Friday, 18 June 2010

Deliver unto us our daily bread

Watching the supermarket vans pootling around South London, I am reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. Ordering online may be very 21st century, but having your groceries delivered was the norm for most of the 20th century. Only in the last few decades of the last century, when cars and supermarkets became ubiquitous, did we take it for granted that we had to go to the shop, the shop couldn't come to us.

When I was little, my mother didn't drive (she could drive, but it was generally considered better that she didn't, more of which later). So my father was sent off on a Saturday morning with a list to do The Big Shop. My father liked the list to be written in the right order, according to the layout of the shop. He even went as far as to type out a master list that my mother could consult when compiling the weekly list, so she could select the items she wanted and write them down in the right order. It is to my mother's eternal credit that not only did she use this master list, but she seemed to do it with a good grace too.

During the week, supplies were topped up by the delivery men. My personal favourite was the bread man. He would pull into our drive in his little Ormo Bakery truck, white with a large purple butterfly painted on the side. I would hop in the back with my mother's list and inhale deeply. If you think the bread section of the supermarket smells good, you would think you had died and gone to heaven in the back of that van. Along with all the usual bread, there were the local specialities: soda bread, potato bread, Vedabarmbrack, and muffins. These weren't savoury 'English' muffins or sweet American muffins (which are cakes, let's face it). These muffins were small, round, slightly flattened bready rolls that were a little bit sweet, with a smooth, thin, glossy and buttery crust. They were delicious fresh out of the packet or split, toasted or buttered. There was nothing else like them - it was only much later in life that I discovered they were a local variation on the most delicious bread of all - brioche.

We had lots of other things delivered directly to the house. I remember getting packets of sausages and bacon from the back of a van as well (may have been the bread man branching out, I can't remember). We had sack loads of coal and 'slack' (smaller pieces of coal good for damping down the fire without putting it out) delivered too. The coal man brought the coal round to the back of the house where we had two huge wooden coal bunkers. The coal man filled the bunkers from the top, while we got our daily supply by opening a little hatch at the bottom and poking at the compacted pile with a small shovel until a little avalanche trickled out into a waiting bucket.

Other fuels were delivered by Mr Munn. We had paraffin lamps and heaters that came in very handy when the Unionists called General Strikes in the 1970s and you could never be sure when the electricity would be on. Later we also had gas heaters that ran from bottled gas and had to be lit by flooding the front panels with gas then firing the pilot light. The result was a small, but none the less alarming explosion. Once the pilot lights had inevitably failed and we had to use matches to light the gas, it got hairier still. But it was worth it to be warm. Mr Munn ran a hardware shop and delivered clear plastic cans of pink, oily paraffin and the gas canisters. He wore a brown shopkeepers coat and a flat cap, was a thin as a whippet and taciturn to the point where you could complete an entire transaction without him saying a word.

And when all these methods of procurement failed and my mother found she had run out of something essential, she did what any sensible woman would do. She sent a small child off to 'run a message' to the corner shop. I would do the same, if only we still had such a thing as a corner shop.

Coming up next: my family and cars. A source of embarrassment, identity confusion, and fear for one's life (and not just because of my mother's driving).

1 comment:

  1. Love this….I remember when we used to get unpasteurised milk out of the back of a van when we lived in France. An old blue Renault would arrive in the square each night, two stout women would emerge, one sounding a klaxon, the other at the ready to pour….From all around the square women would come out of their houses, carrying everything from empty saucepans (enough for an individual chocolat chaud) to huge urns (family size crème brulee?!) and then they would form an orderly queue while the milk was dispensed (still warm) from huge bashed up metal tanks….Bureaucrats from Brussels brought it all to an end…seemingly we could all have died from the bacteria….