Pete Pheasant: We're mourning the loss of the Co-op... but we also killed it
FIRST HMV, then Blockbuster, now the Co-op. The battering of the high street goes on.
Ilkeston without a big Co-op store: as Blackadder's Nursie might say, it's like a boy without a winkle.
This week's closure announcement is a devastating blow to a town centre already dying on its feet – though clearly not devastating enough to shoppers, or the Co-op wouldn't be facing the final set of reasonably-priced curtains.
I feel for those in Derby and Long Eaton who also face the loss of their Co-ops. But permit an "Ilson" lad – and one whose first job was with the Co-op movement – to indulge himself.
The Co-op's pure physical presence ensured that it bestrode Ilkeston town centre like a colossus for more than a century, forming, around the Market Place, a quadrumvirate that serviced and sorted out the local populace: the town hall on one side, the "top chotch" of St Mary's on another, the Co-op on a third and, just around the corner, the cop shop.
Ilkestonians even older than I will fondly recall the "divi" – a system of paying shoppers a small percentage of what they'd spent during the year. Many might struggle to remember what they've had for tea but will be able to recall their mother's divi number from decades ago.
But it's the huge part that the Co-op, at its peak as a proudly independent society, played in the life of the town that I remember best.
As a reporter in the 1970s and 1980s, I witnessed one trailblazing business success after another – motors, travel, funerals (the so-called buy now, die later insurance plans generated huge controversy – and welcome publicity) and above all, the banqueting suite, burnt down once, then restored to greater glory.
For dining on a grand scale, there was nothing like it for miles. Seven or eight hundred folks would feast and dance at the warren of Regency Rooms at weekends and the guest list read like a who's who of Derbyshire.
There was a string of royal visitors – including Princess Margaret, who I spied having a fag in a corridor between formalities – but the Royal Regency Suite, as it became known, was also at the heart of ordinary people's lives, the place where all big social occasions took place. From weddings and wakes to whippet club dinners; from pool league presentations and public meetings to craft fairs and civic banquets; from Motown discos to Masonic lodges, all human life was here.
But even the banqueting operation, with its dozens of waitresses serving up haute cuisine like guinea fowl and cherries in brandy with military precision, faded and died as dining out and partying became ever more sophisticated and diverse.
The food hall soldiers on but non-food departments like footwear, clothing, gifts, furniture – once parts of a unique shopping experience – visibly wilted as an ageing population of diehard Co-op shoppers dwindled.
All over Ilkeston people are mourning the loss of another piece of local heritage.
But we killed it – those of us who embraced out-of-town retail parks, online shopping and sell-everything supermarkets. We made the choice.
On the day before the Co-op's closure was announced, I was getting forty quid off my shopping at Sainsbury's, thanks to a loyalty card scheme that pays you back a little of what you've spent over the past year. Now, that sounds like a good idea…