Back in Time for the Corner Shop (second episode) – BBC 2

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This series really is excellent.  As we went through the ups and downs of the 1920s, the 1930s and the Second World War (my one criticism was that too much was packed into one episode), we were reminded what a crucial role shopkeepers played, operating the rationing system in wartime, and having to make tough decisions about offering credit during the Depression, when meat scraps and cake crumbs were sold off to those who couldn’t afford much more.

There was plenty of fun stuff too, from Bird’s custard powder ice-cream to fruit machines to the females of the family trying on 1930s-style make-up.  I love the idea of the Institute of Chartered Grocers training people to give advice on tea.  Priorities, folks, priorities!  I also love the idea of the lads of the family going round workplaces with barrels of beer on yokes.  Would someone like to try this with vodka, please?!  And, yes, we made it through the Blitz, the threat of Nazi invasion and, before that, unemployment rates of over 40%, without anyone stressing about toilet rolls. A lot of people wouldn’t even have had any!  Keep calm and carry on …

This episode started off in 1920, with things on the up, and shopkeeping becoming increasingly professionalised.  Guidebooks were published, and, as was mentioned later, the Institute of Chartered Grocers trained people in the crucial subject of giving advice about different types of tea, and expected quite a detailed knowledge of food laws and where different foodstuffs came from. A lot of emphasis was placed on the importance of shop windows. I do like a well-dressed shop window! A lot of places don’t bother these days, and it’s so nice when they do, especially if it’s a cake shop.

More brands and pre-packaged foods, including a lot of names that are still familiar today, appeared, as did more cleaning supplies – the decline in numbers of household servants after the First World War meant an increase in production of labour-saving products and equipment, which benefited everyone. And a beer pump in the shop. The mum and daughter were still stuck in the kitchen for most of the time, but they did get to have fun making Bird’s Eye custard powder flavoured ice-cream. We learnt a lot from the ice-cream!  For one thing, we learnt that firms like Bird’s sent out recipe cards with their stuff, to encourage people to use it. For another, we learnt that, until the development of better freezer technology, ice had to be brought in from Norway!  I never knew that.

Then recession struck. Why is there this idea that the ’20s were a great time for everyone? Surely the General Strike’s pretty well-known? Anyway, economic decline hit Sheffield, and our shopkeepers had to try to diversify by sending the youngest son out to make deliveries by bike further afield, sending both sons to the steelworks with buckets of beer, offering budget stock, and getting a fruit machine in the shop. We were reminded what a big thing gambling was amongst the working-classes during the inter-war years: I don’t remember any stories about fruit machines, but I’ve heard quite a few tales about members of our family being very keen on betting on the horses!

And a lot of attention was paid to people buying things on tick. This was fascinating, because I’d never thought about it that much from the point of view of the shopkeeper. These were community shops, which had been serving the same people for years. If you knew that some of your loyal customers genuinely couldn’t afford to pay you that day, because their breadwinners were out of work, but you knew that there was a very real chance that you’d never get the money, and you’d got suppliers to pay and your own mouths to feed, what did you do?  It was all so much more complicated than just buying and selling.  Plenty of food for thought there.

On into the 1930s, with things getting worse.  It was very interesting to see how shopkeepers continued to try to find new sources of income – “outside catering”, as we’d now call it, such as selling food at brass band concerts.  Back in the shop, as well as selling off crumbs and scraps, they were seeing customers coming in with food tickets – and having to tell them that the tickets only covered certain things.  It really was a fascinating reminder about the social history aspects of the inter-war years.  And I’m so glad that it was filmed in a northern city, because I don’t think it would have worked as well in the south, where the Depression didn’t hit as hard.

It was all seeming rather gloomy by this point, but we moved on to the economic recovery in the late 1930s, and the mum and daughter, who’d been rather put-upon until this point, got to try on face powder and lipstick and nail varnish, as the popularity of the cinema helped to make it acceptable, and even de rigeur, for respectable women and girls to wear make-up, which was something else that corner shops could sell. More new foodstuffs, as well.

But all good things must come to an end, especially in the 1930s, and soon it was 1939, and the elder son was taping up the windows, to try to reduce the risk of bomb damage, before being called up by the Army. As the mum said, we all knew that he wasn’t really going anywhere, but it was quite upsetting to think what it must have been like at the time. The BBC had traced the grandson of the people who’d actually owned the shop during the war, and he, now in his late ’80s, spoke about his memories of the horrors of the Sheffield Blitz.

As far as the shop went, what a vital part shopkeepers played in winning the war. We all know about rationing, but it’s easy to forget just how complicated it was – registering your customers, dealing with different types of ration books, trying to cope when there wasn’t enough stock in to fulfil the rations allowed, and knowing that slipping someone a bit too much could lead to a prison sentence. We don’t tend to think of shopkeepers as war heroes, but maybe we should. It had its lighter side too, though, as we saw the younger son and young customers being singularly unimpressed by the “carrot lollies” that were sold as rather poor replacements for sweets when the Dig For Victory campaign produced a huge carrot surplus!

Then the war was over, the elder son was coming home, and celebrations were being held.  It’d all been very quick, considering how much happened in the space of 25 years, but this episode, like the first one, really was good.  If you’re reading my wafflings, and you’ve not been watching this series and are in a country where it’s available, I strongly recommend giving it a go.

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