We are living through strange times, in which shopping is clicked for, families are skyped, the extent of your social circle is visible, and opinions, no matter how ill-formed, are recorded for perpetuity. When I was growing up, especially during those awkward teenage years, the rhetoric was all about friends being for life, friends sticking with you through thick and thin. Now the only thing that sticks with us are bite-sized chunks of our thoughts: unalterable, ineradicable, retained.
It’s easier than ever to ‘be’ where we are not, or at the least to broadcast a version of ourselves to some other place, but the cynic in me rejects that this is a wholly positive ability. I question whether we give enough import to where we find ourselves, to the reality of where we are, compared with where we’d like to be. Even this comparison is problematic – we want to be elsewhere because that other place contains people, activities, culture and food that we desire. The temporal and spatial present, containing only shadows of those things, is a disappointing place – it’s easy to feel like we’re missing out, because remote participation has its limits.
There’s no question, for me, that being with someone else is the ultimate form of connection: breathing the same air, tasting one another’s food, hearing voices you’ve come to listen to and those you haven’t, a cuddle, a friendly smack, a host of visual clues – dress, accessories, pallor, hair condition, movements, eye contact, facial expression… we lose so much when we’re not together. Admittedly, the sensory overload usually puts me to bed whilst I absorb and assimilate every delicious detail, but what rich dreams!
I’m coming to think that I’m afflicted by a very particular breed of loneliness – one that not only induces a melt-down after prolonged tweeting, but one that clings to banal human interaction. In my contrary and incendiary youth, I didn’t fully grasp the argument against closing local post offices, and before that, the ongoing demise of the corner shop. In my infinite wisdom at the time (not wisdom at all, not then, certainly not approaching now) I wondered what the fuss was about, and generally felt it was laziness to demand a shop and a post office within a short walk, especially (the hypocrites!) from people who regularly criticised the price of things at said corner shop and therefore did most of their shopping at the nearby supermarket.
Now, having once again moved to an area where I know only a couple of people, where my nearest family members are hours away, and where I spend 95% of my time working solo from home, I think I’m beginning to understand the argument. A shopkeeper is invariably happy to see you. Never mind that their pleasure at your entrance is very likely because you represent the cash that keeps their doors open; we all need to feel like someone is happy to see us. Preferably on a daily basis. In Crystal Palace, we’re blessed with some of the best shopkeepers around – Bookseller Crow always has something that I want, even if I didn’t know it in advance, and then the transaction is sweetened, without fail, with some extra information about the writer in question (truly, Jonathan’s knowledge knows no bounds); Good Taste is simply cheese heaven, and Manish’s enthusiasm for his produce, and his customers, has done the impossible: make me love cheese even more (the days of ‘mild coloured cheddar’ are thankfully long behind me). The convenience of having such shops nearby is less to do with the quality of what they offer (though in both these cases, it’s a veritable feast) than it is to do with the soul food they offer – an open door, a smile, a conversation – which can be a necessary bridge between our tumultuous inner lives and the real world.
I’ve always been suspicious of the idea that commerce greases the wheels of prosperity and is heralded as the basis for economic security, and I think this is a reaction against filling our lives with stuff. It’s not the cheap and convenient availability of almost anything we’re encouraged to want that marks a great nation: it’s the dignity with which our shopkeepers treat us. Maybe commerce, on this local and human scale, is the answer to some of the emotional and relational problems of our time.
This morning, being out of coffee and milk, I walked the three minutes to my local shop. I was greeted with a smile and a hello. While my shopping was entered into the cash register, I chatted with a lady about the weather, and about her neighbour lamenting the lack of rain because the flowers need it. She told him he should water the flowers himself, in the evening, and she laughed. So did I. I wished everyone a good day as I left. I walked home thinking that for once, the day wouldn’t defeat me: I would make it count.