Forgotten skills

August 21, 2013

In the old days, my Mum would pop in to the grocer’s with her list and leave it for them to deliver later. If she wasn’t getting too much, she would read out her list to the shopkeeper who would be standing behind his counter and he would walk to his shelves and pick off what she needed. The bacon slicer always fascinated me. Never see them cutting bacon nowadays, only cooked hams and the like. But then the bacon would be sliced to your liking, wrapped in greaseproof and then in to a brown paper bag.
We lived next door to the grocer’s. The grocer’s children were my friends and we used to play together. I loved going to the back of the shop and marvelling at all the stuff. Clutter. Things. But what I loved best was when her parents would give us a pack of the brown paper bags that would have hung next to the counter. Tied on a string loop, waiting to be plucked off one by one. Loved it. Even now I seek out the paper bags in Waitrose (mushrooms used to have them nearby but they seem to have gone, only the bread ones are left) and enjoy the frisson of pulling one off.
We would play shops as children and whip off these bags to put our customers’ purchases in. So real. So grown up. I loved it.
But the most amazing bit about the next door shop was going in to the sitting room at the back where my friends lived. And sometimes the Mum would be sitting at the table with a large ledger in front of her. There were the three columns of pounds, shillings and pence. Twelve pennies made a shilling, twenty shillings made a pound and twenty one shillings made a guinea. Obviously this is pre-decimalisation. What was so utterly fascinating and awesome to me was to watch the Mum run her pencil down the columns at the speed of light and then write the total at the bottom. She added all three columns at the same time and had no calculator. So she was dividing by twelve and then dividing by twenty instantaneously. She’d then write that total at the top of the next page and continue adding up the page until she had the total takings. It was amazing the speed she did it at. And of course, since decimalisation (not to mention the introduction of digital tills), a completely redundant skill. I wonder if it is transferable to any other walk of life.

I do so admire people doing things well. Be it an athlete, an actor, a waitress or a doctor. Anyone at the top of their particular game is inspiring.

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