Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Goodbye Woolworths

I have been meaning to blog about the closure of Woolies for ages, but now the Kettering one has closed and that's spurred me into action.

When the Woolworths crisis was announced, there was a particularly nasty piece of snobbery on the Times letters page, in which the writer said how very sad it was that Woolworths was closing as now one could not frighten one's offspring into further scholastic effort lest they end up at Woolworths. (I can't quote verbatim as I have managed to lose the piece of paper in my Christmas tidy up).

I hope the writer, and indeed her children, will never be in the situation I have been at various stages in my career when you are grateful for any job - and is working in Woolworths or its ilk so very terrible? I had my first ever job in Kettering Woolworths. I was a Saturday girl on the deli counter; for in the 1970s Woolworths sold cooked meat, cheese, ham and bacon. For the first time in my life, I came across haslett (v popular) and brawn (even more popular). I remember telling my grandmother about this, and her waxing lyrical about how wonderful brawn was, and how she'd made it when they'd killed pigs.

Brawn, for the uninitiated, is pig's head, jellied. Remembering the bright pink jelly that the Woolworth's brawn was surrounded by, I think it had more to do with chemicals, additives and the horrors of the 1970s food industry than herbs and vegetables.

We Saturday girls were initially allowed to tackle the bacon and ham slicer, but then health and safety started to creep in, and we were banned (and had to wear dinky little hats. We didn't like the dinky little hats.) The cheese wire wasn't considered as deadly, and I was quite proud of my ability to produce a quarter or a half of cheese pretty much at the first attempt. We were helped by the fact that our vast range of cheeses - mild or strong cheddar, and Red Leicester - were pretty much the same density and therefore easy to gauge.

Having sniped about the snobbery of the Times writer, there was actually a hierarchy of Saturday jobs in Kettering. Boots was much the most sought after, and the perfume counter was the plum job. The local MP's daughter had that one. Even within Woolworths there was a pecking order. The pick and mix was the most envied job. Though you would theoretically get sacked if you were caught eating, surreptitious chomping certainly went on.
There wasn't quite the same temptation on the deli counter to sample the stuff, but we did get perks. We'd get cheese ends, and, most envied thing of all, the empty paté bowls. My mother still has some of those (we favoured the Brussels ones, which were a fetching terracotta). The rest of the shop had an uneasy relationship with the deli girls - sniggering at our hats and the odour of meat and cheese that surrounded us wheresoe'er we went, but suddenly keen on us when they wanted a paté bowl.

I'm grateful to Woolworths for giving me that first job. I was very rarely bored; and in my stints at shop work since, I've come to appreciate just what a blessing that was. Woolworths taught me how to be polite to people I would far rather leap across the counter and strangle, how to cope with pressure (our queue would at busy times stretch outside the door; and that was with 4 assistants); how to be patient with the undecided and of course how to cut cheese.

If the writer of that Times letter had the chance for her offspring to learn all those things, I do rather hope she'd take it, regardless of where it was based.

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