Among the more useful attributes of a large supermarket, the opportunity for shoppers to enjoy an existential crisis in front of the fish counter ranks pretty highly. What, indeed, is the point of it all? Thirty thousand brightly packaged product lines stretch away on all sides, vanishing into the distance. An army of shelf-stackers cruises the aisles, anxiously alert to any lacunae perturbing the smooth presentation of infinite abundance. Harsh lighting penetrates every nook and cranny, lest some item go unconsidered for purchase. The steady beat of programmed rock muzak drives the muscle-atrophied legs, lifts the weary bunions, ensures constant through-traffic and reassuring bustle. In the distance, the automated checkouts, permanently manned in case of technophobia, exhort those confused and struggling with the new reality to: ‘Please place the item in the bag’. Yet you cannot find tofu in the healthfoods section. Through some computerised illogic it is not there: it has migrated elsewhere, but left no clue as to its destination. How like life: a brilliantly organised jumble of misplaced expectations. An apparently linear system, that is in fact disjunctive. “You can place the item in the bag”, pondered Eversleigh, “but can you place the bag in the item?”
In the supermarket, as on the motorway, there is always someone less decisive than yourself blocking the way in front, and someone more determined and ruthless behind, forcing you on. Whatever speed you travel at, it is the wrong one in the circumstances. Whichever lane you occupy is bound to be the slow lane. Whenever you change lane to overtake a bus or a slow-moving lorry, you find someone behind is changing lane to overtake you. Fail to make your move at the right time, generally a split-second or two after you realise it is too late, and you will be boxed-in, ambition thwarted, as a longer and longer line of lesser individuals passes insouciantly by. Many of these unforgiving overtakers will be recognised as the slower drivers you overtook a mile back. Finally, you pull out into the gap behind them, only for the lorry to also move out and begin the grinding and ultimately futile process of trying to overtake the lorry in front of him. And yet are we not all one vehicle? Moving in the same direction, towards the same dispiritingly overpriced services area, congested slip road, or terminal roundabout where we must inevitably halt?
On our crowded island roads, even the widest, it is rare to find yourself travelling alone. Late at night, on an unlit section of motorway, you cannot continue for more than a minute or two without having to dip your headlight beam to acknowledge an oncoming vehicle in the opposite carriageway, or to avoid dazzling a slower driver in front. Occasionally, you may find yourself isolated in a bubble of blissful solitude, a stretch of clear road, and allow yourself a moment of exhalation; only to observe anxiously in your driving mirror a shimmering line of cars far behind, that turns into a cavalcade, inexorably processing towards you like a tidal wave, and all too soon overwhelms you as if you had been in reverse gear, and sweeps on by, and onwards into a more certain future, for all that they are unaware of your ghostly existence. Who are they? What unites the overtaking ones, other than a cavalier willingness to conspire in flagrant breach of the speed limit, than which you are already travelling 15 mph faster, courtesy of a private licence you hotly feel no responsible citizen should exceed? These limits to the self are what define us. Transgressive Others create new and risqué possibilities, that for the man in the battered Polo will always be unachievable.
The man in the red BMW, who has pressed you hard for miles along a country road, flashing his lights, before impatiently zooming past you on a bend, in the face of an oncoming school bus, is still only three yards in front when traffic lights eventually block your paths five miles later. Will he never learn? He too has been delayed by the slower vehicles: the annoying caravanner, the truculent farmer, the old curmudgeon in the flat cap and the Honda Civic. There is always another vehicle in front, and another behind, to apostrophise the pointlessness of travelling at any speed. You console yourself by making rotating gestures with an index finger at your temple, that you hope he will notice in the mirror, to tell him he is certifiable to have spent so much on such a car, capable of 150 mph, when he could have bought sixteen fifthhand VWs like yours; yet he has gained only three yards in life’s unforgiving race. The difference is that you know, secretly, you envy him his comfort and effortless acceleration, his in-car entertainment system, his expensive-smelling leather upholstery and ill-gotten income you will never match. Adverting to his shallowness is a futile gesture. What, in truth, has either of you gained by this exchange?
And so, in front of the fish counter, eyes glazed, head swimming, the sensory impressions crash in once again: noise, and light, and hordes of identical, testosterone-packed men with sunburned necks and shaven heads and calf-length shorts and all-weather sleeveless vests showing burly, tattooed arms, their adipose wives pushing trolleys piled to the gunwales with pallid, denatured produce, shaven-headed ‘kids’ in tow; bowel-cancer-causing abundance spreading in all directions, as far as the eye can see. Thirty thousand lines of brightly packaged groceries: eleven kinds of baked beans, tomato ketchup (with or without Reggae flavour); ‘Reality’ TV-show personality soups and pasta sauces; ‘home-baked’ breads smelling faintly of onions, carefully graded vegetables lit for maximum freshness; inedible mouldering peaches, avocados hard as bullets; ‘Only £1’ and ‘Buy-one-get-one-free’ offers on reduced-size packs of everything; crates of cheap lager beer, half-price specials on double-price wines, Korean flat-screen TV sets and disconnected computer peripherals, job-lot microwave ovens, bland greetings cards simpering verses to ‘A Dear Mother’, a footballing motif for a shaven-headed ‘Happy Birthday Son’; pretend-designer plastic and chrome household goods and yards of surface cleaning products, the instant detritus of a civilisation in terminal decline; we are what we consume.