Back in March a speaking engagement took me to Piccadilly, so I decided to take this opportunity to buy some new pyjamas. I went to Harvie and Hudson in Jermyn Street, an old-fashioned gentleman’s outfitters which seemed to be one of the last shops in London to sell pyjamas with a tie waist (elastic, since you ask, has always seemed to me either too tight for comfortable sleep, or too loose for safely walking around in decency).
I went in and stated my business, and a suitably Jeeves-like shopwalker showed me a range of styles. ‘But don’t you have any with a tie waist?’ I asked. ‘I am very sorry, sir’, Jeeves replied, ‘But we no longer stock them. It is, I’m afraid…’ he lowered his voice a little, ‘the decision of our new head buyer. I am very sorry. Personally, I myself prefer a tie waist. But you will, I am sure, have no difficulty finding what you want “online”’.
I left Jermyn Street a sadder and a wiser man. It was some months, in fact, before I could bring myself to search online, where I found exactly what I was looking for in about three minutes, and at something less than Jermyn Street prices. The vendor was O. & C. Butcher of Aldeburgh, a shop which I remembered visiting several years ago while attending the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
Soon after placing my order I received an email from James at O. & C. Butcher. He was sorry that they no longer had the exact pattern I had ordered, but he offered two close alternatives, with photographs. I replied that I would have one of each and they were delivered the next working day.
So far, so wonderful. But ever since then, my use of the internet has been continually interrupted by banner ads and pop ups advertising O. & C. Butcher. Regardless of context, the name appears in front of me over and over again like a visitation in an M.R.James ghost story. And the more this happens, the more my happy memories of the prompt and personal service I received are erased and replaced with a sense of irritation. My image of a traditional family store in a charming Suffolk town has been superseded by the impression of yet another faceless, careless company that thoughtlessly abuses technology. And my sense of being a valued customer has given way to a feeling that I’m just an anonymous target.