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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, March 05, 2008
    High street, back stage and front stage
    Good conversation tonight around my talk on heaven in ordinary / the walk, in which Jan (delighted to have given up teaching for far more rewarding work such as taking coats at The Royal Court theatre and assisting at Asda) confirmed my instinct that a lot more human interaction goes on in supermarkets than is usually acknowledged by those (myself often included) who blithely assert that 'small and local is good / mega and multinational is culturally crippling', without first looking at the detail. Seems that the human spirit won't be crushed even by the big white warehouses which increasingly cover our land, and that if you work in the Asda you'll be used to watching people hovering with their baskets until they see their 'favourite' checkout assistant is free, for a chat. And other lovely minutiae.

    And then home to delight in reading a back issue (well, the most recent one from Oct 2007) of the newsletter of The Materialist Psychogeographic Affiliation in which Mark Rainey reports on a group of folk who spent a day investigating Caffe Nero as a Site of Psychogeographic Praxis, a text which 'was originally written as a Wikipedia entry for Caffé Nero. It was soon removed for being "Original Research" and "Deliberate Nonsense".'

    The project involved visiting every Caffé Nero in Manchester City Centre. 'A total of 9 were visited. ... The project was simple, but the subject was immense. Participants had no instructions other than each visit to a Caffé Nero would last approximately 10 minutes. This effectively gave participants the freedom to examine the café from whatever angle they wanted.'

    Dispiritingly, they found that each Caffé Nero is pretty much the same, a place for people alone, operating their laptops or mobile phones, rarely for teenagers, the elderly and families. They also noted a general sloppiness in common with other chains: 'Tables are not cleaned, toilets are often filthy and debris is scattered about. Care and attention to detail are left behind in the clamour for expansion. Starbucks reached this point long ago.'

    The investigators also took a while to get used to not buying anything. 'Simply sitting in the space left an uncomfortable feeling as purchasing coffee is part of the Caffé Nero routine. To alleviate this, participants often grabbed a free cup of water or sat at a table with the detritus left by a previous customer. On occasion, when pressured by staff, a participant would ‘take an espresso for the team’.'

    However, one intrepid investigator 'discovered that toilet access, specifically in Caffé Neroes located in older buildings, also provides access to the backrooms of the buildings.' His adventures, and Jan's cloakroom/checkout revelations, convince me that there's plenty of thrills to be found in the corporate high street after all: or behind it.
    On Oxford Rd., one participant found his way into an unlocked cellar with full access to the building’s electric panel. On Cross Street the participant discovered a Caffé Nero training centre located two floors above the café. His friend kindly slipped his job application under the training room door. A propane tank was also found in the same staircore. Interestingly, a door leading to the neighbouring Subway was also found. Subway is another chain store who have blanketed Manchester. These two chains were linked, not at the front, but at the back. Back stage and front stage became important themes ...