Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Turn Back Time-The High Street: The late 1930's

Turn Back Time- The High Street 1930's in an episode filled with Jeeves and Wooster mood music, took us into the  later part of the great depression when the sting in the tail wasn't so painful and some hope was returning. It's watching this series that shows you just how boom bust we are as a civilization. Not just economic hard times then prosperity, but war and peace in an almost predictable 15 year cycle. And this ep was all about the short lived happiness just before WW2 broke out. For the first time children became the focus of mass marketing as our parents and grand parents got an allowance and weren't forced to work down t mill any more. The other big change was the improvement of working peoples lives with fixed business hours of 9 to 5 and Sunday's off, for Church. Add to that the state imposed hols, and people were given a massive amount of leisure time for the first time ever.

The changes aren't limited to opening times and hols either.  Merchants are now for the first time in human history offered a vast array of manufactured and pre-packaged goods, speciality items focused on specific demographics and age groups as well as leisure based goods aimed at filling the time available to adults and children. It's not all sweetness and light for every merchant, Butchers and bakers still have to "make" bread and cuts of meat, and the seamstress is still being commissioned for off the rack garments. But for those who choose to embrace the new manufactured goods world, the extra time is now focused on the simple but soul consuming idea of SELL SELL SELL. Advertising becomes king and as we will see, it can get pretty rough and cut-throat. At it's worst, merchants would undercut competitors, blatantly practice product placement and  buying incentives that went right past ruthless, straight to anything to get people to buy your stuff with the help of national advertising campaigns. Ovaltine had a secret decoder ring they flogged on the radio show they sponsored. Can you guess what the message was when you got your decoder ring???? Drink Ovaltine. Eventually the worst of the excesses were curbed by state intervention and the modern world of mass marketing and creation of need as we know it was born.

The other effect of the era on our merchants was also having a deep impact on our High Street families. The hordes of small people with money to spend meant the birth of the greatest era ever for candy shops and toy shops. These creatures had sweet tooths and vivid imaginations that didn't take a whole lot of prodding to buy sweets and the latest board game or toy. And while the children roamed the streets pester power unleashing by looking at eye level displays packed with temptation, the parents had a cornucopia of branded goods and pre made clothes to choose from. Our merchants would have to be up to the challenge. However our C of C does make sure we know that women stopped baking their own cookies and cakes, which now became the new source of income for bakers. Nearly forgot, Electricity and refrigeration arrive, giving we would think a leg up to the butcher and the baker.

So how did our merchants cope with all this?

Starting with the grocers, the sight of HP sauce, OXO, Hovis and Lyons as well as stacks of choccies and candies along with the fresh produce and fruit, signalled the beginning of the salad days on the High Street for the Sergisons. Mr. who hates children  smiled the entire time as he took large amount of money from children and his wife engaged in a less than fair trade policy with the butcher. I found her attitude unsavoury and predatory, bordering on  callous. Having found a wall that was the butcher's to hang a sign , she claims it for free rental while never once honouring the reciprocity agreement of putting the butcher's flyers in the shop. She then takes the next step of causing the butcher's shop hardship by claiming discounts that never existed. I'm surprised young Michael didn't take the sign down much earlier and drag them into court for damage to trade. Besides the predatory Mrs. Sergison, who seems to find new lows to delight in, with the approval of her husband, the shop itself, pretty much runs itself as one would have expected.

And so on to the Butchers... Father Andrew and young Michael who seems to have abandoned any idea of a boring career as merchant banker, feel right at home with was essentially a modern well equipped butcher shop the type I still remember frequenting not 15 years ago. You know before the big stores killed them off. Armed with cooking tips, and useful cuts of meat, they double their take from last week and find that selling 30's cuts is actually more attractive than the cellophane wrapped pre-cuts Michael thought was going to be the salvation of the place. Seems people really do appreciate personalized service that gives them absolutely the freshest meat they can  get. It being 2010,  the cellophane that might have been a revelation in 1937, didn't go down well with modern shoppers who were demanding the brown butcher's paper and the fresher cuts of meat. Who knew we missed the flank, blade, brisket, and  round of beef? Well me for one, I still get those from local halal butcher up the street. Service with a smile and I know what I'm getting. Lamb , beef and chicken, and if I want, the farmer's market has a game butcher as well. I have admit I'm probably not like most people and abhor the big box grocery stores and I don't cook ready made meals. As my lot become more important, the butcher will become more popular again as well. Michael in his flowering as a salesman, has growing appreciation for his father's chosen profession. But what really impressed me was the sense of fairness and hard graft the lad has in all his dealings, be it with clients or other merchants. Something I suspect the Sergisons will abuse at their own peril.

