The Tesco’s at Five Ways is the largest supermarket in Birmingham City Centre. However, this accolade is soon to be wrestled from its grasp by the new Morrisons’s near the Calthorphe Road in Edgbaston. Morrisons has definitely started its campaign in earnest, an M Local now stands on New Street where Habitat used to be. There is a new generation of superstore dominance in Birmingham City Centre – next to Birmingham Snow Hill station there is a coyly named Little Waitrose; however, over the road a string of artisan food shops have sprung up in the Great Western Arcade, Anderson and Hill placed opposite the tobacconist and the Greggs. And the Pallasades, once a breeding ground for pound and thrift shops, has been consumed by what appears to be a giant metallic Pac-Man, it’s sated gob belching over the shoppers walking on Lower Temple Street.
Behind it, the UK’s largest John Lewis store is being constructed in its place. You used to have to go to Solihull to get to a John Lewis. Solihull isn’t in Birmingham, must as like Sutton Coldfield isn’t in Birmingham, and Salford doesn’t belong to Manchester. Residents of all these ‘S’ places, some more legitimately (Salford, is emphatically NOT in Manchester he hastens to add) get rather nowty if you make this mistake, and so Silhillians (those from Solihull) will possibly breathe a sigh of relief into their dry sherries that us riff-raff are getting their own John Lewis and will stop clogging up their hallowed streets with our glottal stops and dropped aitches. This is possibly a good development as it will inspire peace and harmony between our two towns and finally we can work together on improving our fractured relationship.
But for the while, Tesco’s at Five Ways remains, and, when busy, is akin to a large village marketplace, full of people of all shapes and sizes, all bustling together and getting in each others way, looking keenly for the lowest chicken prices and the best 3 for 2 deals. The staff there are well trained and keen to help, their blunt, lowbrow humour often putting their customers at ease and with a song in their heart. Last Thursday I went in to cash in my change jars (which came to a handsome £9.67 and at least 2 Euros.) Going over to the counter, the cashier, a stout lady with a perm, of around fifty, peered at me from behind her spectacles and on handing me my receipt and my money said;
“There’s been a few of you lot today, cashing their coins in.”
“Bill day!” I said.
Her colleague, another stout lady, but with long mousey hair, laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“She thought you said something different.”
“What do you think I said?”
The cashier with the spectacles nodded me closer, and whispered in my ear:
Her mouth accentuated the syllables, and she looked at me, her face looking for my reaction.
“Ha-Ha! Well I’m afraid i’m not sure how much one of those cost! Ha! Good day to you, Madam!”
They looked slightly puzzled and I went, still laughing at the exchange, out of the shop.
Yesterday more merriment was to be had. This time I was going to get the food for the week, which involved a lot of vegetables and some Weetabix. The weather had been foul but luckily I had my new Maine golfing umbrella, a hoodie, good shoes and a selection of Britpop classics on my ipod – Mausoleum by Manic Street Preachers played as I walked in, an ironic tribute. I turned my ipod off and got a trolley, putting my rucksack and umbrella in, and my list where I could see it. I was ready to go. as I’d found out that concentration is important when in a big Tesco’s, due to the people shuffling behind you, not wanting to ask a simple ‘excuse me’ because they prefer not to make human contact if it’s not necessary. And the area in between the drinks and the household cleaning products was indeed a minefield, with people changing direction and wandering about aimlessly, all in their own worlds, minds full of their shopping lists, meal planners, good deals and conversations. People like me. I needed to get some green lentils, and green lentils that-don’t-need-soaking in a 500g bag, as we don’t have the space for one of those 2kg jobbies – however it seems that Tesco’s only does the larger bags these days.
The world foods section near aisle 40 had disappeared, and had been replaced by a Costa Coffee and an aisle for breakfast cereals. Quite a lot of breakfast cereal. Puzzled, I nevertheless got two boxes of Weetabix which had been re-branded ‘Fuel Britannia’ in a case of London 2012 slogannering. Momentarily I thought I’d hang on to this packaging for posterity once I’d finished with it as it struck a chord. The Scott’s Porage Oats shot-putter arced his body proudly. Once finished with, the box would be flattened and stored at the back of a cupboard along with theatre programmes and receipts, and probably not chucked out until 2035, definitely not in an Olympic year anyway. Mesmerised by my thoughts I hadn’t noticed a couple craning their bodies around me, trying to get to the Rice Krispies, or at least, peering at them, trying to decipher some sort of hidden code. I politely made my excuses and left them there, still locked in an intensive debate.
After putting some cheese and orange juice in my trolley, I saw an assistant, who I spoke to about the lentil situation. I approached her with my best personable manner;
“Excuse me Madam, I haven’t been here since your most recent…um…restructure, would you mind telling me where you now keep the lentils, please?”
“Certainly. Go right to the end of this aisle, turn left, and it’s Aisle 38 or 39.”
“Thanks ever so much. Have a nice day!”
I went over to Aisle 39 first, and past the couple I had seen trying to decipher the codes on the cereal boxes, now staring intensely up at some Jerusalem artichokes. Perhaps, like me, they were mesmerised by the sheer amount of foodstuffs on offer, or perhaps, even where the small bags of lentils were these days. I was concerned that the information that I had been given was wrong, and I went over to Aisle 38, again, no joy. Wandering around rather sheepishly, and realising that I’d need to go back on myself again as I hadn’t picked up any thyme or lemons, a line from ‘The End’ by The Doors popped into my brain.
“Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain.”
The irony of the quote made me hoot with laughter, and as I walked on I sang the next lines to myself quietly.
“And all the children are insane.”
Two kids hung off their mothers trolley as she pushed towards the halal meat counter. I could see that there was an aisle, Aisle 36, that looked like it sold pulses.
“All the children, are insane.”
I scoured the shelves, and could only see 2.5kg bags and 1kg bags that needed at least an hours soaking, which wouldn’t do. A scruffy man with greasy hair peered over my shoulder, at possibly the same situation. Frustrated, I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and yell “Waiting for the summer rain, yeah” at him, but I didn’t. A shame, because he could have been a Doors man. However, if he hadn’t have been a Doors man, he might have taken the quote at face value, and said “I’m not waiting for the bleeding summer rain mate, fucking pissed it down just now.” I turned my trolley around and made do with a few cans of East End chopped tomatoes, going cheap at 23p. It was time to go and get the thyme that I needed, and the lemons. The checkout till went without incident or anecdote, however, it had stopped raining, and that was a good thing.
I’m guessing the 500g bag of green lentils that-don’t-need-soaking are the province of Sainsbury’s, But that’s another story.