When I was growing up, getting a video out of the local video shop was a Saturday afternoon outing that involved going into a small 17th century building where a woman was permanently installed behind a plastic desk chainsmoking Rothmans, and creating a fug in which it would have been suitable to smoke a kipper. You’d go up to the counter with your £2 charge (£1.50 fine for keeping it at home for the extra day, which you invariably did) and say “Can I have this please?” Then, she would look at you with canine-like teeth, and sneer, as if she wanted to poke your eyes out, murder you and then eat your kidneys.
Once she turned up for work with an eye patch on. I do not know why this was, only a lent a deeply sinister slant to what was already an alarming shopping experience.
During the refreshing commercial transaction of video rental, she would simultaneously hold a monologue on the phone to her friendly associates with whom she frequently fraternized at the local hostelry:
“Naaah. Chris is coming – but you know what that’s like…..Naah….she’s left ‘im, ain’t she? Remember the motorbike, she gave ‘im hell over that and then what with her mum having her whatsit down in Painswick and the car was buggered, weren’t it? I told ‘er, I said ‘You wanna clear aht, he’s taking the piss ……yeah…..naaah…..Bulmer’s cider. Yeah….naah….Well, I was going to wear me white trousers, but then well, I’m due ON on Friday, ain’t I? So I told Chrissie I weren’t wearing me white trousers coz in case, you know, well, I ain’t gonna wear ’em, naah. Wear me pink ones, won’t I – eh? Eh?? Won’t show then will it? WHAAA???”
This last exclamation would be in a direct reaction to me, as I was gently trying to rent La Bamba featuring Lou Diamond Philips and a guitar. She was aghast that someone had come into the shop and was attempting to actually rent a video. It was a genuine shocker.
“HANG ON SHIRL…. I got a CUSTOMER. Right. Yeah. Nah not that one, the other one.”
Then she would lumber, elegantly, off the stool, scratch her arse and potter over to the collection of film fantastics that our village video shop had. This would be done so slowly you could hear the seasons change.
FLOoopppp. Smash. That was the sound the plastic casing of the video would make when it landed on top of the plastic counter. Slowly, there would be a creak on the 1980s swivel chair before she launched her not inconsiderably sized behind into it and turned, sighing heavily towards the computer screen. The computer screen was a new innovation. It was startlingly under productive. It would not, for example, tell her whether Shirl would get the duty free for her mum, whether her white trousers should be worn on Friday, or whether Dave had quite forgiven her for ‘aving it large on Thursday night at the Brewers and thumping Chris. But what it would do is remind me how much was outstanding in fines.
“Riiiiiight.” An intense stare at the 1987 Amstrad followed. Then an expression of intensity, the most this puffy face could produce, filled the face in front of me. Keys were pressed, stoically, by very long nails at the average of two keys a minute. Tap. Sigh, look for number. Scratch arse. Puff out bottom lip and blow air upward onto face to disturb permed fringe. Tap.
“Twelve pahnds. Blimey. That’s what you owe, innit?”
“Oh,” I said, resolving to sound a little less middle class, which never works. Already I felt the village barricades had been raised silently, secretly in the night, letting our cluster of posh Jews in, without consultation of the local populace. Already I felt like The Village Yidiot. I didn’t need to inspire them further. “Really?”
“Yeah. It’s all those Kiefer Sutherlands, innit? The modern American screen of the Brat pack film genre is mindful of the 1950s Americana film style made popular through the all too small film catalogue featuring the late James Dean as the primary American Teenager negotiating the adult terrain and making his own individual generational tensions manifest.”
(Oh, all right then. I made that last bit up).
But I was trying to give her a bit of glamour. It would be depressing wouldn’t it – to read her real response?:
“You gotta PAAAY, int cha?”
This place must have been able to pay its rent on fines alone. I shuffled over the money and she expressed her revulsion by nonchalantly puffing a lungful of second hand smoke onto my school blazer. Fourteen quid fifty lighter, you had a video to rent. Then you’d leave the shop, and leave this extraordinary, nameless woman to her weekend worries, wardrobe queries and bodily functions, which she used to discuss on the phone with a distressing amount of volume. There wasn’t a person in the WD4 area who didn’t knows the ins and outs of her hemorrhoids. But it reminds us that in those days, if you wanted to hire a film, you had to deal with people, hold cash in your hand, transfer it into the hand of another, carry the video and actually be physically reminded of its presence. That meant that you were guaranteed to watch it. It was not a common occurance. The film you wanted to hire would have been buzzing around your brain for the best part of the week. Now, with the advent of the download, we see no people, we speak to no one, the money doesn’t really, truly exist, the films pile up on the Sky Plus Planner and readers, how many of them do you actually see?
The video shop has gone the way the travel agent will inevitably follow. There is still a travel agent in my district, but I am astonished as to its survival. Recently someone drove into the front of their store. I think they were relieved. Sweeping up the broken glass gave them something to do. In South Hampstead, there also used to be a bizarre video rental store valled Vulture Videos, which had a large model vulture hanging out of the top of the sign and sweeping up over the road, which used to alarm shoppers in the Waitrose next door. Many people used video shop membership cards to develop alternative, eccentric titles : “Sq. Ldr John Smith” or “Judge Emma Brown” or similar. Now, identity proof online has rid us of those playful eccentricities. Apple wouldn’t understand if I happened to make myself “Doctor” or “Councillor” or “Justice of the Peace” just for larks. Someone from Apple would try to arrest me. Virtually, of course. There is less room for humour now, and more room for reverence.
What, I wonder, happened to the chain-smoking woman once smoking at work and renting videos became a thing of the past? Did she finally find her vocation burying bodies for the Mafia/road testing vitriolic shades of coloured mascara/dealing with Shirl and Chris and her mum in the manner that would have made everyone happy? Did she end up locked in a call centre eight hours a day where, attached to a centralized telephone system, she was unable to regale locals who eavesdropped into her calls to Shirl, not to mention the lugubrious Chris? Unable to smoke and unable to watch Sylvester Stallone films on a loop all day, what kind of menace and hatred would have developed in her already somewhat menacing brain? Did she ever give Chris what for? Indeed, who was Chris? I imagine a chap with builder-shoulders who was probably the person who used the leave a pints worth of urine in a glass at the end of our driveway every Saturday morning. Maybe not. Maybe it was the video shop woman, in which case she must have had spectacular aim, despite the hemorrhoids.
Four things need to be asked:
1. Why do we have more choice in shopping these days, but less personal freedom?
2. Do we have too many things that we don’t watch / see / enjoy / concentrate on because we don’t have a human-orineted, cash transaction to buy them?
3. Why, if transactions are soundless and efficient, must they be so confusing and miserable?
3. And lastly – one of the great questions relating to the technical transitions of the last twenty years that have changed our lived from real to virtual – did she ever get to wear those bloody white trousers?
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