Belfast Telegraph

They've paved paradise and put up that supermarket lot

We knew him, my brother and I, as Mr Mac, a dour sort of man who (I discovered years later) looked like Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours, and he stood staring down at us in his scruffy, brown drill coat, a fag behind one ear and a biro behind the other.

Me mammy says will you put it down for her, we chimed - my bother's childish stutter a nano-echo behind me.

In the book it is then, he said, staring down at us, and took the biro from behind his ear and proceeded to write down in a little, earmarked red book the 'messages' on the counter in front of him - the milk, tea, sugar and bread, box of matches (for the fire) and the evening paper so my mother could see what was on in newly-arrived one-channel land and my father discern how the rest of the world, largely outside his remit, was faring.

Mr Mac owned the corner shop and sold everything from hairpins to Harpic, doilies to Dentene, tights to Tayto and all manner of goods in between. Nails, curtain rails and mops and pales and bales of briquettes. And the ever-present evening paper, offering a broader range of topic than the old radio, with strange stories about fly-eating in Outer Mongolia or the numerous mistresses of the French president.

Mr Mac was handy for the 'messages', because his shop was, well, on the corner - he and his six kids and good wife actually lived over the shop, so many's a time when my mother ran out of milk you could knock Old Mac up after hours and put it down in the book. Though he seemed to be open all hours, anyway. And when he wasn't there, because he was off at the wholesalers stacking up on toilet paper, his wife, an authoritative source of all breaking local news - a nice woman, my mother said, too nice to put up with the likes of him - kept one eye on the shop and the other on the book.

And in the book it was until my father got his pay-packet on a Thursday and my mother settled up with Mr Mac on the Friday, always a great day because my brother and I would get a little treat, although it intrigued me how Mr Mac managed to always get the Penny Bars stuck to the Omo and so half the wrapper was left behind as he crossed our sweaty palms with the sticky toffee.

I was through the old neighbourhood not too long ago and the corner shop is long gone. Mr Mac too. In fact, the whole corner and the acres of greenland behind the terraced houses is gone, replaced by a huge car park and a shopping centre, full of outlets with designer names, in turn dwarfed by the giant supermarket where you can have anything your heart desires - at a price, of course.

The report in this week's Belfast Telegraph that as many as 1,000 small retail businesses face closure next year makes for sad and disturbing reading. Disturbing in that many people's livelihoods in these small business, that dot our high streets, the corner of where we live, are under threat in a time when many jobs outside the retail industry are also facing uncertainty and the knock-on effect for suppliers and related industries seems like a set of dominos, hanging on for dear life.

The report is sad in that the reality is very little can be done to ward off the collapse of many of these corner (high street) shops and small businesses. Oh, you can talk about bank levies and the SuperMarts and that retail levy, and exorbitant high street parking charges and myriad other factors. But the reality is that the once-familiar and the local is boring: we have grown big and fat as consumerists, the 'I-must-have-it-now' generation, despite the downturn, and we want everything big and writ large, the two-for-three variety and buy-one, get-one-half-price, to stock up once a week, for fear such super-outlets might never open again or Armageddon might arrive any minute and we would run out of all manner of delicacies while holed up in our bunkers.

Build it, someone said, and they will come. The big supermarkets, in the big shopping centres, offer literally everything from chalk to cheese with strange-sounding names - and cheap too if you want it so, as long as you are not too pushed about the sweat shops, the lack of fair trading or the E numbers. (And how come you can't find the Final edition of the Tele when you want to?)

You have to drive far to get there, of course - but, hey, you can fill up the boot a'plenty - and queue to park the four-wheeler but you can, at least, go there on Sundays ... and walk a different isle and bow to the god of consumerism.

Sundays Mr Mac would never have contemplated. You'd have had to knock him up, if the urgency was such there was no milk for the tea. And money most certainly would not have exchanged hands on that once sacred day.

That's what the book was for.


From Belfast Telegraph