Sophia Waugh

Losing my bottle

Why does Waitrose think I can’t be trusted with Chablis?

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Why does Waitrose think I can’t be trusted with Chablis?

I was refused alcohol in Waitrose the other day. Not because of my age, nor because I don’t look my age. Nor, I hasten to add, because I was drunk. I was buying supper in Waitrose — two chickens, two bottles of chablis, some green beans — and when the woman on the till reached the wine she shook her head, folded her arms, and told me she could not serve me. At first I thought it was some silly joke. My children laughed along merrily. ‘Ooh, mum, she thinks you’re 17.’

But the children were the problem.

When you shop with small children they’re a nightmare because they’re asking for sweets and whining. When you shop with teenage daughters you often find bizarre cosmetics and false nails have appeared in your basket. What you don’t expect, at either stage of life, is that your shopping is censored because you are accompanied by your children.

The children in question were 21, 17 and 13 and were behaving perfectly decently. None of that mattered. Waitrose has made it a policy not to serve alcohol to people accompanied by teenagers, unless the teenagers have identification. Baffled, I tried the art of charm and gentle conversation to change her mind. She was a middle-aged lady, with a decent round face and not too badly dyed hair. I thought we could connect. I discussed my brother, the food I was serving him, the distance I live from the town, but she was curiously uninterested. My eldest daughter, who is a fighter, began to send out aggressive signals, but I called her back to heel before the woman noticed.

Then I suggested a compromise: I sent the younger ones out of the shop and turned back to the intransigent till-keeper. ‘Please can we start all over again?’ I suggested. ‘Ah, but I’ve seen them now, haven’t I?’ she answered. I called for the duty manager. The duty manager, of course, backed up her worker, but seemed more willing to waver when she realised my eldest daughter is 21. But again, ‘I’ve seen the others now, haven’t I?’ repeated the till-keeper. The duty manager was about half the age of the woman on the till and I don’t think dared to use her initiative, so Waitrose’s halfwitted policy won its way.

At this point (I had been remarkably cool until then) I waved the can of (spray) furniture polish at them. ‘Don’t you care that my daughter sniffs aerosols?’ I demanded. ‘We don’t have a policy with aerosols,’ came the reply. Now if Waitrose wants to take responsibility for everything it sells, it should not stop at drink. It should not sell sprays, or knives, or bananas, to anyone who cannot demonstrate that they plan to use the articles safely. What if I don’t throw away the banana skin properly and an old lady trips on it and breaks her hip? Would that be my fault or the old lady’s? Neither, it would clearly be Waitrose’s for selling me the banana.

It is clear that Britain has a problem with alcohol. You don’t need to read any statistics on the subject, you only need to drive down any main street of any rural town to see the youth of today hanging around clutching tins or bottles of cheap alcohol and preparing to riot. The police begin ‘policing’ as early as six on a Friday night in my local town, and by nine the streets are not a pretty sight. As both a mother of four and a teacher in a comprehensive school, I am more than aware that the teenage drinking problem is huge, and I am sure it is significantly worse than it was in our day. I know of a 15-year-old boy who passed out in a park, was left by his panicked friends, and then had a stroke; I know of teenagers arrested for vicious fighting while drunk, and endless tales of hospitalisation for alcohol poisoning. And I know that for the most part the teenagers are bought their alcohol by irresponsible passing grown-ups, but nevertheless it does seem to me that there is a madness in this attempt to sort out the problem.

This is not to say that older people don’t drink; of course we do. Some of us greedily, some of us daintily, but fewer of us are doing it on the streets. Neither do most of us pimp wine to underage drinkers, and if we were to I doubt we would be buying them Chablis. I am middle-class, middle-aged and (outwardly at any rate) respectable. Everything in my shopping basket shouted middle-class shopper buying supper. Perfect Waitrose customer. However, in a desperate attempt to look as though they are doing something, Waitrose decided to use its ‘discretionary’ policy to ban me from buying alcohol.

We might as well turn to prohibition, and all drink secretly — is that the aim? If so I’d better start distilling straight away. The children might get thirsty.