When the supermarket came to town we flocked to it. For a provincial town, it was the arrival of the outside world: for the first time, things seen on television, read about in the national newspapers, seen in cities, were at hand – chorizo sausage, mangoes. Soon every one of us carried around the familiar logo: everyone knew they could attain the progress and sophistication on offer at the supermarket if they followed their eyes through the invisible curtain of air conditioning to the fluorescent glow, through the imperceptible barrier of a single purchase to be part of it. And we did.
Many years passed this way: balsamic vinegar was embraced; the bag we tore off to carry cous cous transported our swimming things to the pool. By the road, bags waved as flags from the branches of hawthorns. The initial, overwhelming awe of the grid iron of shelving and the multiplicity of the supermarket image across every mode of communication was overcome and we started to notice things about it, and laughed to ourselves as we shopped there.
And the someone told us about ethics. The party was over. If we picked up original sin in the womb, as soon as the packet of carnaroli risotto passed over the laser beam it was ours and the comings and goings of delivery lorries were our blood and our tongues spoke the language of discounts.
From then on, we lived in the side streets. When we wanted a new coat, we knew a lady who kept a little shop. Behind her dusty windows were mannequins who had bought their liberty from the vast department stores in the centre of town – or been rescued from a skip, awaiting a pauper’s cortege on a low loader. When we opened the door, a bell rang and she appeared from somewhere out the back, not saying anything. Between us was a big mound of clothes.
“I was after a new coat. Perhaps an old navy coat? Or a postman’s?”
She took off her shoes and climbed over the rude wardrobe, saying nothing. It was firm enough to support her – as she crawled her hands did not slip into voids in the mound or catch on the buckles of belts. At length, she grabbed a sleeve and pulled. Out came an epauletted jacket with gold buttons in the same posture as it would hang on the arms of a lieutenant or a washing line.
So we stood in our new jackets, looking up at the carrier bag flagpoles, and felt that we had escaped their power. Over the telephone at weekends we said the only trolley handles we would grip are those half-buried in the stream, like the occult for clubcard holders.
But the confidence the jackets gave us was no different to that of the carrier bags and balsamic vinegar. We thought the supermarkets would keep us laughing until judgement day – until the weekend and beyond; but once the laser beam had scanned us in, it was folly to think we could scan our way out: our bones and tissues were laid down from cous cous and balsamic vinegar. Who was it that told us about ethics? They were an unremarkable face in corridor we can’t even remember. What they gave us has eclipsed our memory of them. But they hadn’t told us the whole story.
So new technology developed and dispersed into everyday consciousness. We came to view with increasing circumspection the statements of government, the advice of astrologers and physiotherapists, the claims of businesses, and an uncertainty crept in. Advertising became more and more aggressive, seeping in at every crack like a peasouper; service providers desperately sought to challenge us with novel amalgamations of technologies; celebrities, the media and the-man-on-the-street exploded the limits of how far they could kaleidoscope themselves into one another. Carbon, which was once the basic stuff to make up humus and humours, the dirt in the ground and blood in our veins, loomed over us threatening to turn up the heat on everyone.
And so we looked to nature to grasp the threads that link things to where they have come from, who has touched them, while through media we control and media we don’t, we lost our grip in a world where there was no start and no end: the product was the starting point: each image we saw an island, its past and its future, its friends and its foes all lost and untraceable, even before the keystroke of delete. We stood under wind turbines and felt their blades swish above us and pressed our ears to their trunks to hear the whirr within.
If the face that started us laughing is unremembered, the one that stopped us is not so easily forgotten. One overcast afternoon, in a mediocre tearoom on the Barbican in Plymouth, a new realisation dawned. In the waiter’s face we saw that he didn’t get the joke.
“The modern man follows all manner of charlatans and harbours any number of delusions,” he said.
But who are the charlatans and which are the delusions? It’s anyone’s guess.
The stock on the shelves keeps changing and jackets gather in an ever growing pile of old jackets: every time an idea exchanges between us it changes and new meanings arise. We are caught up in a shuddering amalgam, forever under an illusion, living in a fantasy. No longer do we have any barometer, nothing to rely on, nothing to tell us the news and what it means. If only we had known sooner.
The waiter cleared away our plates and disappeared out the back, not saying anything. We went out into the street, the bell ringing as we closed the door. Faces gazed at us through the windows, their mouths closing on mediocre slices of cake.
In the grey Plymouth afternoon, we stopped and looked around us: a little tuft of moss on the wall, an Internet group on the computer. We can look closely at these things with patience: in the street, in the workplace; but we can also look outward at what is going on beyond these things: behind the workplace, on the hillside. The modern world works to draw our attention towards some things and away from others; we can reconsider the balance, giving our full attention at all times.
These things are around us and we must make our own conclusions. They have always been there and always will be; and for most of us, our attention is diverted from them only momentarily. Indeed it is almost impossible for our attention not to lapse; but now, seemingly lifeless and with nothing to say for themselves, they are sitting almost entirely exposed to our view, unentangled. Of course, once you look, they are fresh, bemusing, poignant and immensely powerful and any uncertainties or confusions we had when our attention had been diverted away are immediately resolved, or at least left to stand as paradoxes.
From a perilous height, this may seem strange, and alienating, but when you find it you realise it’s been around you and with you forever, and will at once be familiar – like an old coat you’ve never liked yet never throw away, a bottle of balsamic vinegar in the back of the cupboard, a decade out of date.