May 3, 2005

The counter-revolutionaries

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The power of the Leaving Cert was quite extraordinary in searing into our petrified memory verses of poetry like WB Yeats’ September 1913. Twenty years on, it is still there in the back of the head somewhere.

Yeats, the spiritual leader of the Gaelic League, “the Arch-Poet”, as Roy Foster referred to him in his biography last year, saw the grabbing, greasy fingers of the small shopkeepers in Dublin as the enemy of Romantic Ireland.

What need you, being come to sense, But fumble in a greasy till And add the halfpence to the pence And prayer to shivering prayer, until You have dried the marrow from the bone?

For men were born to pray and save: Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yeats identified the greedy, fawning petit bourgeois grocers as the enemy – those who would put today’s profit ahead of tomorrow’s dream. For Yeats, these people – the small, Mass-going shopkeepers, the mercantile cute hoors – were inimical to Romantic Ireland, the Ireland of the soul, the Ireland that could be great, distinct, sovereign and meaningful.

Yeats wasn’t the only big thinker who targeted grocers. Napoleon’s famous put-down of the English was they were �only a nation of shopkeepers’�.

Whatever about the threat to France posed by Austrians, Russians or Prussians, surely, Napoleon concluded, these little people with their double-entry accounting system, obsession with money, bills and accounts could not subvert his glorious imperial ambitions for a French Republic of Europe.

More recently, commentators – particularly snobs from the Tory grandee set, the one-nation aristocrats – used the �grocer’s daughter from Grantham’� as a put-down of Margaret Thatcher. Their narrative was the Yeatsian and Napoleonic line that could not countenance anything heroic, revolutionary, idealistic or dreamy coming from such stock.

In the end, Thatcher ate them for breakfast and sent them the bill afterwards. Her foot-soldiers were the grocers of middle England.

Over the years, grocers have been seen as a stultifying, craven class only interested in the greasy till, who could be counted on by the forces of the establishment to quietly back the status quo. The grocer of middle Ireland, the local gombeen in a dirty white coat, overcharging for hairy bacon, butter and bread, is the stuff of Patrick McCabe novels.

He was the solid backbone of the Fianna F�il party, the Legion of Mary and the local GAA club. In fact, the grocer was so central to the GAA that to this day the two umpires who determine whether a point is a score or a wide are dressed as 1950s grocers, replete with white coat and cap. Extraordinary. The grocer/umpire could be counted on. He was solid; he would uphold the establishment and keep the faith.

For years, he was the face of the Irish petit bourgeois: the gombeen of the Irish centre-right. As such, the grocer/umpire was the enemy of the left-wing liberals, trade unionists, revolutionaries, romantic poets and anti-clerical radicals.

But in the past few years, something profound has happened in Ireland. Go into any well-heeled town or suburb of the country and you will see the grocer up there with the farmers’ marketers as the darling of the left and the environmental movement.

The deification of the local grocer, in the eyes of the right-on anti globalisation movement, has been quite remarkable. The grocer is seen as a local bulwark against the evils of hypermarkets and Tescos.

Overnight, the grocer has gone from gombeen zero to revolutionary hero. He will protect us against nasty E numbers, processed food and battery eggs.

The grocer is now the heartbeat of the trendy upmarket suburbs with his rosemary and thyme sour dough organic breads, his Fairtrade coffee and his flu-buster smoothies.

Fashionably socially-aware mummies make a beeline for his organic carrots, his probiotic yoghurt and his Omega 3 oils. In short, the grocer is the home of a quiet, anti-Big Business counter-revolution. When Naomi Klein talks about consumers exercising their sovereignty and punishing Big Business, she is acting as a cheer leader for the new grocer.

So what has happened? Why would Yeats now see the local independent grocer as an ally rather than an enemy?

Well it appears that two major economic factors have forced the change.

