4. The Shopkeeper

Previous

When our hero stumbles into a cacophony of order and learns the limits of taxonomy

“A rising tide lifts all the boats” President J F Kennedy Frankfurt (June 1963)⁠1

FIT THE FIRST

Down to the right, a narrow panorama of the water’s edge was framed by the two last buildings on either side of the street and promised more. He turned that way and went down the narrow pavement towards the beckoning vision.

At the end he was hit by rain, cold wind, peeling paint, rust, dilapidation, a promenade. Yet cooler now. What madness was this?

A fish and chip shop stood on the corner promising cut-price huss for OAPs, Monday to Thursday lunchtimes only. Through the steamy windows, the empty tables were arranged in forlorn rows. Must be Friday afternoon then, he mused. Opposite, between him and the grey sea, stood a painfully bright sight broken into yet more shards by the slanting rain. Overwhelming the sea green of its municipal facade, strips of neon linked to electronic chasers whirled acid colours up and down and across the kiosk; the sign set at a deliberately jaunty angle declaring that this was the World-Famous Brighton Rock Shop.

Momentarily confused he looked beyond this excruciating display, where still in his field of vision lay the extended sadness of the seaside beach which he knew to be just pebbles. There were no sea shells here, no sand; just those painful little rocks under bare feet. He shivered.

The light display enticed him back to some sort of jollity. Now, he could not come to Brighton without leaving with a stick of rock, could he? Another sign over the shop door announced that Herein Were Contained Over One Hundred Flavours and a Myriad Colours, All Traditionally Made. He peered in.

The flavours were written in felt pen on wavy-edged dayglo cards pinned to the centre of displays of rock arranged to lie around them like the petals of flowers. Mint for some reason was pink, but generally there seemed to be an attempt to match colour to taste. Some seemed very far-fetched, particularly the savoury items: curry, salt and vinegar and roast beef. Others were more exotic: mango, tropical fruits, pineapple. At the heart were the more orthodox: vanilla, coffee, chocolate.

True to form, every stick had not only a colour and a flavour, but also had the mandatory writing down the middle. The possible content of these messages was listed, handwritten on yet more Dayglo sheets that hung from the ceiling. The more ordinary Brighton Rock message overtaken by contemporary fashion: Find Your Name Here, Your Favourite Film Star, Your Football Hero, Send a Cheeky Message to your Girlfriend.

The display was a riot, all acid colour, multiple shapes and facets, shining in highly reflective cellophane wrappers. Somehow even this had proved insufficiently garish for the shop-keeper. The body of the shop was further decked out in ribbons and balloons that echoed the sticks of rock arranged like the ordered remnant of a display of swords in some fantastical armoury. The entire exhibition was underlined by the overuse of strip lighting, its fluorescent glow filtered through sleeves of many hues or just a plain white brilliant enough to hurt the eyes, some even arranged in buckets like giant illuminated sticks of rock themselves. Mesmerised, he stepped in out of the grey.

FIT THE SECOND

A (The?) shop assistant burst out of some back room like a caricature from a circus act: a brilliant white shirt sporting a white-spotted red bowtie, a bright yellow waistcoat barely holding in a round stomach, the ends of blue braces visibly holding up vertically-striped candy trousers that were too short, ending in multi-coloured this-time-horizontally-striped socks inside red shoes that were surely several sizes too large. A tilted straw boater topped it all like the cherry on a Knickerbocker Glory.

– Ahoy there me hearty, there’s wind in the mizzen today.

He winced at the mix of styles. Matelot-speak out of a circus clown? Only the peg-leg was missing.

– Well someone has to keep it up, my dear friend. British English is peppered with a myriad seagoing terms of which the majority of the population has now forgotten the origin. You must admit that nautical terms remain a strong presence in our local vocabulary, inform our daily conversation, and are indeed how our reality may be described – for we are but an Island!

– This place is full of old salts but how many people still know that a sheet is a rope I wonder? Do you know that I hold this very town responsible for this ignorance, housing the place as it does where this once proud maritime nation was started upon its Reduction. For is it not here that the foppish Prince Regent threw up, of all things, an oriental palace for his amusement, hidden safely away from the briny shore?

Oldman made to reply but the question had been rhetorical. Somewhat perniciously for the thesis, he observed to himself, was not the very maintenance of the seafaring idiom contributing to the drag effect that hindered those who might seek to act upon their own rules of conduct? So many of the nautical dicta seemed to involve the taming of the influence of this most troublesome of environments in order to conjure away its ever-present danger, and thus reduce risk.

