View from the Bridge: 17

by John Morrison


17: Small Potatoes

It's a midsummer morning in Milltown and the shopkeepers are getting ready to open up. The Greengrocer sorts his deliveries, carefully putting the dirty, mis-shapen vegetables to one side. He stops his well-meaning assistant from giving them a cosmetic scrub: "Don't do that", he admonishes, "we can label them 'organic' and charge double the price".

Perhaps we shouldn't judge him too harshly. He's only trying to compete with the out-of-town supermarkets which he thinks are threatening his livelihood. The sort of places where you arrive at the checkout to find you've bought a bottle of chilli and oyster sauce, a packet of mange-tout, a sachet of Greek-style kebab marinade, a box of muesli, a tub of five-bean salad and a bottle of fizzy mineral water with just a hint of lime. You've forgotten to buy whatever it was you went in for, you've spent a week's wages, and you still haven't got anything you can actually make a meal with.

Believing that 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em', our Greengrocer is on a steep learning curve. When sprouts weren't selling ("the kids just won't eat them", mothers would complain) it was a real brainwave to call them 'fairy cabbages'. He's going upmarket, attempting to titillate the palates of Milltown's more affluent shoppers with ever more exotic fare. Today it's a tray of rare fruit, flown in from Kenya, which have the appearance and appeal of an old man's scrotum.

Mrs Smallholder has already bought half a dozen, to enliven a small dinner party. The Greengrocer bites his lip, wishing all his customers were like her, instead of the daft old biddies who ask him for five pounds of spuds, and then tell him to "make sure they're small ones because I've got to carry them home".

The shop next door is changing too. The Chemist has turned his back on years of supplying the good people of Milltown with essential - though unexciting - commodities, to relaunch his business as a pale imitation of the Body Shop. He's taken his sales philosophy from Anita Roddick's saintly efforts to save the Third World from the horrors of dry skin, using the well-documented cleansing properties of Vimto and Branston Pickle. The products aren't tested on animals, so God only knows what they're doing to us.


*     *     *

It's hard to imagine, as the rain bounces off the cobbled streets, that the longest day is already behind us. We are now into the town's traditional holiday period - Glastonbury Week - when the inhabitants of Hippy Street decamp en masse to deepest Somerset. Even those who can't go can still recreate the authentic Glastonbury experience right here in Milltown by not washing, setting light to a fistful of twenty pound notes, swallowing every pill in the medicine cabinet and spending three days of oblivion lying face down in litter and mud.

In any case, we are smack in the middle of our very own festival. Tonight there is a reading by what is billed as a 'well-known local poet': strange how the sobriquet 'well-known' is only ever applied to people you've never heard of. And an upstairs room at the Flag will be magically transformed into a folk club; this is the place to go if you want to join a compact gathering of the saddest-looking people you've ever seen.

"Hi, I'm Kevin", says Kevin, "I'd like to start the evening off with a song about whaling". He runs the Flag Folk Club only because he'd never get a singing spot, on merit, at any other club. When he fluffs verse 12 of his 15-verse ballad, his attempt to start again from the very beginning is drowned out by the rush to the bar.

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