I am reading Herodotus at nights in the new translation by Tom Holland. In section 94 of Book One, The Histories describe the practices of the Lydians:
“Their habit of sending their daughters out to work as prostitutes excepted, the Lydians live their lives in a way not dissimilar to the Greeks. So far as we know, they were the first people ever to strike gold and silver coins, and to use them: the result was the invention of shopping.”
Future historians may come to see the Covid pandemic as the beginning of the end of this practice.
Consider this. With the second lockdown, I have bowed to the inevitable and embarked on a major redecoration of my house. This is partly for want of a better occupation, partly to undertake long overdue improvements, and partly as a pact with the Gods. If I make all the rooms as smart as possible, perhaps after all they will be occupied by my children and their families at Christmas.
Just before the lockdown began, I bought the necessary materials, but as was bound to happen, close encounters with neglected walls and woodwork caused me to run out of some essentials. I was left with the choice of living with decommissioned rooms until the lockdown ended, or going online.
Thus it was that yesterday a van drove through the narrow lanes to my village, up the unadopted lane that leads to my house, and the driver walked along my drive carrying a package containing a pot of Polyfilla.
This is an insane way to run a consumer economy. There is a real danger that after Covid-19 we will build back worse, incorporating habits that were only justified by the extreme circumstances of the lockdown.
I am not unduly sentimental about B and Q where I would otherwise have shopped. Over the last decade it has systemically put out of business every other DIY warehouse in the area, as well as all but two of the neighbourhood ironmongers in Shrewsbury, including Birch’s opposite the river, where an elderly lady of irreproachable gentility in her manners and clothes, would emerge from her little office in the back of the shop and sell you a tin of polish or a dozen screws in a brown paper bag.
Nonetheless there is an economy of scale in making one trip to the shops every so often to acquire a range of essential and non-essential items. With all due respect to Herodotus, shopping as we now know it was the invention of the nineteenth century, when rising living standards intersected with innovations in the manufacture and distribution of all kinds of products. In this world, personal delivery was widely practised. Servants from middle- and upper-class households would leave orders at shops which would later be brought to the door by toiling delivery boys. Horses and carts passed by selling or delivering fresh food and larger goods. During the twentieth century the bustling streets gradually emptied, and consumers became accustomed to travelling to the centres of towns and cities to make purchases.
Now the temporary closure of shops may become permanent as they fail to win back business from the online retailers. The robot-driven Amazon barns will multiply van journeys at just the moment when the necessity of reducing road transport is becoming apparent to all but a fringe of climate-change deniers. The solution to this problem is far from obvious, other than taxing online retailers to make good the loss of urban business rates, and legislating to prevent the on-line sale of any single item below, let us say, £100. The exception would be food, where supermarkets should be encouraged to maintain or reintroduce minimum orders.
This morning, Royal Mail delivered a parcel from John Lewis containing three small picture frames to go on a redecorated wall. All were smashed, the box full of shards of glass.