– That may be so, boomed the shopkeeper, yet woe betide anyone who does not take water seriously. I have seen it for myself out there in the Channel. Brrr!

#

The wild eyes abruptly focussed in on Oldman.

– And what can I serve you today?

He beamed and waddled sideways down the displays, his hands flipping from side to side like some seal on his back flippers as he pointed out the advantages of his wares.

– This is our traditional range, still very popular. A good hard stick of pink mint rock with our usual message, comes in various sizes to suit all pockets, pretty picture of the promenade included in the wrapper – on a sunnier day mind you!

A wry smile crossed his lips.

– You might need to watch your teeth on this one though, and keep the water off if you don’t want it to get all sticky. Or this one here, more for the teenage market: Mango Love, a brilliant orange presentation with Say Your Mine (sic) written right through the heart of it. And why not try this little number? The latest in our range of more saucy items, for the discerning adult you might say.

He held up a suggestively shaped sweet. Grotesque.

– What’s up, cat got your tongue? Then come this way.

He beckoned him over to the display nearest to the cash register. In a hushed tone:

– Here, allow me to proudly present our piece de resistance, Evening Star.

He unwrapped the end of the bar.

– This has got the Opposition talking, I can tell you.

And held up the bared end.

– A bright green centre enveloped in a rich dark chocolate coat and, and this is the real surprise, soft to the tooth.

He more or less bent a piece off and handed it over.

– Try it now. Oh, but before eating, just look at the how the message stays still readable inside. Trade secret I am afraid.

Oldman could just make out “Evening Star” before putting the sticky piece of rock to one side. He wondered how this clown ever found anything in such a chaotic environment.

FIT THE THIRD

– Aah, but it is not chaotic. There is nothing in here that I could not find in an instant. Taxonomy sir, that is the secret!

Oldman looked around him for evidence of the ordering principle.

– Well you might look, for it requires a trained eye. Would it surprise you to learn that there are coded forms of arrangement in here that, when read in the knowledge of certain Founding Principles, allow me to identify every item?

He looked down his nose at a quizzical Oldman.

– I thought so.

He moved to stand behind and place his arm on Oldman’s shoulder, pointing into the display. His voice dropped.

– You know, there are many techniques out there for seeking refuge from chaos. They all seem to start with restoring order to the possessions held within your own space. Psychological studies show that people are more productive when working in an organised environment.⁠2 You will make no progress in organising your life if you continue to practice disorderly habits, so fix the leak. <SOURCE?> For it doesn’t do any good to repair a water-damaged ceiling until after the leak in the roof is fixed now does it?

He pointed at the central display.

– Assess the mess; begin with a good look-see.

– Of course this did not happen overnight in here. This order has been built up over years and then has to be maintained. The only way to beat this chaos is to do the daily dozen. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to tackle the job all at once, the hit-and-run approach works much better. Set aside several minutes a day to do something simple and when your daily dozen is up, walk away. It may not seem like you are accomplishing much, but like running water wears away at a rock, after a few weeks, you will begin to see the effects of your efforts.

– I do it this way. Each piece of rock sold allows me to re-arrange the display to meet its internal logic ever more strictly.

– Now I could have organised these sticks in alphabetical order, you know, A to Z, Apple flavour to Z whatever. But no, that would be too crass. Order has more poetry than that, sir. No, look at the arrangement in here. See those flowers that announce the flavours and observe.

He read off triumphantly:

– Noisette, Orange, Toffee, Honey, Grape, Iceberg, Rose, Bonbon! I must say I rather like the French touch, for they are not far from here you know and a touch of exotica helps sales too. And this way of arranging my wares has helped me to develop flavours in ways I would not have imagined possible. Who would have thought that ordering things to the name of this city could have done that?

He paused, the secret out.

Oldman read the list again: Noisette, Orange, Toffee, Honey, Grape, Iceberg, Rose, Bonbon. N. O. T. H. G. I. R. B.

The salesman chuckled before bursting out into a roar of laughter, the tears streaming down his face. He produced a large bright handkerchief and mopped his eyes and then his brow.

– Ah sir, your face, your face!

Chuckling yet more.

– Your face. Oh dearie me. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Sheepishly Oldman looked at him.

– And the coup de grace, backwards too! So overcome with mirth as barely able to breathe. Ah-ah, ha-ha-ha!

And he was off again, finally surfacing with a foghorn blow of the nose, mopping up and stuffing the handkerchief back into his voluminous trouser pocket.

– Ah me. Hum. Hur. Oh dear.

And a final wipe.

