Conceived of while recovering from a routine operation, dipping in and out of a post-anaesthetic haze.
Along with the greatest minds, executives of the major supermarkets had come to the conclusion that space and time, like most other things, were indeed mutable. The British public’s devotion to shopping no longer required stores the size of aircraft hangars. The more mature supermarket managers looked back with nostalgia at what they thought of as the bucolic crowds that filled the store around holiday times: full car parks and service-till queues that backed up the store’s aisles. The buzz of trade was now more of a hum as silent short-hour staff silently picked the online orders. Even in the smaller local stores daily customers slipped away from the self-service tills as if maintaining a vow of silence whose strictness Trappists might emulate. A raised eyebrow was all that was needed to indicate that assistance was needed with the robot-voiced till.
When the number of home-delivery vans threatened to outnumber the private cars in the supermarket car parks something had to be done. The property-holding divisions of national supermarkets saw an opportunity of exploiting the relaxed planning laws to convert a portion of the car park to residential development. The hobby or pastime aspect of shopping was to be exploited in the same way as golfing villages. A line of maisonettes curving around the outer perimeter of the store car park would be equally attractive, they successfully argued, to both the retired and the many chronically shopping-dependent members of society.
So it proved. Despite some commentators’ reservations about the soullessness of the proposal the initial property sales were good. The prospective residents were enticed by privileged access to the sort of short-term offers that had had disappointing take-ups via conventional direct online marketing; many people having long acquired a selective email reading in order to ‘have a life’. Decorous rushes by the new residents on Sunday mornings to take advantage of a 25% off wine offer were followed by social media posts informing their ‘followers’ of their success. The irresistible processes of envy led to what remained of the store car park soon filling up. Although not obligatory, a good number of residents took on the role of surrogate promoters for the supermarket chain of the store. They became minor celebrities gaining many ‘friends’ on their chosen social media; a model, it transpired, taken from the launch of Apple products to a room full of well-connected, furiously typing bloggers.
Some supermarket chains bought up properties in adjacent new housing developments to meet demand. However the nearest properties to the store were highly prized by some as it was possible to smell the synthetic aroma of freshly baked products and hear the public announcements through their open windows. Far from being an annoyance they were as enthralled as a railway enthusiast living under the busiest platform of Waterloo East.
Although widely ridiculed, there was an aspect of the new supermarket lifestyle that many could not but envy, the personalised shopping trolley. Many of the new developments incorporated a kitchen that allowed a trolley to be wheeled through a wide door with no lintel. More up-market developments incorporated a cat-flap type device into the kitchen. The customer-owned trolley became incorporated into a home that was orientated for shopping. Inevitably the treasured appliance became prone to personalisation, the chic look was in the style of the brightly coloured and festooned south-east Asian rickshaws and tuk tuks. Docked in position, it became a portable domestic altar, not to any divinity but to a form of personal divine pleasure.
The phenomenon of supermarket-based residence became a popular ‘lifestyle choice’, stores finding a ready audience for food demonstrations and celebrity endorsements. Busy families and young professionals just found it convenient and withstood the ridicule of their smarter friends. In order to provide utility space for residents, the first developments were built in a curve across the once optimistically large car parks. The three-stored crescents gained some class from referencing Georgian motifs: a metal railing (if not a real balcony) and tallish windows on the piano nobile, broccoli and cavolo nero cornice ornamentation – which some referred to as ludic, while others used a related word. Curving as if to embrace the store, the housing soon acquired the self-mocking name croissants after the defining product of supermarket bakeries. Life in the retail-residential bubble was croissant-life and the participants the croissant eaters
Small discount chains did not see the need for change, their portion of the market remained unaltered, bowing to the times some lined up structures like beach huts around the edges of the car parks so customers could have their own trolleys if they wished but it was a pointless gesture.
The wave broke on this trend not through boredom but with the changing times. A multiple-dip recession progressed like the path of bouncing bomb. The authorities were forced into drastic measures. At the same time that the major banks were forced to run divisions offering credit union facilities, the supermarket chains were required to use their distribution chains to run food banks at stores above a certain size. Their erstwhile glamour tarnished, the super-sized stores now visibly languished. Avoiding closure at any cost of these once-proud flagships, individual store managers were now given a greater autonomy. Some brought in car-boot sales into the car parks, with betting shops, tanning salons and dog-grooming parlours into the store. Others chose alternative routes, hosting farmers’ markets and inviting small producers into the store with surprising success. People found it convenient to get their multi-buy toilet paper and baked beans at the same time as local goat’s cheeses and wild boar cuts. The tamed retail lion lay down with the producers of salt marsh lamb.