Which brings us to the baking Devlins.... Before I rip into Caroline the "Gourmet Baker", let me get this out out of the way first. What they experience, is what every ethnic family I have ever known that owned a business, ever went through. If you are the child of a restaurant owner, baker or delicatessen, you have no life. After school and homework, you help in the family business, as it will be partially yours one day, you have no holy days off regardless of faith as your mates might know them, vacations are a luxury and you do not get to play with your friends from school like a regular child. But don't feel too sorry for people like these, they become the hardest grafting people with the some of the best work ethic and community spirit you will ever know. If they promise you something, they will never let you down knowingly.

Jason teaches the "Gourmet Baker" how to bake cakes
Notwithstanding the slight problem with the electric oven, Caroline has the biggest problem any of the people on this programme. She's a baker like I'm the Emperor of China. Let me be clear here, baking cakes is easier than bread, there is no yeast involved  and the remaining chemistry so dead easy a 12 year old with a bit of training can do it. But not our Caroline...Gourmet Baker... Artisanal Master Baker, pull the other one, it's got bells on. In my life I have known true master bakers who are capable of  a wide variety of breads, cakes, cookies and pies. My own grandmother who considered her skills ordinary, could have baked circles around this woman. My own wife switches from egg bread and baguettes to elaborate chocolate cakes then back to a basic rye bread.  Caroline is so utterly useless as a baker that she needs Jason Hornbuckle, genuine baker, to show her how it's done. Even after her master class where she decides it's easy, she's still only doing basic sponge cakes and dead easy cookies. No surprise then that she hates all that hard work for little reward. Sooner the white bread vans arrive to put her and her family out of their misery , the better.

Gill, the seamstress, faced with a shop full of ready made off the rack dresses, prefers selling commissions and tries only hard enough to sell them till she can upsell the client onto a bespoke dress. Had she had to off load the stock or loose business, I'm sure she would have been a tad keener to shift them. As it is she does do a about £300 of trade in the week, which is not bad for the effort involved. Even the Chamber of Commerce lady is of the opinion Gill was right to sell her services over the off the rack frocks. The results were spectacularly transforming an ill dressed blonde woman into a stunning example of 1930's or 2010 chic. If you have enough customers, there is no reason you need to stop making special orders.

Simon Grant Jones, skilled artisan with no demand for his services, was further reduced to less than useful when he was made to run the new toyshop.  Not a natural salesman, Simon found it hard to close sales and was more interested in giving away his stock or playing with it. Quick note about the toy shop. Do not think the toy shop is an invention of the 1930's. Prior to that time only people of means and children from aristocratic families had toys, these toys needed to be made and sold, so there were toy shops, but now the great revolution of child labour being made a thing of the past, plus a well off middle class, meant the toy shops had a lot larger client base. Simon Did however pull himself up and saved his week later on during Empire day celebrations where the toys flew off the shelves into the hands of parents and eager children drawn by the meccano and electric trains on display. At the end of the day Simon is still no more closer to being a proper merchant and is likely to never move beyond trying  to prove smithing is a valid business without a sales force behind him. Much to his joy and the surprise of some sceptical mums, the children not only loved the toys and games, but seemed more alive than usual.

The crowning touch of the ep was to have a now lost children's day off that used to reach round the world, Empire day was a community event complete with fancy dress, races, street food and entertainments that celebrated the Empire that had made their prosperity possible.Shepton Mallet's Empire day was a huge success and was part of great week during which people reinforced the new habits of fresh meat, quality polite service and using their High Street. The merchants learned the mass produced goods mean more free time and The one family that seems most to have grown in experience are the butchers. Dad proud of his occupation, son clearly grown into a confident young man who can sell any cut of meat and is proud of what he's doing. Next week will prove harder as they enter WW2, but I'm sure it will as interesting as all the other eras.

Best line of the ep.... "Some of the regulars have been coming since the Victorian era". So there we have it, proof that Shepton Mallet is in fact on Gallifrey not Earth.

Look out for the High Street road show  check for a location closest near you or catch up the series on the iPlayer.

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