Friday 2 March 2012

Shopping with Mother

Sometimes when I think about shopping with my mother
 it is as if I am cast back a hundred years.

We traipsed from shop to shop:
 chemist, butcher, greengrocer, 
baker, fishmonger, newsagent, grocer
with arms lengthening by the yard.

The chemist was exactly as Martin Armstrong describes
in his poem Miss Thompson Goes Shopping,for it had, 
'The tall, big bellied bottles three -
red, blue, and emerald, richly bright
Each with its burning core of light.'
high in the window.

And when you opened the door you were assailed
by 'the old strange fragrance...
A fragrance like the garden pink,
But tinged with vague medicinal stink
Of camphor, soap, new sponges, blent
With chloroform and violet scent.'

The butcher was a protracted visit involving two queues, 
one to wait for the meat to be hacked
 with a cleaver from the carcass,
the other to pay the woman at the barred cash desk.
You could entertain yourself with a little sawdust shuffling.
The greengrocer, more outdoors than in,
was chilly and boring,
who cared about carrots?

The baker offered an occasional chance to choose 
an anaemic white bun with a slick of white or pink icing.
The fondant peeled off like a tongue 
and it was tempting to eat it all in one go, 
but the rest of the bun was as dry as blotting paper without it.

If the greengrocer was cold then the fishmonger was glacial.
I hoped it wasn't to be kippers.

The newsagent was also the tobacconist and confectioners'.
One of my earliest errands was to fetch Red Rizla papers
for my father's roll ups. 
Goodness that man could smoke.
Pipes, chiefly, but the Rizla machine
was never far from his side.
If he ran out he would grudgingly accept 
one of my mother's cigarettes.
They didn't illustrate that in Shopping With Mother.

Sweets were bought on Sundays after church.
6d worth of pineapple chunks, flying saucers,
Fruit Gums, Fruit Pastilles, chocolate eclairs,
Spangles, Tiffin bars, Turkish Delight.

The grocer was sometimes O'Brien's down the road,
(although he would send the Monday telephoned order up
 with a boy called Michael on his bike) but usually 
it was Sainsbury's up the road in its original incarnation -
chin height marble counters and repeated queues
as you worked your way slowly round the mosaic tiled floor for
a slab of Cheddar, a box of Weetabix,

sliced ham, jam, washing powder.

We had no car to collapse into,
but a long wait for the trolley bus 
which did not drop us anywhere near our house.
I marvel at 'mother's' smiling face and sprightly step.
Her tiny basket must weigh a ton by now.

Shopping with Mother by M.E. Gagg
illustrated by J.H.Wingfield
for Ladybird Books 1958.


  1. Yes, that was the truth of it, though it still holds a tinge of the idyll, and OMO for me is my childhood encapsulated, the theoretical bluer white we strained to see on the washing line. It's good to be reminded.

  2. Isn't that wonderful and nostalgic? I lived the tail-end of this - visiting my grandparents I used to shop like this but (just) in New Pence, or with Co-op stamps! My sister used to choose one of those buns, but I always asked for a macaroon! Thanks for the memories.

  3. I marvel too. It was still the pre-Valium era, after all.....

  4. Sue you are muuuch younger than me. Thank you for the link and lots more pictures. What are you having for supper tonight - zabaglione?

  5. I remember shopping with my mother at a butchers just like the one you describe: sawdust on the floor, the cashier's cage and queuing twice. He boiled his own joints of ham out back of the shop and sliced them to order on an enormous and utterly terrifying machine. How I would love to taste that ham again.

  6. What a wonderful post. I remember those days. Sawdust on the butchers floor, spangles and flying saucers, extremely white iced buns and the Ladybird 'Shopping with Mother' reading book - perfect!

  7. They used to put the eggs in paper bags and there were always some broken when we got home.
    I remember the eels under the marble slab at the fishmongers and the tea chests in Cullens.
    My mother never did get the hang of supermarkets !

  8. That brilliantly evokes my memories of Saturday morning shopping in Muswell Hill during the late 1950's - long before M.H. was considered remotely fashionable.

    I don't remember ever looking quite as smart as the boy in your last picture - but I was probably just as smug!

  9. I used to love the buying of "the apples"........ only two, ever. They would later be removed from the brown paper bag and then peeled and halved. We children had half each and mum got the last piece - our fruit for the week.

    Looking at that Rowntrees pastilles ad made my mouth water.... and I loved looking at the Omo ad, so graphically simple and delightful.

  10. Goodness, that brought back some memories - what I remember most was the individual smell of each shop - very poignant

  11. You have taken me straight back to the late 40s and 50s! What a lovely walk down memory lane, thank you so much - I shall be reminiscing all day now...

  12. America, didn't happen like that here:-(

    But if we're going to start comparing ages here I may have to become anonymous xo Jane!

  13. Shopping with my mother usually involved a box of Sunmaid raisins as a treat, and sometimes a snack at the formica and chrome lunch counter at Woolworth's. It's been great catching up on your blog today. It's always a feast for the senses.