opinion
Babita Sharma: I come from a hidden world - I am the daughter of shopkeepers
By Guest Contributor
11th May 2019

by Babita Sharma

I’ve seen you on a Sunday morning, nipping out to get a pint of milk or to grab a newspaper thinking no one would notice the oversized coat you grabbed in a hurry, your mismatched pyjamas or your dog-eaten trainers.

I came to know a lot about you; whether your politics leant to the right or left, whether you were gay or straight, and whether you were plagued by cash- flow problems.

I come from a hidden world: I am the daughter of shopkeepers. For more than a decade we, a family of five, ate, slept, lived and worked in a corner shop. We served you and you gave us business but there was a world beyond the counter that you never knew.

My childhood story is about more than just transactions involving pints of milk and packets of cigarettes; it’s integral to the story of Britain itself.

It encompasses war and colonialism, the nation’s love–hate relationship with immigration, its fluctuating economic fortunes, and it shines a bright light on what people really thought about the politics of the day.

We are dotted all over Britain but the humble corner shop attracts little attention. They have existed on our streets for more than a hundred years, and walking in and out of one may be as normal to you as brushing your teeth, but this tiny space represents all of Britain’s high and lows, past, present and future.

When I began writing this book, I knew that as a former corner-shop kid, I was still bound by a particular code of conduct.

Because not only is every shopkeeper and his family entrusted with the supply of your groceries and the delivery of your non-crumpled Sunday paper, we are also the custodians of your personal secrets.

We must never reveal the clandestine habits of our customers – unless, of course, we change the names of the people concerned to write a book. So Mark, as I am now calling you, your teenage addiction to porn mags will not be revealed now that you’re a sitting member of Parliament. Don’t worry: your secret is safe with us.

Perhaps your shopkeeper resembles my mum and dad; born in India, they dutifully served as shopkeepers in Reading for more than twenty years. Or maybe the person behind your local shop counter is from Poland or Afghanistan, with his or her own story of immigration and survival.

Whoever the person behind the counter is, they have taken on a role that remains unchanged.

The humble corner shop is at times the most foreign of places, yet also the most British of institutions.

Look beyond the advert-filled shop windows and broken doorframes to discover a human story that is every bit as remarkable as the history it rests upon.

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Babita Sharma is a journalist, TV presenter and news anchor for the BBC.

This is an extract from her new book: 'The Corner Shop – Shopkeepers, the Sharmas and the making of Modern Britain'

Her TEDx talk on the same issue







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