More than one person has suggested to me that the Covid-19 crisis reminds them of the war years (1939-45). Among other effects there is the same all perfusing anxiety along with shortages of goods in the shops. Reflecting on this brought back memories of my childhood in Brighton – a beautiful town (now a city) that was badly hit by bombing – and of the people who dominated my landscape of the time. Rationing meant that the butcher, the baker and the grocer were important people and it was essential to gain their goodwill. Below I retail my memories of one of these in particular, Mr Bott, the Grocer.
During the war, we had to register with a grocer to ensure our ration of butter, cheese, eggs and similar items. The nearest to our house was the establishment of Mr. R.A. Bott in the next street. My mother was not keen on Mr Bott, possibly because he was a plausible gentlemen who obviously enjoyed holding court before a shopful of housewives, but convenience won the day. Being but a child, I was not aware of social nuances between my widowed mother and the men she necessarily had to deal with, though I have sometimes put two and two together since. Whatever the problem with Mr Bott, it may have been the reason why I was usually required to accompany my mother on visits to his shop.
Mr Bott supplied each of his customers with a notebook, one of those with a cash column on the right, drawn in red lines. He had a big rubber stamp which listed all the most common items you could buy in his shop and when you went for your groceries you were supposed to present the notebook so that he could stamp a new list into it. As you accumulated your purchases on the counter, Mr Bott would annotate the list with the number or quantity and, of course, the price. Then he would add up the bill with a flourish of his pencil.
The notebook was stoutly bound with a hard cover. At either end was a white fly leaf and on the front one I drew a picture, labelling it carefully “Mr Bott”. My mother was unaware of the drawing until she next visited the grocer’s and Mr Bott opened the notebook to discover his likeness. Fortunately, he was amused, sparing my mother possible embarrassment. Anyone skilled in interpreting children’s drawings would have recognized the very picture of an English grocer of those times. Mr Bott wore well pressed suit trousers and what we would now call a business shirt. He wore a tie, of course, as nearly all men still did then. But his most grocerly accoutrement was his apron, white, crisp, spotless and voluminous. It mounted to within a few inches of the knot in his tie and descended to mid-leg. Its waist ribbons passed round the back and tied in front. Mr Bott was elderly when I knew him, with greying hair and eyes that smiled through steel-rimmed spectacles. He stood safely isolated from the public behind his L-shaped counter which enclosed two sides of the small rectangular space left in the well-stocked but small shop for customers. The other sides were formed by a wall and the door.
Customers would crowd into their small pen and await Mr Bott’s attention, perhaps exchanging gossip in the meantime. When at last the grocer’s amiable notice fell upon you, there was first the inevitable greeting and exchange of small talk. “That lad of yours is shooting up,isn’t he? He’ll soon be out there giving Hitler a run for his money, I’ll be bound.” Then shopping began. In those days of rationing, we could have only half a packet of butter per week. The wrapping was marked along one edge by a sort of ruler line to aid cutting it. This Mr Bott did with a long sharp knife, sticking a rectangle of greaseproof paper on the exposed butter. Perhaps he would treat you to a conspiratorial wink and announce that he had a little extra bacon this week if you were interested – off the ration, of course. When this happened, you knew you had joined the ranks of favoured customers.
Once, my mother had opened a boiled egg only to find that it stank. The previous time this had happened and she had complained, Mr Bott had declined to believe that his eggs could ever be “off”, so this time she wrapped it in greaseproof and took it round to the shop. Mr. Bott was dismayed; he fluttered his hands and protested; it was not necessary to bring the egg back: she had only to tell him – or send the boy – and due reparations would be made. My mother replied that any time she had a bad egg she would bring it back: she was always quick to spot an advantage.
The grocery shop was really just a modified house, as were many little shops in backstreets. When I returned to my old home 40-odd years on, I of course sought out Mr Bott’s tiny emporium. I found the site easily enough but it was no longer a shop. Its outline deformed by new but already weathered building work, it had reverted into a dwelling. The same fate had befallen most of the other little shops around there, including the one on the way to school where I would peer into the window at the complete set of farm toys, all the animals, fences, the farmer and his wife, the milkmaid with the yoke and buckets, and best of all, the horse and cart which I eventually had the joy of owning. I sometimes wonder whether the new occupants of the defunct grocery are ever troubled by the ghost of an elderly gent in a brilliant white apron contemplating his childishly drawn portrait in a small hardbacked notebook.