories too.
    The Co-op Drapery ruled my home village – dispensing douce clothing and footwear and sensible home furnishings like a GP dispensing asprin and vitamins. Ugh! Those sensible wellies that I hated. Those ‘derry’ boots – fur-lined and waterproof and about 30 years out of date even then! Then there was Cattons the grocers – old-fashioned and fighting the brand new Co-op supermarket (in reality very tiny and tinny). With the two maiden sisters cutting cheese with a wire and patting butter from a churn and slicing the most amazing bacon from a huge slab. And the butchers! Oh – bloody and sawdust scented. Haunches hanging. Bloodied rabbits and trays of liver.

    But how we laughed and laughed at ‘arsehole’. Wonderful. And so so so British….

    1. Mother remembers stuff much further back, of course….in particular a general stores definitely not used by her mother because you had to watch that he had not served the previous customer with parafin before – hands unwashed – serving you with cheese….
      Glad your Mum enjoyed it.

  17. A wonderful journey down memory lane and beautifully written… I love the perfect oxymoron of ‘liberty bodice’ and the idea of Mr Sprange the ironmonger (I can picture him perfectly). ‘Pete and Pat’ ran our village ironmongers and it smelt of rust, birdseed and mousedroppings 🙂

    1. I found a successor to Sprange when moving to France…a sort of plumbers’ supplies cum everything else…but run by oneelderly gentleman who knew where to put his hand on the most obscure of items.
      I bought a lot of his stock when he retired.

  18. What a lovely nostalgic post. I often wonder what I would think of that long gone world of childhood shops if I went back to it as an adult. I mean, is it the memory of childhood that was so good, or were those kind of shops really better? Will kids today reminisce happily about going to Tesco I wonder? Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.

    1. Well, in a way, I have. Supermarket culture is just on the march here so there are lots of little specialist shops…which can be fun or frustrating depending on hoiw urgent your need for something particular.

      I agree. I think we look back to things we did as kids…whatever that might have been.

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