This started with a simple observation. Some shopping trolleys now have useful clips onto which you can attach your shopping list – a useful little enhancement to our everyday lives (and especially useful for people like me, with a brain like a sieve and hence a necessary list making habit).
For some reason, visitors to a local supermarket often leave their lists on the trolleys afterwards. Maybe they had no idea that we have, in some odd kind of retail voyeurism, started collecting them, studying them and decoding them.
It’s fair to say that this is a pretty odd thing to do. It’s a little like sneaking silently into people’s minds. It probably breaks all sorts of civil codes, libertarian charters and a technocrat from Brussels will be slapping a ‘cease and desist’ order on us just as we press publish. But, hey ho, in the meantime, come and have a peak at the shopping preferences of South West Londoners, as preserved on dozens of scraps of paper.
So, when we put these out on a table and study them in more detail, what do we learn?
From a formatting point of view, some people might use an entire page of A4 for just a few items. I think even I could have remembered those five things, come on…
Conversely others seem to be attempting to break the world record for just how many hand-written words can be crammed onto a tiny piece of paper.
Many people seem to start off with some vague form of grouping (as in ‘what I will get in which aisle’), the example above even using gridded paper (impressive, I thought).
But for many that swiftly breaks down into a kind of anarchy (with some odd extra note to ‘tell Gail’ – wonder if that ever happened).
There’s precious few that have any sense of design. Odd that. The one at the top of this post was about the most calligraphic we could find.
Mind you it’s great to see that the proverbial ‘back of an envelope’ is alive and well.
Recently the US Ambassador to London complained of having lamb every day for 180 days. Our (admittedly random sample) seem to go mainly for pork, chicken and, oddly quails eggs. The Ambassador clearly isn’t spending enough time on the Clapham/Balham border.
There’s a definite sense of finality about some as they gleefully scratch out the items off their list…
…or write a list in one colour, and cross out in another? Classy.
The most revealing are the most singleminded – such as this clear and definite ‘beverage list’ which has to be stocking up for a party. All booze apart from the solitary note for ‘ketchup’.
There are several very sweet examples of lists clearly written for a specific lasagne (we wonder if this is a child’s?), or salad…
…or this, phenomenally detailed list for an entire meal. Wow. And crossed out with such fury too. Pretty glad I wasn’t invited to that dinner party, to be honest – beef wellington and creme brulée?
Then there’s a rich seam of lists which reveal either the items bought specifically for people…
…or things to carefully avoid, especially bananas.
The most fascinating of all are those where multiple hands have scribbled requests on one note.
Study this one in detail and requests for certain things start to pop up (‘My Olives’ or ‘Tom’s lettuce’).
And I love this one that follows very specific cake elements with, er, ‘Cod x 3′. Odd.
Maybe from here the art of the list will decline – more and more people will just write a note on their phone and stop casting around for spare paper and chewed pencils. Or you’ll forward your list to the supermarket and there it will be, all packed up and ready for you in the car park. Maybe.
In the meantime, we’ll keep collecting, and keep decoding. Just be careful next time you leave your list on a trolley – someone might have their eye on it…
By Michael Johnson
with additional research by Mrs Johnson