If there was one thing that made mum’s life worth living while we were growing up, it was shopping. All of the silly buzzwords and catch phrases that have evolved since the early ’60s could have applied to her: shop till you drop; when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping; and confessions of a shopaholic. The list goes on. Mum lived for her shopping, almost.
What is it about shopping? Even the most wealthy find it hard to be sated by any purchase, even the most expensive or the closest to buyer’s heart. Shopping is essentially unsatisfying for even the most fortunate among us. It reveals our inherent incapacity to perfect ourselves, however many resources we devote to the task and how much effort we put into it. It reveals our consummate gift for dissatisfaction, even confirms that we seek it, for why would we spend so much time shopping if we did not crave to be dissatisfied? It forces us to chose, when each choice means that something is left behind, often something eminently desirable. It forces us to renounce, even what we greatly desire, for the more that we see in the stores, the more that we want, and none of us can have all that we want. It forces us to spend our hard-earned cash, which is for all of us the emotional equivalent of giving ourselves away, with the inevitable sense of being personally spent and all of the attendant risks. We look for comfort in shopping, an effort doomed to at least partial failure. The inevitable failure drains each of us even as we rush out for more.
I made this brief detour into the odd hobby of shopping in order to focus on mum’s even odder obsession with shopping. Shopping must have been pure torture for her throughout those Birmingham years. We did not ourselves own a car until I turned seventeen, years later down in Marlow: we used dad’s Company cars, and dad was the first priority user, obviously, to go to work. So when mum went serious shopping, in those days into Birmingham city center, it was by Midland Red double-decker bus, route 154, with two little ones in tow. She had limited resources, no transport, and two hyperactive chronic
complainers to drag around. How was that fun!! The bus trip lasted about 45 minutes, the diesel engine grinding through the gears with monotonous regularity as we stopped and started at what felt like half of the junctions in Birmingham. We were always on the top deck, because smoking was allowed on the top deck and mum smoked like a chimney, short non-filtered Player’s cigarettes. It was an elevated perspective on the teeming and dirty city, above almost all of the rest of the traffic, even most of the lorries, as we stopped and started along the Stratford Road into the city center. Don’t let me forget that the bus stop closest to home was half a mile from it, giving us a bracing morning walk before we even started snaking through the traffic into town and an incentive not to load up on shopping to be carried that last half mile home.
Mum’s goal was the grand department stores of New Street and Snow Hill and the myriad other stores lining the streets and malls all around them. What was she looking for? I ran an internet search for “1964 Birmingham”, and uncovered this gem. A 1964 newspaper advertisement for Lewis’s, “The Biggest Department Store in the Midlands” and along with Rackham’s mum’s preferred destination, read: “Lewis’s hair accessories department on the ground floor has everything you need to pamper your hair _ the latest curlers, bows, bands, boudoir caps and brush and comb sets _ a wonderful array of items to create a more beautiful you.” Note the commercial acuity here: offer the women of Birmingham something that they could afford to tempt them into the store, not luxury items that they could never even dream of owning and which thus would discourage their visits. Mum was proof that the strategy worked.
When she reached her goal, those bright and bustling stores, there was very little that she could do except in realms like hair accessories. Our family resources stretched to cover the trip, perhaps once a month, perhaps more frequently during Sue’s and my long summer vacation, but once in the stores there was not a lot that she could do. Not for mum those
languid moments of tranquil meandering from store to store, feasting her eyes on the display cases and racks upon racks of the most stylish clothes, not for her those pauses of sensual ease trying on this or that luxurious garment. Even if Sue and I were not tagging along behind her, and we always were either behind her or running around her or hiding in the clothes racks or begging to go to see the toys, she did not have the means to let herself go, to pick up outfits for her here and toys for us there, to really enjoy herself.
For mum, there was so little to balance the frustration, renunciation, dissatisfaction and inadequacy that characterize shopping, so little pleasure, so little release. How much can anyone obtain from the latest curlers or bows: how much better looking will anyone be for wearing them; and how much satisfaction can buying them bring? What makes shopping worthwhile for the modern generation in America and Western Europe, the sheer amount of discretionary income that can be spent on things that are far from necessary, was conspicuously absent from mum’s life then. Yet she pursued shopping as much as the spoilt modern adolescent girl. I will never entirely understand what drove her to shop with such enthusiasm and against such logistical headaches. Her pride in finding things on sale, which remained with her even after dad died when she had no need to skimp, never seemed to be very clean. For me, it was a kind of derived or second tier pride: she could not get satisfaction out of this week’s beautiful thing, but she could out of this week’s great bargain. How many cheap things, how many less than beautiful things, sometimes far less than beautiful, could satisfy an intelligent and discerning woman?
