Wednesday, 02 September 2015

Tracing traces About a week ago I picked up information concerning two curiosities. First, that the five members of a family that I happen to know, readily share precise location data online and look at what each other is doing during the day, some of them separated geographically by many miles. Some people will find this odd because it sounds like sanctioned tagging. Secondly, I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s delightful book The Old Ways, of the existence of the Formby footprints. The prints, baked hard into soft mud where the beach is now, have emerged on the shore at Formby Point because of environmental conditions and we are told they are approximately 5,000 years old. Among numerous prints, human and animal, it is claimed that the parallel steps of a man and a woman can be made out clearly. (The pic, by Macfarlane himself, is on the Formby Footprints website). By coincidence I was in Formby for a couple of days last week, and spent time on the beach at low tide. The prints are hard to find – conditions change and, having been exposed, it seems they are unlikely to last long – but I saw several and yes, they are exciting to a closet anthropologist like me. I happened to speak to a woman who has lived for nearly fifty years within two miles of this extraordinary find, and who knew nothing about them, so I did not feel too ignorant in my belated learning. The next day in Liverpool, I couldn’t resist this shot of the upturned sole of a shoe that seemed to have been washed up on the dock just outside the Tate Gallery. Paul Carter in his challenging book Dark writing wrote that ‘Our world is composed of the traces of movement’. Carter was asking why so much of our cultures (he begins with cartography) represents the world as static, when our experience of it is mobile. And so I go back to thoughts of that family who have and welcome the capacity to examine each others’ traces constantly, using their smartphones. It seems like a form of voyeurism that, being approved - just as the revelation of ancient footprints on a beach, and seeking them out and gazing at them, is culturally approved - perhaps exemplifies a fundamental human curiosity for the traces of others. Does this echo themes of privacy, curtain-twitching and looking-out for others in the neighbourhood? We still have the instincts of hunters.
Supermarket snobbery ‘Supermarkets are crucibles of snobbery’ wrote Harry Wallop, author of a book on ‘how we buy class in modern Britain’. I came across two examples of supermarket snobbery recently – the first of which still has me chuckling. Apparently there is a pseudo-posh neighbourhood in the west midlands where residents are ‘up in arms’ (i.e. community action has been mobilised) because their Tesco is threatened with closure, to be replaced by an Aldi. I’m quite a promiscuous and experienced food shopper meself and I suppose favoured in having branches of most chains within easy reach. Tesco is the nearest but always the very last resort in desperation, largely because I find their implied assumptions about food quality insulting. Call it reverse snobbery if you like. Aldi and Lidl always impress me. I know that for certain things (but not everything I need) I can get unfussy good quality – and without all the extra layers of packaging that certain outlets like to use (naming no names, the phrase ‘Marks and Spencer’ would never come to mind in this context). According to Wallop, drinking coffee is an indicator of social class, and ‘even within coffee there are gradations of snobbery.’ It's probably worth noting though that interest in - even proccupation with - the relative quality of something is not the same as being snobbish about it. My second anecdote came a while ago when I was staying in a guest house and complemented the hostess on the coffee she served at breakfast. She told me I was the third guest recently to have made that observation - since she had switched from buying Waitrose coffee to Aldi’s Italian. Image from Lucas Varela.

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