Susan Hill Susan Hill

The joy of short stories in these taxing times

From time to time, usually when things are quiet, the government brings on the dancing girls. David Cameron made Carol Vorderman the celebrity Head of Maths, Prue Leith was wheeled out to revolutionise hospital catering (again), and Mary Portas was to breathe life, excitement and renewed prosperity into our dying high streets. Nothing ever happens, of course, but perhaps Covid-19 does present a real opportunity.

In the past 20 years I have watched several small towns change radically. Shops selling things people actually needed — meat, fish, fruit and veg, bread and butter, ironmongery, postal and banking services — have closed. In their place have come coffee shops, delis, estate and holiday-home letting agents, overpriced clothing boutiques, nail bars and beauty salons, and gift emporiums — those I call £30 scented candle stores. Then there are the charity shops — nothing wrong with those, and they have become smarter with attractive professional displays, but there are too many, cheek by jowl.

The £30 scented candle stores are dreaming of re-stocking in ‘Pomegranate, Pepper and Peat’

Now, in the twinkling of an eye, all shops other than those selling essentials have been forced to close. The scented candle purveyors are surviving on government bailouts while dreaming of re-stocking in ‘Pomegranate, Pepper and Peat’, but they will wake to a very different world, of high unemployment, austerity, bankruptcies, and general struggle. Money will be spent on necessities, not dinners for two at £50 a head or, indeed, scented candles.

Which brings us to empty shops, and one question — why do these buildings have to be shops at all? I am not the first to point out that the rooms over retail and other business premises are generally unused except perhaps for storage. They should be lived in. In my nearby town, most were once houses anyway and could readily become so again.

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