{Sun 11 January 2009}   Saving The Market Way

Saving The Market Way

In a time-pressed world, it’s hard to resist the enormous convenience of supermarkets. It’s two minutes’ walk to my local Marks and Spencer’s. This proximity allows me to indulge my worst habits of laziness, last-minute catering and impulse-buying. I can delay domestic drudgery until five in the afternoon, safe in the knowledge that I can rescue my dinner party by popping in to that purveyor of guilty pleasures such as dressed chickens, prepared vegetables and decorated desserts.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve had an uncomfortable pricking of conscience on two fronts. The global warming crisis has given rise to much speculation over the role of supermarkets in promoting short-cut farming methods and over-packaged products. More recently, the credit crunch has forced me to consider closely how much I spend, not only on luxuries, but also on essentials. This is why, one day, I decided that I must do my bit, for the environment and for my domestic economy, by trying out a local market. After looking up recommendations and directions online, I felt fully equipped to try out the real thing; convinced I’d return feeling more virtuous and richer than I usually do after a shopping trip.

On a warm, spring Saturday, I set off, with curiosity and a sense of adventure, along a road I had often used, but from which I had never spotted anything that looked like a market. Was it a mysterious shopping underworld that manifested only to those in the know? The Google map was easy to follow, though, and I soon found Lodge Lane Car Park. A non-descript lot behind the main street shops, one wouldn’t notice it in the course of daily business unless one needed to park there. This market day, however, it had transformed into a colourful, ant colony of commerce. Hawkers’ cajoling cries soared through my open window over a hubbub of conversation and movement. Pleased at my discovery, I swung into a bay, killed the engine, distributed about my body all necessary shopping accoutrements, and sallied forth to sample market fare under the benevolent sun.

Immediately in front of me was a large stall brilliant with blooms. A mixture of rose and freesia fragrances wafted toward me. At the entrance, two towers of lazy-eyed susans glowed amongst blue and magenta clematis. Behind them, cerise geraniums tumbled over the edges of a turquoise pot, and consorts of cosmos in mauve, white and purple nodded alongside. Enquirers besieged the smiling, silver-haired stallholder while her burly companion broke off to right a fallen cloud of mauve fluff. The insubstantial mist of flowers gave the light breeze sufficient leverage for play, and the pot was dancing. After several attempts, he left it prostrate before its admirers, and went back to selling daisies.

Beyond the floral drama, I squeezed into a narrow passage between blue plastic walls on which were tacked a determined, but tasteless, array of mobile phone covers, thongs and baseball caps. Hurrying toward the light at the end of the tunnel, I burst out into a mêlée of one-pound-T-shirt shoppers, intent, as they ripped the clear plastic packages, on finding the colour or size they simply must have at that price. Greens, yellows and blues, juggled from hand to urgent hand, floated above hasty trestle tables before settling into seething piles of discarded items. Less agile browsers burrowed into these volatile mounds, risking life and limb for the red or the orange. Taking a gulp of air, I plunged in, nimbly rescued three still-cellophaned shirts, deposited three coins into a smuggler’s hand and exited on the same breath.

A kind of optimistic sanity prevailed in the organic area. People were bustling, but grounded by the smell and touch of soil-moist carrots, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflowers and broccoli. They pottered happily between enormous oranges, blushing grapefruit and rows of multicoloured nectarines ripe for eating. Begging a large broccoli box off a stallholder, I filled it quickly. The huge strawberries and fresh black cherries were so cheap! I had to quell the impulse to dive in with both hands, fending off other comers with my elbows like a one-pound-T-shirt veteran. Instead, I hoisted the sagging box onto my hip and enjoyed the market banter as I waited for the scales.

At last it was my turn. The overwhelmed vegetable attendant rechecked her snake of figures; I paid her and returned to the car in high good humour, pleased to have bought so much for so little. The new T-shirts were perfect for our upcoming beach holiday, and we would eat well and guilt-free at dinner that evening and for the coming week.

Still in this happy haze, my attention was caught by a bright yellow square on the windscreen. Startled, I scanned the vicinity and saw that I was, indeed, parked under a large sign listing parking charges, which my rose-tinted spectacles had blanked out completely on arrival. The morning’s savings were wiped out. As I stood there indecisively for a moment, the burly flower-stall man caught my eye. He took in the situation at a glance and pointed to the sky, “At least the sun is still shining!” He had a point. Inside M&S, I wouldn’t have noticed the weather.

Listen to the audio version of this story (Market Magic).

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