I should, of course, have known better than to go back there at all. But I am not particularly prone to nostalgia; I appreciated that the place where I once grew up was, even in those days, in need of change, and I was curious. So it was that I did go back, just a couple of years ago, stepping off the bus at a once familiar spot and turning the corner into High Street, all prepared for surprises after a lapse of seventy years.
The discoveries came in a series of little shocks, mostly not unpleasant. The street was brighter than I remembered it, and with motor traffic diverted elsewhere there was now more air to breathe, more space to stroll, to loiter, to appreciate neat frontages that one had never seemed to notice in the past. Mr Ashton’s Dairy Shop was long gone; gone too was the Scala Cinema, but that had always been something of a fleapit, hadn’t it? Some of the new shops were flashy and vulgar, yet here and there neat terraces had been set up where one could take coffee and observe the passers-by, almost in the Parisian manner. I must have been halfway along the Street, vaguely collating past and present as I went, before I realised with a jolt that something vital had gone missing. What could it be? Of course: Woolworths was no longer there.
I recalled so well the crimson shop front with its gilt lettering: “F.W.Woolworth: 3d and 6d stores” crowning the entrance to what for me had been a Mecca of cheap delights. Cheapness was the key; my mother’s weekly grocery bill from the Co-op might amount to as much as twenty eight shillings, but for a ten year- old mere threepenny bits and sixpences sufficed to put contentment within the reach of small hands. Provided, that is, that one spent them at Woolworths. For in those days Mr Woolworth always kept his promises; soap, small packets of nails and shoe polish were truly just threepence apiece; for sixpence there were tins of sardines, hammers and hairbrushes. The range of his offerings seemed endless, from seeds to scarves and from soup to spectacles. True, Mr Woolworth sometimes sailed fairly close to the wind: his sixpenny gramophone records did deliver real songs on my wind-up gramophone, but one suspected that the recording had somehow been speeded up to squeeze all the verses onto such a small disc, the result being that the singer invariably appeared to be Donald Duck with laryngitis. There were some occasional compromises on price as well: for my very first camera an aunt was obliged to hand over to Mr Woolworth one shilling and sixpence: it turned out that he charged sixpence each for the front and the back and another sixpence for the lens. For such accommodations one could hardly reproach the manager, Mr Thompson, who strolled the broad aisles in his grey pinstripe with a presidential air and presumably did merely what Mr Woolworth told him to do. What that comprised I was not sure, except that he busied himself with collecting money from the various cash registers and taking it to his safe; however he was also reputed to pounce on small boys who were found pilfering penny chocolate bars and to drag the miscreants away by their ears; on one occasion, too, I observed him berating a shop assistant with curlers in her hair for picking her nose in full view of the customers.
The ultimate delight was however the toy counter, and more particularly the section devoted to ingenious devices and practical jokes; they were intended to render one the life and soul of any party and all the items were supplied by Messrs E&S of London. One suspected that E and S were two gnome-like figures, who giggled as they glued the stuff together in some Islington attic. There was the Seebackroscope, equipping one with eyes in the back of one’s head. There were celluloid spiders and flies and (oh, horror!) pliable brown blobs of artificial dog manure, all intended to tease (and hopefully amuse) conventionally-minded uncles and aunts who encountered them in the parlour. No less malicious were the threepenny bottles of iceberg fluid, claimed to reduce any chair to freezing point in seconds, to the astonishment of anyone choosing to sit down there; regrettably, according to a rumour circulating at school, the fluid also had potent bleaching properties. But there was too the mysterious sixpenny sex detector – a tiny metal cone of a thing, suspended from a thread – that would rotate slowly if held above a lady, a hen or a bitch, but would swing to and fro in the manner of a pendulum if held above any male entity. It actually appeared to work in my hands, but when the boy next door operated the device the pattern somehow proved to be reversed. Ah well, it was only sixpence.
And now it is all gone, forever. Mr Woolworth has retreated to the internet, where the pounds have no doubt taken the place of the pennies of yore; his shop, together with eight hundred others like it in as many High Streets, has been pulled down. As to whereabouts in town today’s small boys are supposed to seek their hearts’ simpler delights when the iPads and iBooks pall I am not at all sure. Perhaps, one day, I ought to set up a little manufacturing operation in my attic to follow in the wake of E&S, supplying spiders and Seebackroscopes to understanding shopkeepers, and hoping that some small boy, somewhere, will buy them and be happy. But he will never have known the joys of going to Woolworths; and only I shall miss them.