Birmingham should be renamed Tescoville. In my area of the city three new Tesco stores have opened up in the last couple of years. Now I don’t have any major ‘beef’ with the big supermarkets, as my experience of smaller independent shops where we live is overpricing and poor range of goods. Having said that, my wife and I do use a local butcher who can tell us precisely which farm his meat comes from, though when I say local I should say his shop is a mile and a half away. Tesco’s do put the name of the producer on its ‘piccolino vine ripened cherry tomatoes’. I just went to the fridge to check his name and I had removed the protective film top where his name was printed. My memory suggests it was John something, they are really nice and sweet, sorry John that’s the best plug I can give you.
My lack of sympathy for the local shop probably stems from childhood, and also a natural aversion to Mary Portas. When I was 5 years old my family moved into a new council house on what then was the very edge of Birmingham. It was a fine brick built product of what must have been a progressive initiative from post war British planners. It had four bedrooms and, in what seems now to be a far off dream for city dwellers, a coal fire. That fire has assumed a large nostalgic place in my memory. The winters seemed, and probably were, colder then, and as our bedrooms were unheated the evenings could be spent getting as close to the fire as was safe.
Being a new estate didn’t mean the planners had given us good local shops. There was a row of shops in Copperfield Rd. News agent , post office, grocers, butchers, greengrocer and barbers are the ones I can remember, but that involved a walk of about half a mile. Now half a mile is not an enormous distance, but if you were carrying 10 pounds of King Edward’s it seemed a long way. So for convenience the planners provided a row of three prefabricated shops just round the corner in Berrimount Rd. I don’t know what the walls of the shops were made of but they weren’t substantial, and they provided little defense against local lads when they broke in to steal cigarettes.
At the right end of the row was Durbin’s the grocers. The Durbins were a Scottish couple in their 50’s. I think they were Catholics, so we belonged to the same tribe, but they must have visited the manse at some stage as they exuded a air of mothball piety and offered meagre goods to customers as if they were handing over crumbs from the last supper. Mr Durbin had a particularly sparse and stingy way of slicing the boiled ham. It was ham of the poorest quality, in fact it looked as if the nearest it had ever come to a pig was when Father Houlihan came to do his weekly shop. Mr Durbin would offer up the ham to the slicer in a manner reminiscent of a nuclear scientist handling a radioactive isotope. Once the ham was fixed in place he would turn the handle of the slicer like a man grinding with the mocrometer set at 000. A quarter of Durbin’s boiled ham would serve as a treat for our Sunday tea, always followed by a tin of cling sliced peaches and evaporated milk, probably bought with the family allowance, the welfare state at it’s best, no childhood obesity then. I cant remember how much the ham cost, but Dad probably earned about £8 a week in 1955.
Today 10 slices of Tesco’s everday sliced ham will cost you 61p, roughly 12 shillings in old money. I don’t know what it tastes like.