– But that is not all. There are many coded messages in here and I will leave you to spot and read them at your leisure. New flavours come out of this necessity to order my stock by reverse-labelling in this way. My competitors marvel at my creativity but it all comes from a hidden imposed order, a system which has allowed me to increase my turnover above every opposition, create wonderful new tastes and still work out where to fit them into the display! But modern rock is not just new flavours.

He clapped him on the shoulder.

– I like you sir, and will allow you access to my second secret. Have you heard of Colour Logic?

Another rhetorical question, since he pursued his point blindly after a short pause anyway.

– The Apple Man – you know, Thingummy Newton – came up with the first and essential component of this in the same year as the Great Fire of London: a Colour Wheel, a logically arranged sequence of pure hues. You will have done this in painting lessons at school but let me remind you that there are three colours that cannot be created by mixing others together that we therefore call Primary: red, yellow and blue.

Oldman looked up at the display.

– That’s right, seek out the logic of how these things are ordered as I speak. Now if you mix those colours together you will get more; the so-called secondary colours: green, orange and purple. You can go one more step and create the tertiary colours, which brings their number up to 12. And that is the usual size of a colour wheel. But what is interesting in all this is the notion of Colour Harmony, of which there are two kinds: anagolous and complormentary.

Oldman decided not to challenge him.

– Arrangements of adjacent colours on the wheel produce a so-called anagolous display; the yellows, greens and oranges all together for example. For maximum effect, one of the colours is usually allowed to dominate. On the other hand, colours arranged with their opposites on the wheel produce complormentary schemes: red with green, blue with orange and so on. There, the opposing colours create maximum contrast yet maintain maximum stability.

– Now look around you sir – si monumentum requiris, circumspice as it says on the tomb of Sir Chistopher Wren, the man who brought order back to London after the Fire!

Oldman scanned the displays and of course the logic now leapt out at him, though he had not been able to see it before. The very arrangements of the labelling and the rock in armoury rings, even the neon tubes, were set according to either of the colour logics, some in cool cousin hues, others in hi-contrast, singing juxtapositions that just shone out from the crowd. He noticed that even the arrangement of the arrangements was done according to either logic in order to avoid disharmonious clashes and for maximum effect.

– As with the coded words, this means of arranging the stock has also prompted us to invent new colours for the rock that you see displayed, in order to meet the logic of the colour wheel. Indeed some of the new flavours have emerged from the need to display a colour for which we had no flavour as yet. All in all, if I might be allowed to blow my own trumpet, this simple triumph of taxonomy over chaos has allowed us to double our business!

Oldman suddenly felt overwhelmed with fatigue. The man was wearing him out.

– Come sit down, sir, you look somewhat pale.

The clown led him to a wooden chair whose back had been painted in a vivid blue. The seat had succumbed to an imperial Chinese yellow and each leg was a different colour – green, pink, orange and red, the bars decked out in similar mistaste. The man disappeared out the back and returned in no time with a bottle of dark rum and two small tumblers.

FIT THE FOURTH

– Time to splice the mainbrace, old hearty.

Oldman went to refuse.

– Pipe down and share a tot. I know it feels a bit chock-a-block in here – there’s barely room to swing a cat! But it might surprise you to learn that all this was a bit touch and go at one time. You’d think running a little shop like this would be plain sailing wouldn’t you? Well you can go and tell that to the Marines.

He pulled up a second garish chair and dumped down his ample bottom.

– A few summers ago the barometer stuck hard and fast on cold-as-a-brass-monkey. Most unseasonal. The business nearly ran into the sand but somehow we managed to keep our heads above water. But to tell the truth my business plan came off the Ark and, as usual (raising his glass), I was sailing three sheets to the wind. Normally in that kind of situation I would just run with the tide, sink or swim like, but now I was losing money hand over fist. Looking back, it all seems a mere drop in the ocean but remember, then as now, we were not the only pebble on the beach! And then I met a woman.

For a second, his eye wandered to a distant horizon.

– Now there was entirely another kettle of fish. You see for some time I had felt I was in danger of missing the boat in that department. It’s not as if small businessmen have time for a girl in every port. Well, I fell for her: hook, line and sinker. I was well and truly hooked. I liked the cut of her jib you see and thought we should get spliced. She was not exactly the face that launched a thousand ships and once you got up to her at close quarters, if you catch my drift, you could see she was a bit broad in the beam.

– Actually I do believe I made some sort of careless remark at that discovery, to cover for my own – ahem – inadequacy. Well, I must say I was a bit taken aback by the ferocity of her response and I hit the deck, I can tell you. She sailed right off!

