I’ve started doing a monthly column for The Birmingham Post. It’s just a way really to legitimate the various tragic day trips and explorations I carry out in and around the city. I wanted the column to have the title ‘Afternoon Safari’ – which captures the armchair-intrepid nature of this research, but they weren’t so enthusiastic about that. Anyway the first one came out last Friday, and as I don’t think it’s online anywhere I guess I should post it here….though the tone somehow doesn’t quite fit.
I’ve been investigating the mysterious disappearance of the sweet shop. Mysterious insofar as no one actually seems to have noticed. Whilst TV chefs and broadsheet columnists may lament the loss of local butchers, grocers and bakers the stoic sweet shop owner quietly put away the jars of pineapple rock and pulled down the shutters for a final time entirely unremarked.
Yes there are still shops that sell sweets – a few bags of anonymous Euro-candy from the Haribo corporation, or endless and baffling mutations of Kit Kats and Dairy Milk bars slugging it out for shelf space in the eternal battle between Mars and Cadbury – but real sweet shops, that sell pear drops by the quarter and foam shrimps individually… have you seen one lately?I’ve been trying to work out when this silent purge began. It’s surely too egotistical and fanciful an idea to believe that sweet shops died out at exactly the same point as my life stopped revolving around them – and yet the early 80s seems to keep coming up as the last time anyone can remember a flourishing confectioner culture on the streets of Birmingham.
I suppose in that upside-down time when greed was good and the voice of Tony Hadley soothing – what hope did the unassuming Rhubarb and Custard chew have of convincing anyone of its charms?So I went in search of ‘proper’ sweet shops. I wasn’t too pessimistic, even though I knew most had gradually turned into general convenience stores with ever-decreasing shelf space for candy, I was sure I’d still find a few hidden gems dotted about the city. I had some some vague idea of an outer circle of hope – a conviction that places like Acocks Green, Erdington and Hall Green would harbour treature troves of Sherbet Dip Dabs and foam bananas. I was wrong. Everyone I asked answered in the past tense. The situation was more grave than I’d feared.
The one sweet shop that everyone did mention was the candy shop on Hurst Street. Here you can still choose from the vast range of Sela sweets by the quarter alongside Sherbet Fountains. It’s a great place – but it didn’t make me any less concerned about the death of the sweet shop. Its connection to a National Trust property, its ye-olde cash register and shop fittings seemed to say only that sweet shops were now part of the nostalgia industry and none could survive in the wild.
I heard rumours of sweet shops still flourishing in parts of the Black Country and Worcestershire, but I carried on doggedly searching around Birmingham. Days passed in a dispiriting blur of pre-packed ‘Starmix’ and glossy pick and mix with a street price per gram higher than crack cocaine.
Then – as in all classic tales of quest – the break through came. An anonymous tip off pointed me in the direction of the Post Office in Rubery. There behind the counter was a vast array of jars – 2 deep – containing just about every esoteric item of confectionery you could hope to find – dolly mixtures, assorted toffees, cola cubes, pear drops… On the counter itself were foam bananas, candy bracelets, original small drumstick lollies and then…. the holy grail – tantalising white paper bags with the words ‘20p mix’, ‘30p mix’ and for the executive diner ‘40p mix’. Yes – the 10p mix-up updated for the new millenium – I had hit the mother lode. This was clearly no exercise in nostalgia either – but a living breathing shop as evidenced by the increasingly disgruntled queue that was backing out the door, held up by my slack jawed awe and insane mumbling of long forgotten sweet names at the front.
As the exceptionally patient and genial lady eventually managed to get some sense from me and weighed out some pear drops, I asked her about the popularity of the jarred sweets. She seemed puzzled that anyone would ask such a thing, she told me that they had to do a complete reorder of stock every 5 weeks, and whilst herbal tablets were the overall best seller, all sold very well. It felt like the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and discovering that Pottersville had all been a bad dream.
Sadly the illusion didn’t last beyond the borders of Rubery, but in that small space the ‘proper’ sweet shop is alive and well and only by donning pith helmet and venturing there on an afternoon safari will you learn the mysterious contents of the deluxe 40p mix.