On the one hand, the Tescos, Lidls and Dunnes of this world have slashed margins so much that local grocers could not survive against the out-of-town superstores, so they have had to change their game. The smarter ones have gone upmarket offering quality at a price, rather than quantity at a discount.

By going upmarket and sourcing produce locally, the grocer has positioned himself nicely on the crest of a wellness wave. Many of us are now much more concerned about what we are putting into our bodies and the exercise we take. There has been a spiritual revolution where being right in the head and soul is seen by many as linked to what food we eat. This has led to a fusion where food meets apothecary, physical wellbeing and spiritual calm.

The new ubergrocer is sitting at that crossroad, open for business.

On top of these psychic and spiritual changes, the new grocer is tapping into a need that everything we buy should have a story. In an age of abundance, merely having the possession is not enough to satisfy – we also like to have a narrative.

So, for example, free range eggs are now outselling battery eggs worldwide.

What does the free range egg offer – better taste, increased size, and more protein? No, it offers something much more compelling. It offers a story.

The story is of the local farmer and his family, the image of his tranquil farm with the hens clucking around freely. This is a tangible tale, peppered with reassuring nostalgia.

Contrast this with the brutality of the factory farm: the image of the thousands of frightened, force-fed hens in filthy, dark cages. The free range egg is local, authentic and homely – it has a happy ending, almost. The battery hen is remote, industrial and cruel.

Likewise the coffee. Our local ubergrocer – Oliver of Select Stores in Dalkey – sells Fairtrade coffee called Tiki, which goes under the slogan ‘Tiki Coffee � A great deal for everyone without exploiting people or the planet’.

Now what right-minded, socially conscious individual could fail to buy that stuff?

Its package tells the story of the Indian farmers in Honduras who harvest the beans (sure that’s a dinner party conversation all on its own).

This is where your daughter’s transition year on the Machu Picchu trail in Latin America meets Noam Chomsky – a delicious sweet spot for the bottom line of the new grocer. The bottom line is never mentioned, because the new upscale grocer isn’t a shop – it’s a campaign, a state of mind, a statement.

What sort of person are you? A jumbo-sized packet of Tesco Fruit and Fibre person, or an apple, mango and passion fruit smoothie person? In the age of abundance, an increasing number of us are joining the latter tribe.

Because of this form of �statement shopping’, the grocer has become the darling of the right-on brigade. Editorials in liberal newspapers eulogise him, and academic conferences put him on their panels ahead of published social scientists.

He is the new suburban Trotsky, the vanguard of a new counter-revolution.

Who would’ve guessed that Romantic Ireland’s 21st century hero would be the once fumbling, greasy-tilled grocer?

Not even O’Leary – but then again, he’s dead and gone.


  1. Noel Spain

    I sincerely hope that you are right about this new counter
    revolution.
    Your Tesco,Lidl, etc have lulled shoppers into ignoring
    the difference between the price of something and the
    cost. Cheaper prices have consequences. We are shopping
    ourselves or our neighbour out of a job.
    We want clean air, clear water, good food, yet we aren’t
    willing to pay for anything grown or manufactured under
    those restrictions.

    Noel

  2. Dan Hayes

    David,
    I am sure out friends the sociologists have studied this
    phenomenon, part of the herd mentality.
    In downtown New York City whenever street shop space
    becomes available it almost immediately becomes a Starbucks
    Coffee Shop. (And rest assured, if not already, there will
    soon be one near you in upscale Dublin.) It is a badge of
    honor to walk around with your Starbucks styrofoam coffee
    cup!
    But be rest assured this too will pass. To be followed soon
    afterwards by some other manifestation of herdom (sic).
    Keep up your good work.And greetings from Sodom and Gomorra
    on the Hudson (a.k.a., NYC).
    Dan

  3. Paul in the USA

    Thank you for the most interesting outlook that I have read
    of that poem to date. Although, grocers aside, that poem
    still has as much in common with the Ireland of 2005 as it
    does with that of the lock out.
    I look forward to your interpretation of ‘No second Troy’
    Paul

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