– It was a disaster. Mayday, mayday.

He took a swig from his glass.

– Would I get her back? I was on tenterhooks. I suppose I had sailed rather too close to the wind, but you must understand that I had had such little practice! I tried to pour oil on our troubled waters, but I was in the deeps and being given a wide berth I can tell you. For some reason, which I now very much regret, I said that I felt she was making rather heavy weather of it and maybe just fishing for compliments. Well, there she told me to sling my hook, for definite.

A pause for reflection on his folly ensued. He looked up with a bleary eye.

– There’s worse. That whole little episode took my eye off the business, didn’t it? By the time I came round, we were in the doldrums and going to end up in the drink; high and dry, on our beam ends. I had ended up a failure, between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Bitter End.

His eyes filled with water.

– Well what could anyone do, cut and run? Do you know I just couldn’t stand there and watch all my possessions go by the board. I was not going to sell my idea down the river. No sir; time to batten down the hatches! What I needed was something to tide me over, you know the sort of thing, hands across the sea. So I thought I would get me a business partner and, to cut a long story short, I actually found one in the offing. I thought my ship had come in; here was someone who could teach me the ropes.

A sigh.

– But by and large, it was a case of more haste, less speed. Now you will understand that I was very keen to get underway. So that everything was above board between us, I had cleared the decks and trimmed my sails. With all hands on deck and anchors aweigh, it was going to be full steam ahead.

Oldman winced. Lord, how he mixed his metaphors.

– I thought it would be all plain sailing but to be frank I was a fish out of water. It seemed to me to be a copper-bottomed solution at the time but all it did was land me in debt.

He shot Oldman an appealing look.

– You see, it was a case of ships in the night. If I have a defect, it is that it takes me a while to fathom something out. For my business angel was a bit of a loose cannon, if you get my meaning. For him, our partnership was about earning money for old rope so that he could get through it at a rate of knots. I started finding bottles. Well that let the cat out of the bag. The man drank like a fish! Mind you, I was hardly better myself, which unfortunately led me to err this side of caution. “Don’t rock the boat,” my father always used to say. So, as I did not want to burn my boats, I treated the situation as a warning shot across the bows.

– Ah me, they do say a drowning man will catch at any straw. But I had forgotten that rats will desert a sinking ship. I can tell you, we plumbed the depths, halfway to Davy Jones locker even. But eventually I pulled myself together. Time to weigh anchor I thought and so I told him to sling his hook. Ah, shifting sands, shifting sands.

He studied the bottom of his empty glass, turning it absent-mindedly round in his thumbs. Oldman felt the need to fill the silence.

– I am truly sorry it happened.

The matelot-clown looked up, suddenly bright again.

– Of come come, my good sir, worse things happen at sea! And I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar.

– Now I know that time and tide wait for no man and so it was going to be up to me to shake a leg and have a crack at it solo. Time to push the boat out on my own, that sort of thing.

– So, single-handedly (demonstrating with a generous sweep of his arm), I put all this back on an even keel. Do you know I went through this shop from stem to stern and got it all shipshape and Bristol fashion again. There was certainly no time to swing the lead in those days! Now I am delighted to say that we are making waves in town and everything is au quai as they say.

He pinched Oldman’s arm and threw him a grotesque wink before pouring himself a second shot and taking a long draught of the glass. Suddenly glum again, he fixed the floor with his gaze, the rotund body seeming to crumple inside its suit of gaudy clothes.

*

Oldman had been made positively giddy, with idiom more than rum he felt and, after a decent pause, he made quietly for the door. As he looked back, the man seemed to have disappeared into the radiant hues of his shop, a polka dot in a sea of colour, forever adrift. Relieved, he quietly opened the door and stumbled blindly out onto the street.

Next

_____________________

1 The full quote is: “As they say on my own Cape Cod, a rising tide lifts all the boats”. This reference cites an earlier use of the phrase by President Kennedy in 1960.

Ref:

“In 1993, Theodore C. Sorensen informed the author: ‘As Legislative Assistant to Senator John F. Kennedy 1953-1961, I often received material from a regional chamber of commerce-type organization called ‘The New England Council.’ I was favorably struck by the motto set forth on its letterhead: ‘The rising tide lifts all the boats,’ and not surprisingly it found its way into J.F.K.’s speeches.’.” From Safire’s New Political Dictionary by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993).

2 See Some of the 10 steps to organising your life by Lisa Tuttle at http://www.healthypages.co.uk/forum/showthread.php?t=4439.