How Shopping Lost Its Soul; Remember When Staff Knew Your Name, Had Never Heard of Loyalty Cards and Said 'Much Obliged' Not 'Have a Nice Day'? FRANCES HARDY Laments

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A MORNING of glorious winter sunshine, the sky Delft blue, the pavements frost-spangled, and I am walking into my Sussex village to shop.

It is a small pleasure, this amble from grocery store to butcher via baker, and it evokes memories of my childhood. I buy old-fashioned cuts of meat: oxtail to braise in the Aga, pork shoulder to slow-roast on Sunday and two links of homemade sausages.

At the Co-Op, I choose a cabbage, a bag of parsnips and bread studded with pumpkin seeds. I chat to Freda, the postmistress, buy a book of stamps, post a letter. On the way home I meet a neighbour and we talk about mulching the garden.

This gentle, unhurried process is a world away from most shopping today which, in my view, has become an unmitigated chore.

I detest the vast, out-of-town mega-malls that have sprung up across the country, with their merciless lighting, endless queues and bewildering diversity of goods. I get lost in them. I find them nervejangling -- especially at this time of year, when there's no escape from the crowds or the festive muzak. Besides, who needs so much choice?

In my sepia-tinted ideal world, ironmongers still wear brown overalls and sell trays of screws and hooks alongside brass polish and stove black. Grocers stock quince jelly and jugged hare, and dispense leaf tea by the quarter-pound and poulterers advertise the start of the game season by festooning their shop fronts with rows of brightfeathered pheasants.

I suppose I hark back to this past because I feel that somewhere along the line, shopping has lost its soul.

The joy has been sucked out of it -- and, instead of bringing communities together through commerce, it has turned us into mindless consumerists in thrall to the High Street giants.

I was raised in an era before supermarkets and convenience foods; when most kitchens had a pantry rather than a fridge; when mums were still called 'housewives' and shopped daily for perishable food. This was what happened in Goff's Oak, the Hertfordshire village where I grew up.

An elderly spinster, Miss Munns, presided over the Post Office, which was dark, wood-lined and fusty. Her stock was meagre and as seared with age as dear Miss Munns herself. She sold dog-eared colouring books, wax crayons and the odd jigsaw.

MR CHESHIRE was exactly as a butcher should be: corpulent and red-faced with sausage-like fingers. He used to say 'much obliged' instead of 'thank you', and he wrapped your meat in white kitchen paper, totting up the cost of the order on the edge of the sheet.

The Co-op had no checkouts. Instead, you handed over your money at the counter and it was sent off in a canister along a tube that whizzed round the shop to a cashier in a glass-fronted cubby hole. Change was returned by the same method.

There were no loyalty cards, but we collected 'divvy' (dividend) stamps, although the effort of licking and pasting them into a book hardly seemed commensurate with the few pennies we saved.

I can still summon up the memory of my first unsupervised trip to these village shops. Clasped in my hand was sixpence. Today it would be worth 21/2p and it would buy nothing, but this was 1964 and I was seven; it was my week's pocket money and I was on my way to spend it all on sweets.

I walked the half mile to Chase's, the newsagent and confectioner, thrilled with nervy anticipation.

Jars of boiled sweets -- sherbet lemons, fruit drops, barley sugar twists, cough candy, mints and humbugs -- were ranged on the shelves. But my eye was focused on the counter display where everything cost a penny or less.

A single old penny bought me a pair of fruit salad chews and two black jacks; a rice paper spaceship filled with fizzing sherbet; a tube of Parma Violets; a packet of Fizzers or Love Hearts; a lace of red liquorice; or a pack of candy cigarettes. For sixpence, I could have it all -- the entire teeth-rotting assortment. …