Friday 22 November 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: All you need, when you need it

"The shops had personality. Some were darks, some had a smell that was unique"

I walk past the shop where I bought the suit for my wedding. It's been turned into a Spar. I go back across the Liffey and come to the bank that turned me and the wife down for our first mortgage. It's a Spar.

The shop where we bought our first good telly - a Spar. The shop where the kids could buy toys for a pound - it's a Spar. The shop where I bought my first Slade record - you've guessed it.

I'm relieved when I get to the top of O'Connell Street and see that the Rotunda is still the Rotunda and not a colossal Spar. Our kids were born in there, and all of the grandkids - except the one who was born on the way there. She's called Summer, because she was born in Summerhill, in the back of a moving taxi.

It seems like nearly all the key buildings of my life - the architectural reminders of the decades I've lived and worked in this city - have become Spars. Why don't they just change the name of the place to Spartown?

The taxi driver - the chap who was driving my daughter-in-law to the Rotunda - was a decent enough skin. He went like the clappers, through a couple of red lights, and up onto the path in Ballybough. The daughter-in-law said she'd name the baby after him if it was a boy, if they made it to the hospital. Then she saw his name on the dashboard. He was African and she couldn't read his name, let alone pronounce it. So he said she could name the baby after the taxi instead. Young Summer did her Junior Cert this year. She has no idea how close she came to being called Toyota.

Anyway, don't get me wrong: I've nothing against Spars.

That's not true. I hate them.

When I was a kid, there was a grocer down the road, Mister Baldwin. He wore a brown coat over his suit and he stood outside the shop when he wasn't busy. He always held a brush. He'd pick up the brush, like John Wayne picking up his rifle, before he'd step outside to have a gawk at the world.

He lived in the flat above the shop and you'd see his cigarette smoke floating out the window in the evenings and hear his records - Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra. He wasn't married and my father once told me that the love of his life was Missis O'Neill, who ran the grocer's up the road.

- She married the wrong grocer, he said.

- Don't mind him, said my mother.

The only things my mother said more often than "Don't mind him" were "Wipe your feet", "Jesus wept", and "Ah, God love you".

Anyway, whether the story was true or not, everyone on the estate thought Mister Baldwin was a lovely man and Missis O'Neill was a weapon.

Except me. I thought Missis O'Neill was the lovely one. The way she leaned on the counter, the way she stared at you like she knew you wanted to rob something, the way she shouted to Mister O'Neill in the back of the shop: "Fergus! Beans!"

She was terrifying and the love of my 10-year-old life. Until she ran off with the man who delivered the Rinso. Spotless Tommy, my da called him.

- She'll put spots on that poor gobshite.

- Don't mind him.

Anyway, Mister O'Neill came out from behind the shop and sold it. It became a chipper and he moved to Spain.

I suppose what I'm saying is: the shops had personality. Each one was different. Some were dark, some had a smell that was unique. The people in charge were nice or mad, or ancient or gorgeous, or kind or frightening. The shop was theirs and they all looked a bit like their shop.

Mister Baldwin, the grocer, looked like a big spud - his brown coat was something a potato would wear on his wedding day.

And that's my objection to the Spars: they're all the bloody same. When I walk into a Spar, I step out of Dublin, into some boring, half-imagined vision of the future. If I owned a shop, I'd want my name over the door, or a name I'd come up with myself - The House of Savage, or something like that.

- But it's hard to imagine anyone actually owning a Spar, isn't it? I say to the wife. - An individual human being, like.

I've brought chips home with me and I have my heart set on a chip butty.

- We've no bread, says the wife.

- What?

- We've no bread.

- Ah, Jesus, I say. - Where will I get bread at this hour?

- The Spar, she says.

- Would it still be open?

- Ah, yeah, she says. - It never shuts.

- That's brilliant, I say. - Don't go near the chips. I'll be back in a minute.

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