Opinion

Spirit of independence should be cherished in these corporate times

Around the UK, it is the remaining independent businesses that provide a sense of place and wonder

The shopfront of Pugh & Son

Pugh and Son: brings to mind a time of warm milk and nylon sheets

In the ending of Frank, the brilliant film about creativity and mental health, Michael Fassbender sings a beautifully simple song so close to nonsense: “I love your wall.”

In the last few years, I have come to love walls too. Perhaps you have a favourite one as well. 

Now predominately free of the anxiety voices that used to find any break in my thoughts and fill it, I have a lot more time for my manic mind to feast on the environment that surrounds me on my perpetual travels. Worry has been replaced with wonder as I wander. We can be blasé to our surroundings unless there is a sign that says “look here”. We may peer with intensity at St Paul’s Cathedral or the Angel of the North, but then we lower our senses to a damp squib and return to an autopilot of existence. 

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Approaching Euston station, the train dawdled a few metres from the platform and I looked up at the dark brickwork of the bridge above. There were the plants that had feasted on any crack of potential nutrients and grew out horizontally from the wall before reaching up for the sun. In that, I find a transcendent moment pondering the tenacity of nature and reminding myself that, whatever geometric order humans think they can bring to the world, flora will find a way of disrupting our straight lines.

My first wall – we’ve all got a first wall – was opposite platform 2 at Darlington station. It is a great big red brick wall, somewhere between Pink Floyd and the wall that the teacher battling to stop the Midwich Cuckoos getting into his mind imagines in John Wyndham’s classic novel. I remember having that moment of waiting for my train and thinking of all the hands and minds that had gone into creating it. 

In the last week, beyond seeking out new walls of wonder, I have been finding myself passing traditional shopfronts. In larger towns and cities, big corporations have swallowed up many of the one-off shops or starved the centre by moving the shopping complex to an easy-access ring road, but in the Midlands towns I visited, there is still space for the family-owned store.

Green shopfront

First it was Pugh and Son, a leather goods shop on Adam and Eve Street in Market Harborough, “trading at the heart of the market for over 200 years”. It was the front that drew me in, one of those ones that takes you straight back to warm milk at break time and nylon sheets. 

I went to Retford to talk at Wonderland Books, perhaps the most beautiful bookshop I have visited, with its tables and chairs and chess board on the ceiling, just waiting for someone to defy gravity after enjoying a Fizzy Lifting Drink. First signs were not auspicious, with a graffitied town information board opposite the station deeply sprayed with post-watershed words.

Blue shopfront

But then, as I walked to the centre, I saw Tony Halford’s Lawnmowers (above), painted a magnificent green with erratic windows and a sign inviting you to bring your faulty grass blades to see him. I was also attracted to Ron’s Hairdressing (right) as I imagined a very honest cut from him. 

I feast on the signs of independence; the uncertainty that comes with the one-off when the chain is so carefully arranged by head office that nothing changes wherever you may be. These local connections, so often battling against increasing ground rents and a desire for quick bucks over long history, need us. If I had been a better human, I would have gone into Tony’s and bought a sit-on lawnmower and then continued my journeys on that, but sadly, I haven’t passed my test yet. 

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £10.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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