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Return to The Tesco in Surrey Quays

April 3, 2011

Some people might remember the post I wrote about a trip to The Tesco in Surrey Quays.  I would like to formally apologise to Tesco PLC, because I let my imagination run a little wild.  I wasn’t being completely serious.  In this commentary I’m aiming at a greater degree of verisimilitude. Just the facts.  None of the paranoia.  The truth – whether that be cold, hard, or just warm and kind of spongy.

After my first trip to The Tesco in Surrey Quays, the number of texts I received from people while they were shopping from in The Tesco in Surrey Quays rose dramatically (we’re talking at least 30%).  By far the most common texts were those to this effect: “It really is *big*.”   And it is.  It is big.

I didn’t want to go back, as such, but I happened to be in the area, and needed to make a passable Farfalle Al Arrabiata that required a tube of tomato puree.  I wanted the visit to be surgical: in, tomato puree, out.

I felt very fortunate for not having to park a car outside The Tesco in Surrey Quays.   But things looked orderly enough.  Not everybody was respecting the one-way signs, but what do you expect?  This wasn’t Marks & Sparks.  I yanked out this trolley, took heed of its warning, and travelled on.

Inside, things looked, well, peaceful.  Shoppers were going about their business. The only two disconcerting things I could see were, firstly, the slightly overpriced pastries on special display and, secondly, the plastic security cage around ‘Travel Money’, which suggested a credible threat of thievery.  But I was calm. There was no need for panic.  I was in.  Now: tomato puree, out.

What I always forget about The Tesco in Surrey Quays are the rice paddies.   The picturesque rice paddies.   Especially the paddies lining the hill-side terraces on the south-east peninsula, where – if you squint – you can make out the hardy peasant labourers of Surrey Quays.  They have a little village at the centre of the paddies, which they have called, rather unimaginatively, Tesco Value Basmati.   The village is twinned, I am told, with East Grimstead.

In order to locate the tomato puree, I looked to the source: the acres upon acres of vine-fields stretching out to the north, and followed the mud paths south, to the tin tubing factory, and then south further to Aisle 14.  Just a trot.  On the way, however, I bumped into a man called Peppe, from Forest Hill, who told me a little about his life.

Peppe is a beansprouts man. His responsibility is to transport 310g packages of crisp and crunchy sprouts from the processing plant to Aisle 35, where there are snapped up by a perpetual flow of eagerly clutching fingers. He says that he is proud of his job, and points to the description on his beansprouts, that says ‘grown from mung beans’ (it reassures customers to know that these are not man-made beansprouts).  Peppe spends his day going back and forth, back and forth, between the processing plant and Aisle 35.  He told me a heartwarming tale of how his parents had passed the beansprout trade down to him, and how he was in the process of passing it down to his own child, Brian.

There was a throng of people lining up near some booths just behind Dr. Oetker’s (inevitable) sales.  I discovered that they were voting for the next ‘MP for Frozen Foods’, and the chap I spoke to said he was voting for a candidate whose manifesto pledges were a) better human rights, and b) a price-freeze on Vienetta for 5 years.  I wished him the best of luck.

Work had also just finished on the ambitious project connecting The Tesco in Surrey Quays to China’s Special Economic Zone in Xiamen via a 14 thousand mile conveyor belt.  It’d been built principally for carrying toasters.  The colossal concrete supports faded off into the horizon, passing over four very large, suspicious looking grey warehouses labelled simply ‘Crabsticks’.

I found the tomato puree.  As I walked towards the self-service till, and I looked at the thousands upon thousands of consumers rattling their trolleys haphazardly down the aisles, the following thought came over me.  Wouldn’t Tesco be happier if we weren’t here?  Were we holding it back?  Were me and my fellow shoppers more than mere cholesterol clogging the arteries of this mighty leviathan?  I mean, what could Tesco become, if we weren’t pestering and eroding it day-in, day-out?  Perhaps Abraham Maslow got it wrong, with his Hierarchy of Needs, when he thought that human beings could achieve the highest tier of self-actualisation.   Morality, spirituality, problem solving capabilities – fine, so far as humans go, but The Tesco in Surrey Quays? Surely it can achieve more than that.

The desire to submit myself to it, Borg-like, was overwhelming.

It was  4 years before I finally emerged from The Tesco in Surrey Quays, tomato puree in hand.  By this time, the parking lot had become unrecognisable – a chaos of Biblical proportions, a humanitarian crisis.    You couldn’t make out what was exodus, what was influx, and what was the indigenous population of trolley hunters and squeegee men.  Nobody now appeared to respect the one-way traffic regulations.  Any comparison to Marks & Sparks would’ve been inappropriate.

When I wrote before that people had texted me to say of The Tesco in Surrey Quays, “It really is *big*”, I forgot to mention where they’d actually texted from.  Within Tesco, yes, but from distant areas: one from Canada Water, another from Deptford, even one from Crystal Palace.  And they hadn’t gone to The Tesco in Surrey Quays, it had come to them.  It had enveloped them.  The Tesco in Surrey Quays had encroached on the urban landscape of south-east London like desertification, swallowing whole towns, communities – whole ways of life.  And a grotesque inversion had taken place.  No longer was I at the border of ‘The Tesco in Surrey Quays’, but ‘The Surrey Quays in Tesco’.

By this point I was close to the point of starvation and had forgotten all who had ever loved me.

I looked down at my trolley.  There was that sign.  State of the art Korean-built robots now patrolled the borders of The Surrey Quays in Tesco, and I realised that they wanted to keep me inside.  I saw a newlywed couple try to make a dash for it with their trolley, but as soon as they crossed the red line things got a bit The Running Man.  I didn’t think there was any hope left for me in the world.

But even then I would have been the first to admit that 43p for a 200g tube of tomato puree is pretty good value for money.

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