We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The UK & US: Supermarkets, the Victoria Albert Hall, & Happy Sheep · 5 September 05

My dear Fanny,

My good friend Nick suggests that Jim and I got it wrong when we assumed the people we seemed to see everywhere on the sidewalks of England at tables drinking, eating, talking, from 11 in the morning until well past what used to be closing time, that these people demonstrate that most or many people in the UK are not yet work-a-holics. I also know that from talking to British people that the work schedules they are now coerced into, the cuts in their pay, and other anti-labor anti-people government decisions (see below on the decision in the ‘60s to dismantle many of the train stations across the UK) have been pushing British people into work-a-holic schedules.

Stll Nick’s comment prompts me to turn back to talking of our trip this summer—and travel as such. Places Jim and I have no photos of were probably more important in entering the culture of England than any museum, theatre, historical spot, park, or other play space we went to.

Tesco’s and Safeway. Supermarkets. We probably spent more time in both altogether than any other place except where we lived and the Tube and our rented car. When I was in my 20s I decided the amount and variety of foodstuffs, the looks, the customers of a supermarket told more about a country than any other place. In the 1960s in Germany supermarkets were luxurious places; in Leeds, supermarkets were dismal. Poor meat, few choices of fresh fruits and vegetables, rows of jams and over-seasoned squashes are what I remember best in the supermarket in Leeds 7. The one thing that was decent was the cheese.

This time the situation seemed to me ambiguous. The supermarket we went to in Ealing (a Safeway) consisted 1/3 of mostly cheap wine and hard liquorm and 2/3s of the same sort of impoverished eating, with the addition of pre-prepared overspiced and heavy meals in freezers. But in Wells in Somerset we found a supermarket (a Tesco’s) that recalled the supermarkets we learned to drive to when we were in Bath, Devonshire and Sussex in the middle 1990s. These all had a large variety of good fruits and vegetables, good breads (brown, not just white sponge), all sorts of decent meats, good cheeses galore, lots of good canned things, just marvelous in choice. The liquor was less than 1/4 of the store.

And the parking lot. The space was jammed with cars. People came from all over—as they had done just outside Bath, in Devonshire and just outside Chichester. England is overridden with cars: the roads are not wide enough. Many of them seemed to be in this parking lot.

(Driving was something of a hard chore and nerve-wracking for Jim. The roads are too narrow. The line in the middle functions as a suggestion not something to adhere to the left or right of.

Jim remarked how the man who ran the trains in the 1960s made a serious error when he eliminated so many train stations: people had to get cars and now those who can afford them got them, less and less people use public transportation. We also noticed that it seemed infra dig for middle class people to ride the buses. We rode buses all the time in London.)

So lots of money is swimming around to buy food in good supermarkets.. And the people in these seemed very busy. The supermarket really was crowded around 5 to 6. This bespeaks a long working day for many. Women looked like they were coming from professional jobs, though as I recall most shoppers were women.

You might think then that except for the buses (and maybe we were wrong there), the UK is an increasingly classless society. More and more people at the well-stocked supermarkets. Well, at least those who can get there by car. Go to half-price tickets for plays if you don’t want to be a spectacle of standing. Credit card usage ubiquitous. (Though we saw shops with signs offering to help you organize your debt.)

However, I suggested not in one of my postings on our trip.

Here I’ll adduce what we saw in the Victorian Albert Hall. About two minutes before the concert was about to begin, there was an intense and loud buzz from the equipment which was to broadcast the music on BBC 3. The audience had to wait a full hour before the equipment could be got to be silent while the orchestra played.

This gave us lots of time to study the audience. I cannot accept the way the center of the hall is not so much filled with people standing but how they are crowded together and are not allowed to sit. The standees pay 4£, and during the wait would as a group hurl little speeches at the orchestra and also the rest of the hall. Probably I was to take them as proud to be there, and not at all concerned with the discomfort they had to endure.

