A man's view of shopping

2009-03-30 00:00

We are told by people who make a living out of this sort of thing that if you really want to get to know a woman, you must go shopping with her.

The immediate response, surely, is that there must be easier, cheaper and less painful ways to achieve that goal. For a start, even keeping up with the shopper in our family is a challenge, one requiring the speed off the mark of a cheetah, the stamina of a camel, the patience of a tortoise and the sense of direction of a homing pigeon. I have none of these qualities.

Even a trip to the mall is a weird experience. I can walk comfortably around Bot Gardens (well, the flat bits) for an hour, but the mall knocks the stuffing out of me in minutes. The two-kilometre hike across the car park to the entrance is no problem, a breeze really, but once I step through those big glass doors and into the arcade I come over all funny. I immediately start yawning, the knees go weak, the sight blurry and I have to sit down. I can’t explain it. Perhaps it is the smell of money (disappearing) or the sheer vastness of the place, but I feel intimidated. Shopping is loosely tossed around as ideal therapy for depression — I find I lose the will to live.

To put it bluntly, I am not a natural shopper.

My wife, on the other hand, is. She comes from a long line of shoppers. She is from England.

And you know what Napoleon had to say about that. In his best French — even though he was plagiarising Scots economist (are they not all?) Adam Smith — he described the English as a nation of shopkeepers. By implication, then, the English are a nation of shoppers and my wife has this background and pedigree. Her mum shopped for England. She spent most of her waking hours shopping or planning her shopping or thinking about shopping. She was at her happiest when she was on the high street, and she was usually buying generously for her family.

Even lying in her Portsmouth hospital bed, gravely ill and shortly before she died, she was listening out for the shopping trolley. And, when it finally arrived in the ward, she immediately perked up, and although unable to speak, made her last purchase ... two Christmas gifts for her granddaughters.

This is the tradition doggedly pursued by my wife down the years, undeterred by budgeting constraints and operating on the combined meagre pickings — euphemistically called a salary — of a journalist-photographer.

Shoppers all have a different game plan but every sortie should start with The List. I fancy Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg form of shopping, the lightning strike, in and out before anyone notices. The List is critical and must be strictly followed to avoid confusion and delay. A typical list would read “biltong, bread, milk, loo paper, coffee, biltong, salads, tea, sugar and biltong”.

My wife, on the other hand, regards The List as just a rough guide, the motivation, really, for a trip to the shops and the vague outline of a general strategy. Any threat of potential disaster brings out the English siege mentality, a determination to stock up in case of rationing. The power outage last year justified a shopping spree of Christmas proportions as gas heaters, cookers and lamps were chased down.

She sees herself as a hunter-gatherer; I’m from the subsistence school of shopping. My wife’s shopping trip is approached as both a voyage of discovery and of conquest, in contrast with my more direct, Wehrmacht-style of vipping in, vipping out and vamoosing.

Now even respected newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck said that the odds of going to the shop for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one. These are not odds my wife would dream of bucking.

My wife once returned from town proudly bearing a dog, and a list which had “goldfish”‚ scratched out and “puppy”‚ written over it. I was outwardly grumpy, but, secretly, I was celebrating that the marketing gimmick “bogof” (buy-one-get-one free), so popular in the shops of England, had not yet hit the pet shops of South Africa.

Anyway, must dash, we are off to the shops to buy a loaf of bread ... and perhaps a lounge suite.

• John Bishop is a former Witness sports editor and now a freelance writer.

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