Diary. Friday 4th April 2008
Im standing in the cooked meats aisle at Tesco’s, Stairfoot, Barnsley. Its just gone noon, busy. Feral children beanoing about like theyre in an adventure playground while their parents shop, oblivious to the anarchy.
Im studying the packets of meat. The selection is wide. Spiced meat, smoked meat, plain meat, meat in bread crumbs, stuffed, rolled in spices, ham, pork, beef
I pick up a packet of thin sliced Schwarzwälder Schinken, succulent Black Forest ham from Tescos finest range.
Im examining the sell by date when a voice says at the side of me: We fought them, you know?
I turn to see an old fella, blue blazer with brass buttons, his left breast loaded down with ribbons and shiny silver and gold medals. Regimental tie, beige chinos and bulled oxblood Doc Martens.
Sorry? I query.
The old bloke nods to the vacuum sealed pack of German ham in my hand. TGermans, we fought em. Two world wars. He shook his silver head sadly. And here they are selling their spicy meat in our supermarkets. He tuts. Makes you wonder what we fought for.
Well, I began apologetically, it goes well with crusty bread.
The old man fixed me with a steely gaze. He said severely: Tell that to the lads on the Normandy beachhead. Operation Market Garden. Dunkirk. North Africa. Here, Bert, dont worry about your ultimate sacrifice, hard luck about your missing arm and the shrapnel chunks in your arse, sixty years on the Nazis will be turning out some nice spicy ham that goes well with crusty bread.
I examined the pack of meat, feeling embarrassed. My lips punctured in a sigh. I suppose if you put it like that, I said, replacing the ham.
I looked along the chiller cabinet, my stomach grumbling.
I picked up some Salami.
The old man altered his stance, getting a better angle on my face. Are you having a laugh? he demanded. Are you trying to get a rise out of me?
Stuttering, I said: I thought maybe a bit of cheese ?
One word: Mussolini.
I felt my brow furrowing. Mussolini? Is that that unpasturized crumbly goats cheese?
The old man sighed. Fascists? Black shirts? Anzio? His shoulders slumped impatiently. Have you not seen The World at War?
I shrugged. Bits, I confessed. Carpet bombing Dresden. Churchill with a Tommy Gun. El Alamein. Lawrence Oliviers voice rolling over the narrative like old brandy and chocolate.
The old man took the Italian sausage from my hand. He shook it in my face. Every time you see this think, Monte Casino. Hand to hand fighting. The freedom of Europe. Eating this meat is to eat the rotting corpses of brave Italian partisans.
I puckered my face. Not very appetizing, I agreed.
The old man tossed the packet back into the chiller with disgust. He looked along the shelves and then smiling, nodded to himself. Here, he said, pulling down a dark brown packet of meat. He threw it into my basket. Thatll put hairs on your chest.
I glanced into the wire basket. Yorkshire Black Pudding.
I looked back up to the old boy. I dont like black pudding, I said.
A stern look gathered in his face. I watched his hands, prepared for a commando knife, some cheese wire. And I suppose you dont like Yorkshire either, do you? he barked.
Well I do actually.
And do you love your country?
I rubbed my head, unsure how to answer that.
He leaned his face closer. What was that? he demanded.
Well, yes, I suppose I do, I admitted. With reservations.
The old man said: Love Yorkshire, love England, love its black pudding.
I thought about it before nodding. OK, I agreed.
The old man smiled. Good lad, he said, patting my back. He inspected my basket. What else have we got in here? He pulled out a carton of orange juice. Tescos smooth. Well that can go for a start, he said.
I asked why.
He looked at me with an expression of disbelief. Spanish oranges, he explained. 1588, the Armada. War of Jenkins Ear. Gibraltar Bloody hell, what do they teach in schools these days? How to put a condom on and the best way to fill out your benefits claim form? He delved into the basket again and took out a packet of bacon. Nope, he commented, throwing the packet over his shoulder.
The Dutch? I asked, watching the bacon land on the tiled floor with a slap.
Four wars, dominance of the sea and their blocking of our trade ambitions in Japan by some very unpleasant means in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
I took his word for it.
The purge continued. We got a trolley.
Half an hour later we were stood by the checkout.
The old man looked in my trolley with pride. Now, he said, doesnt that feel better?
I examined the items as I placed them on the rubber belt. A pack of Mars bars, a rack of British beef, some milk, Dale Farm yoghurts, a party pack of Seabrooks crisps, three cauliflowers, some carrots and a tin of cocoa
I was still pulling the produce out, Union Jack stickers everywhere, wondering what I was going to cook for my tea.
The old fella was working the self service till, some Drum tobacco, a copy of the Radio Times and a four pack of Tetleys.
We paid, collected our Club Card points and walked out together, through the automatic doors, passed the man from the RAC, the bloke doing dent repairs and some old sort collecting for the donkey sanctuary. A cheery wave as the old man marches away whistling Colonel Bogey and I head off into the car park to load up my boot.
Id just managed to stack the turnips alongside the some Lancashire organic radishes and the six bottles of Worcester sauce Id been pressured into buying, when a car horn pipped cheerily behind me. I turned. It was the old bloke.
He drew up in his car, winding down the electric window.
I stared in surprise. I could feel the air trapped, stunned in my lungs. He was driving a new Volkswagon Golf.
What ? I said, gesturing to the shiny silver metallic paintwork. What happened to buying British?
The old man looked at me, a weary smile on his scrubbed, pink face. A British car? he said, with a laugh. He pushed the stick into gear. Im not that bloody stupid.