The vast spaces inside the stores, which had been stacked wall-to-wall – Warhol-like – with one product to avoid an abandoned appearance, were now divided and portioned out. Mezzanines were constructed to utilize the height of the largest stores and young men in beards baked sourdough bread which whistled as they were drawn from the hot ovens. Others roasted coffee beans in smoking rotating drums, reintroducing an aroma once found the long-forgotten high streets.
At best these thriving, noisy, aromatic locations became a draw in themselves. The nature of the residents of the croissants altered to a more thoughtful group of people still young enough to still think that they could shape society. The handing over of the complete sites – store and housing – to co-operatives made up of the residents, and other committed parties, was a natural step; the supermarkets saved face by the use of key phrases in their press releases of ‘building communities’ and ‘promoting sustainability’. The supermarkets always maintained a small branch within each site; an aspect, along with the easy car access and parking, that still drew the wider public. It was said (although things are rarely as bad, or absolute, as they say) that, as the old out-of-town supermarkets had taken over from the high street, so the new communities were the new village. Some even lived in converted parts of the store, their lofts utilizing the large glazed walls.
The new communities were eventually to come in many flavours. The first identified with food cultures: organic, vegan and vegetarian. It was even rumoured that a ‘paleo’ croissant was planned to be embellish with copies of the Lascaux cave murals on the store walls.
Local authorities general viewed this unplanned process with suspicion, harassing them at the slightest opportunity. Such was the authorities’ paranoia that one was forced to shut down its garden waste recycling facility for investigation when officials believed that it was being used for ‘green funerals’. It transpired that officials had feverishly imagined wreaths on the steps of the skips that were in reality merely laurel branches left behind by time-strapped users. Not all croissants were entire successes. Some fell into the trap of becoming sinks of unemployment, hopelessness, centres of drug-dealing with intimidatingly loud music played at night; outdoor speakers amplified off the curved wall of the housing, the desolate sounds being heard for miles around.
The concept was ideal for creative workers. The old store could mix studios, workshop and exhibitions spaces and as long as a portion still offered ‘baked beans and toilet rolls’ it resisted becoming complete ghetto. Artist, musician and crafts communities became permanent manifestations of summer festival culture and were initiated by the same people. Indeed, the popular music festival events had found a new annual home in the nearly abandoned city centres. The best of these had been cleared and turned into public parks, lakes were created from low-lying areas from which some heard the ghostly sound of ringing submerged cash registers at dusk.
In an increasingly fractured society residences/businesses – it was difficult to tell them apart – now followed the paths of cross-country hyper-fast broadband links. The view of night-time Earth from space resembled even more the pattern of neural networks of the human brain – one complex organism made up of the smallest of component parts.
As if afraid to touch the earth, drones were to fly along these modern ley-lines gingerly delivering their under-slung loads to individual houses. This parallel and contrasting development to the new communities was first mooted by that venerable enterprise called Amazon some time ago; however it was the increasingly disembodied supermarkets that pioneered drone delivery. It was they who found a technical solution to the problem of unattended delivery. Largely redundant chimneys still reached for the sky in older houses, their conversion into delivery chutes was an irresistible idea to many. Even if one worked from home there was no need to get up from computer, the automatic docking of deliveries allowed one’s relentless train of mental focus to be unbroken. The pre-recorded announcement ‘delivery imminent, please attend’ was cheerfully ignored as an unnecessary caution. The identification of a house chimney, by GPS and pairing codes allowed the suspended package to be winched down to an opening trapdoor from where it descended on a dumb waiter to the nearest converted fireplace in the house. Stronger casing for food deliveries was eventually developed as seagulls’ natural aggression led to them pulled down by their beaks into the enlarged chimneys taking very angry birds into the heart of the home. (Surely the news of the dating, marriage and conception of a young family via the internet and stork-like drones was only a gimmick and not a trend.)
New house designs acquired a mediaeval appearance as tall, substantial chimneys were incorporated into them. For a single chimney could take food deliveries as far down as a refrigerated fireplace in the kitchen, and another could make recycling and waste available for drone collection. The most up-market houses could be detected by the buzz of waiting drones above their roofs, their avoidance algorithms making them swarm like flying ants on a summer’s day.
The understanding of the value of money in a near-cashless society had been an early school teaching target, however ‘playing shop’ was quickly becoming the performance of historical re-enactment for some. Moreover toddlers had now to learn that it was not Christmas every day, despite what was happening in the old fireplace, and, despite everything, yes there still was a Santa Claus ,
– wait, do I mean a Sanity Clause? (cf. Marx Brothers’ ‘A Night at the Opera’ 1935)
– sorry nurse, did you say that is a delivery – ah, a cup of tea – I was faraway – thank you – I mean, yes, tea would be absolutely lovely.
‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?’