When I was a child, we never did a big shop. Nobody did. It wasn’t a thing back then. Instead, we’d just “get some bits in”, as my Mum called it.
We’d get some bits in every other day. The shops were a short walk away. Round the corner, up Cretan Road, and onto Lawrence Road where the shops were.
We’d stop off at Liptons to get canned stuff. We’d go to the greengrocers to get our veg. There was a range of different small stores we would visit.
Mum had a string bag that would magically expand as she put more items in it. Potatoes were my favourite. The bag looked great with potatoes in.
At every shop, she chatted. The shopkeeper always knew her, and they would pass the time of day. Shopping and socialising went hand in hand. You couldn’t separate them.
Often, we’d see a neighbour or someone Mum knew. There’d be more stopping and chatting. Social interaction was built in. You couldn’t shop without speaking to at least half a dozen people, even if it was to exchange a hello. But it was usually much more than that.
Now, we have supermarkets. Huge warehouses with fluorescent lights. We go by car. We park in the car park outside. We gather our things in silence. Then we use the self checkout and go back home. Without a word.
Then, the system was geared to interaction. Now it is geared to isolation. To chat is to break the reality.
Some years ago, I spent ten weeks in the company of elderly residents in sheltered housing. I was making a film about their memories of Liverpool in the 1950s.
Workplaces back then seemed to sweep entire communities through its doors. Communities didn’t just live together, they worked together too.
Their friends lived no more than streets away. They’d pop round to each other’s houses, meet up in the local pub, bump into each other on the High Street.
All this is changed. Think of your own friends. How close do they live? How often do you see them? Do you bump into them by chance? Are they close enough to pop round without effort? Do you see them daily? A few times a week?
Or are your friends like mine, scattered. Is meeting them like visiting your dentist, by appointment only?
Think about that. Our friends. The people who are closest to us outside of family. And we are so distant that we make appointments to see each other as if we each employ a receptionist.
No wonder therapy is so popular. You can see your therapist every week, no problem. Who sees friends that often anymore? And who else are you going to chat to in the meantime?
What those elderly residents knew as community is gone. Instead, we have built a society that fosters atomised isolation.
Community once referred to a set of social structures. A web of interactions between people. When we spoke of community, we spoke of the human bonds between people who knew and supported each other.
Now we mean it only as a geographical area, something we can draw on a map.
Seinfeld sold us a lie. So too did Ross and Rachael and Chandler Bing.
Who watched those shows without longing for the same daily connection with friends close enough to be family?
Who didn’t buy into that fantasy of deep, interwoven friendship? Who wouldn’t want to be Jerry and George and Elaine? Popping over. Hanging out. Belonging.
But we’re not like that. We are distant. Nodes on a computer network.
In our isolation, we resort to technology. We go to Facebook and scroll until we are numb. Our hearts seeking out the connection that we humans once found for real in the village square. Or on whatever your version of Lawrence Road was.
But on Facebook, you are not actually my friend. You are a screen and a keyboard to me. And I to you.
We interact through an interface of glass and pixels. It’s a fake and distant representation of you. It’s not you. It’s not me. We both feel the gap.
My Mum went to the local town centre last week alone. She stopped off for a hot drink. By chance, she got chatting with someone in the coffee shop. They had coffee together. And they talked.
It was so remarkable that Mum told me about it. She smiled through the whole retelling of the incident.
In that moment, she was back in Lawrence Road. Chatting to someone. Sharing each other’s lives and stories. Sharing connection. Being human. Experiencing, in that snapshot of time, what most of us have now somehow lost.