I don’t believe it. I think they were self-consciously defiant. The equivalent group at the NYC Metropolitan opera is slowly given seats in the audience once the performance begins. I felt that made visible was playacting self-delusion, pretense on the part of the groundlings and complacence and amused askance on the part of those seated. The US class system can be and is pernicious (it kept me I believe from having any hope of a secure or good academic position), but it’s not visible in the way of the UK.

The Victoria Albert Hall is beautiful—it reminded me of Carnegie Hall in NYC. Still at Carnegie we do not have at the center a group of crowded-together people who the seated can watch at their comfortable leisure. In both gilt is much in evidence, classical symmetrical good taste. The Albert has a beautiful park in the background and is surrounded by handsome buildings. Arond the Carnegie is fifth avenue and the near-by block, lots ot hotels, places to eat and drink.

The music at the Albert was beautiful.

So too did we see the class system or at least pathetic attempts to keep it up at a recital we went to on a Monday afternoon, also broadcast on the BBC radio. This had an audience who registered strong class distinctions in dress and seating arrangements. Thus while we were at this recital hall (in a church-like building) I realized why people often will prefer to sit at home and listen to the music through media: at least at home you escape the sense of putting up an ever-so-respectable front to keep up with the others. The woman who sang when she spoke between numbers seemed to be addressing an audience from the 1940s. She spoke of sex as "naughty." Probably I never thought about this when we went to the Carnegie. I was much younger then.

For tourist and native watching watching there’s nothing like the tourist shop with all the souvenirs. It was in such places I bought a few of the books Jim listed when we got back. I also bought a picture: a picturesque drawing of the Roman Baths in Bath. Lots of kitsch in such places :). They were often next to a cafe or pub where you could sit out and drink and eat at leisure—just like the people on the sidewalks from 11 o’clock on. Tea, coffee, wine, cakes, bread, sandwiches. The sandwiches in England have improved: much more things inside the bread than once there were. And portions are as huge as the US: I did think that British people in general are heavier than they used to be. Two hot heavy meals a day puts on weight. In restaurants the light or cold lunch is still not what’s wanted in nice sit-down places.

The price of eating out in England is today very high, Fanny. Take note. We overspent our eating-out budget by way too much.

I did buy one item I want to mention as although there is no photo of it (and it has nothing to do with class in the UK or US), it stands for non-human creatures we saw a lot of while in Somerset exploring the pre-historic.

I got myself a lovely fluffy happy stuffed toy sheep. It’s about 6 inches wide by about four high. It’s a boy (or ram) as it’s got horns. What I like about it is it seems to have a smile. The posture and coloring make it a cheerful object. I’ve put it on the mantelpiece of our living room. I named him Sweetheart.

(N.B. Jim is preparing a photo Laura took around Stonehenge of the placidly munching sheep—to match the photos she took of the ducks in Prior Park gardens near the palladian bridge and the two ponds which pour water one into the other. We were having tea and the ducks came over to see if we would feed them.)

I enjoy going to supermarkets when we travel. I like to buy and eat the country’s food as available in shops—and also open air markets (that especially in Europe). I like going back to wherever we’ve rented and cook what we bring home. With Angela we ate what are today perhaps English vegetarian meals. Lots of melted cheese over spaghetti deliciously cooked. Washed down with wine. We had some of our happiest moments the four of us eating together in that great hall in the 15th century manor house.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Dear Nick,

    You are right. This new kind of store is replacing the old markets and local realities. Real and undenable losses and substitutions of unrooted ways and lack of connections between people because of it.

    Still, what startled me was how crowded was the parking lot. People came from all over that part of Somersetr to shop at Tesco’s. We saw the same thing in supermarkets just outside Bath, in Devonshire somewhere (I’m not sure what city/town it was outside of—near Lyme) and Chicester.

    It costs too much for the land and the supermarket to be in a town and supermarkets are meant to come with with parking lot. You shop all at once once a week

    For myself it would be hypocritical to decry it. I too loved the variety, quality and ease of
    what was offered.

    Each place we’ve lived in when we came to England (we rent places with kitchens and dining room areas) we’ve brought the good stuff home, cooked and drank and been happy.

    Chava    Sep 8, 10:56am    #

commenting closed for this article