Her clean thrill, the one that I did understand, was her ability to buy thoughtfully and intelligently for people, especially for us in the family. She put a lot of thought and effort into figuring out what would be useful for each of dad, Sue and me, and what we would each appreciate for a birthday or Christmas present. She would read the women’s magazines looking out for ideas, and browse the shops and the counters in department stores on a constant quest for inspiration. A lot of the time, she had her inspiration, and it would be the prize that she brought back to the home, the conquering heroine, to announce with pride to dad that evening. It would often be as simple as a kitchen gadget, like plastic replacement caps for half-used cat food cans, but she would be filled with glee and honest pride, and dad would always be very appreciative of her talents.
The other part of shopping in Birmingham that I could enjoy was afternoon tea. Lyon’s Tea Shop on New Street was our normal stop for a rejuvenative tea for mum and orange squash for Sue and me on the way back to the bus station at the Bull Ring Center, one of England’s first shopping malls. It was a big, almost Victorian looking dining hall, grandly repainted or at least whitewashed after or during the war, with the decorative filigree either painted over or torn down and the waitresses uniformly a bit past their prime. I’m not even sure that there were waitresses, come to think of it. Didn’t we get served at the counter as in a modern day buffet? The environment didn’t matter: what mattered was the break, the pause, the drink. Mum drew deeply on her cigarettes, and was duly sated by a combination of them, the day’s efforts, the hot tea and the prize that she was bringing home. Sue and I, who had been revved out of our minds all day long, were pretty much burned out and ready to call a truce in exchange for a soft drink heavily diluted with water. We never drank sodas. The squash was diluted orange juice, or perhaps orange-flavored water. It didn’t matter. Afternoon tea on our shopping trips was an oasis of comfort before we climbed back up to the top deck of the double-decker bus to negotiate the traffic back to Shirley and the walk back home.
Most of these shopping days Sue and I were in an unintended war with mum. Revved out of our minds by the diesel grinding of the buses, the interminable traffic jams on these slow and yet to be modernized roads into the city center, and the crowds that we navigated through all day long, we only wanted two things, to bounce off walls, and toys. Needless to say, family resources did not permit much in the way of toy purchases, and mum preferred to keep us away from the temptation, I think because she did not like our constant frustration with her constant “no”s. So we were frustrated that she constantly said “no” to even looking at the toys. We understood that she couldn’t buy any, that is until we saw one that we wanted, and not being allowed even to window shop felt like pure provocation. We were well able to react in kind. We’d hide in the clothes racks as soon as mum turned around, run off to find the toy department alone, and otherwise generally torture her. We all needed that tea-time truce to make it through a day of shopping.
Mum and I seemed to feud much of the time. Even after I no longer saw her and dad as “planning” my downfall, a perception that faded with time, she and I would constantly squabble and fight, and I would constantly go through a long-winded process culminating in my apologizing. The first step of the process was my heartfelt conviction that she was being terribly unfair and that in fact I was absolutely right about every aspect of the dispute. It didn’t matter what it was about at any time: she was constantly on my case, and she was certainly wrong. I would work my way through the arguments and their evident injustice as I walked around the neighborhood, along Haslucks Green Road past the Territorial Army barracks and up to the Stratford Road. I carefully and thoroughly developed long arguments in my head as I walked, arguments which combined insistent self-justification with detailed explanations of her failings. By the time I turned back toward home I would ruefully be approaching it differently. The bottom line was that I would end up in tears apologizing to her, and she would be in tears too telling me how much she loved me. But I don’t think that the transition in my feelings meant that I had finally understood her point of view and seen the error of my own ways. Rather, I needed this woman who loved me so much, even if her love was conditioned on making me, with monotonous regularity, swallow my pride, eat my words and kow-tow to her.
How much of that maternal megalomania, that pounding into young children, came from the impotence of mum’s shopping, her constantly reinforced frustration? In any event, it is hard to develop your own identity when your mother is ramming hers into you, force-feeding you as it were. And how much was my eating difficulty my own way of not letting her force feed me? Looking back and trying to fathom it all out is replete with knots in the rope of would-be coherence.
© Ian J. Stock
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