Grumpy Oldie Man
There is just one situation the undeniably superior sex can’t handle
At the prospect of typing the four-word declaration to come, a stream of prenausea saliva floods into the mouth. This is a statement that cannot be made by the owner of testes without inviting a sledgehammer to them (though in my case, borrowing from Basil Fawlty, you’d have to sew them back on first) from every living member of all genders, traditional and less so.
In the context of what lies ahead, however, stated it must be. I am a feminist. Admittedly, my brand of nonexecutive or associate feminism verges on the unconventional. The idea of female equality strikes me as an absurdity, if not an abomination. What I believe in passionately – what anyone on nodding terms with common sense knows for the plain and simple truth – is female superiority.
After almost 55 years of observing the species, it is crystal clear that in every regard other than one, women are by a colossal margin its better half.
And so, with the preemptive disclaimer duly issued, to the ruleproving exception which concerns the final stage of the supermarket experience.
The leading source here is the philosopher Homer Simpson. As a husband, father, friend and colleague, Simpson elegantly franks the theory of laughable masculine inferiority on his own. As a commentator on the checkout gender divide, he stands alone, however, as he confirmed on a Springfield supermarket outing by choosing to queue for a checkout behind 20 men rather than a lone woman.
To Sigmund Freud, famously, the most impenetrable mystery of human existence was what women want. But Freud never shopped in the Bayswater Waitrose in 2018. Had he done so, he’d have cracked it wide open. What women want is to understand that, at the end of the process when the bill is calculated, they will be expected to pay for whatever they put in the trolley.
Apologies if this comes across as braggadocio but, at my best, I am a sigma, tau or upsilon male. Even on a typical day, with omega vanished from the rear-view mirror, flailing about for a fresh alphabet, I understand that. But this is not, raiding the Fawlty oeuvre again, a proposition from Wittgenstein. That is why the card is to hand long before the last item is scanned. The nanosecond the checkout person reveals the amount, into the machine it goes. It’s not hard. If it was, it would be beyond me.
And yet to 93.4 per cent of female supermarket shoppers, according to official research I’ve plainly just made up, the request for payment is invariably astounding. It doesn’t matter how many times they have been there before. It could be a hundred or a trillion. Whenever the checkout operative says, ‘That’s £73.49’, it’s always a JFK moment – news so viscerally shocking, that the hearer will never forget where she was or what she was doing when she heard it.
By the next visit to Waitrose, she’s forgotten. Once again, when the tally is announced, the card is in the purse, which is so deep in the handbag that a canary ought to be sent down to determine the air quality; and the handbag is buried beneath the 19 items that still need packing in the carrier bags. Minutes pass before the transaction is completed.
If Waitrose adequately manned and womanned its checkouts, this breach of fundamental supermarket etiquette might not induce psychotic jags in the upsilon-male victim of the demented, impatience-related social disorder technically known in Harley Street, after the late Michael, as Winnerial Disease By Proxy.
But these days, the John Lewis Partnership motto appears to be Always Knowingly Understaffed. In the Bayswater Waitrose, no more than two of the seven checkouts are ever in use. On a dozen occasions in the past couple of months, I have engaged a claimant to the title of manager in debate about this. The closest to an explanation any of these Socratic dialogues produced was a curt and sullen, ‘Well, a lot of my people are off sick.’
The contrast with a Lidl in Salisbury, where the manager responded to a similar complaint with a charming apology and immediately opened a checkout himself, spoke for itself. You could tolerate a sprinkling of Novichok for service like that, though possibly not for long.
Whether this curiously permanent pandemic partly explains John Lewis’s recent decline in profits to approximately zero, or whether the Marie Celeste checkouts are a cost-cutting response to that, is a captivating chicken-and-egg conundrum better left to retail analysts.
Suffice it to say that this temple to genteel, middle-class shopping sensibilities isn’t what it was – and that the horrific queues make it a moral imperative for every customer of every gender to avoid a place where the poor sods stretch back, like the biblical host of Israelites in the wilderness, to the table sauces section at the far end of aisle 11.