I went away for Easter, and Saturday found me wandering the concrete wasteland of a 1980s shopping centre, enjoying a bit of people-watching in the sunshine while Mrs. Bystander and our hostess went about the serious business of Shopping, which looks to my untutored eye like drifting around shops picking things from rails and putting them back again. Occasionally the two actions are separated by an interval during which the items are paid for, taken home and tried on before being taken back to the shop for a refund.
Anyway, I wandered by the local Woolworths, and my mind went back to my youth when Woolies meant an unlimited selection of small electrical accessories such as plugs, those old upright tills with a bell to summon the supervisor, and the forbidding injunction that "Money Must Be Registered Before Goods Are Wrapped" fixed to the front, and those 'Embassy' records that were cheap cover versions of current hits; the sort of thing that a clueless aunt might buy me for my birthday. Today's store seems to have expanded into computers and video-games in a half-hearted sort of way.
This took me back to a case that has stuck in my mind from more than a dozen years ago. A young woman came in to plead guilty to shoplifting from Woolworths in the High Street. She was simply dressed, wore no make-up, and could have been one of my daughter's friends. She had taken her toddler son to the shop in his buggy and tried some new shoes on him. She then tucked his old shoes behind him and went to push him out of the store wearing the new ones, pausing only to pay for a packet of sweets. Of course she was stopped and the police were called. In court she said that she was sorry, and that she had never been in trouble before. The father of her little boy had vanished before the birth, and she was struggling to get by. Then came the bit that hit home to me:- "I was looking around the children's things, and all the clothes looked so nice that I just wanted my baby to have something new". To a comfortably-off magistrate living in a consumption-obsessed society it was humbling to be reminded that there are people out there whose aspiration is a new Woolworths outfit for their little boy.
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