What’s in a shopping list?

Session 11 - Lucy Ireland Gray

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Lucy Ireland Gray is an archaeologist and a self-described “nosy parker”. She has always been what in another context has been called a “picker-up of unconsidered trifles”. When she was ten, and her family moved to Germany, she lived in a flat above an ice-cream shop – and she gathered a collection of the brightly coloured plastic spoons the shop’s patrons discarded after finishing their tubs. She went on, in her teens, to collect plastic shopping bags – and then to study archaeology at university, which is after all “the study of what people leave behind”. 

So why, now, has she gathered a collection of more than 300 discarded shopping lists fished from the floors of supermarkets – which she eventually exhibited at the Museum of Brands? She described how she loves that period in late autumn when people, still not prepared for winter, leave their curtains open in the evening. She likes to look in through their windows as she drives past: “you get just a tiny snapshot of their lives… and it’s the same with shopping lists.”

Bringing up her first slide — “Hairspray, Yardley, Foot, Paper [illegible], Freeze, Milk, Cones” in a column on a crumpled rectangle of paper – she points out that all of us will form a different picture in our minds of the author of the list. What if she told us it was found on a bus? In Scotland? On the back of a greetings card?

When asked why not only did she collect these mysterious fragments of the lives of other, but wanted to display them, she confessed that she had always dreamed of making them into wallpaper. Not – as everyone guessed – for the downstairs loo, but for the hallway, so that these richly suggestive documents would be the first thing you saw on arrival in the house and the last thing when you left. 

She realised that one way or another she was attaching real meaning to these. Each one was a person (or two; as when someone had reused a letter sent to them to write a list on), and “I felt as if I had three hundred personalities in this box file. I knew them intimately, as I’d photographed and catalogued them. They were precious to me.” She only realised how precious when the Museum of Brands proposed hanging them on washing lines for display. Lucy, seized by anxiety that they could be defaced or stolen, insisted they go behind perspex. 

Rationalising her interest in these objects, she said she found in them a universal human experience – the modern equivalent of the hunter-gathering instinct. People have been making shopping lists since Mesopotamian times. She showed us Michelangelo’s — complete with drawings for, presumably, the benefit of illiterate servants. Apart from an Offgridder who claimed never to have written one, and whom she planned to interrogate further when a moment presented itself, she said “I have never met anybody who has never written a shopping list.”

And these things are “a great leveller: we need milk, we need bread, we need eggs… In a world where we often put ourselves forward as something different, special, other, they remind us that we’re all the same.” You might get the odd fancy folderol (a list found in a Waitrose included an entry for “poncey coffee”) but very few brands. You get a handful — Domestos, Coke, Weetabix – but mostly, because these are notes to yourself, you don’t. As Lucy says, she likes Hobnobs but she knows what to buy: her list will just say “biscuits”.

They are very personal. Some are written in code. As Lucy points out, “I could have collected a load of receipts – and it would have contained the same information… but the handwriting makes these more personal.” She remembered, for instance, finding an old handwritten note – not a shopping list, a list of pet hates – from her mother-in-law, seven years dead, and being heartstruck: “It had the essence of that person.”

Sometimes you found something, a private note or message, jumping out of one of these. Her ex-husband always put “a bag of smiles” in his shopping list. Another list Lucy found had, right there in the middle, “Love! Lots of it”. Was that a message from a sweetheart? “It’s possible that ‘Love’ is a brand of yoghurt,” she admitted. 

There’s a curious frisson, then, of invasion of privacy to the gathering of other people’s shopping lists. When she told a colleague about her collection the woman gasped with dismay: “You might have one of mine!” “She clearly found it unnerving,” said Lucy. And, admittedly, “there is an aspect of voyeurism about it…. you wouldn’t poke about in someone’s shopping basket, or what they’ve got on the conveyor belt.”

Lucy takes a close interest in the abbreviations – was someone writing “STs” for “sanitary towels” an inheritor of a prudish 1980s euphemism; or just trying to make the best of the space available on a tiny scrap of paper? What were the lists on? Often bank statements, envelopes, or other still more personal scraps. But some use dedicated pads with whimsical headings (“Chopin Liszt”: groan).

Some mysteries reveal themselves: a very specific list of ingredients was recognisable (and suddenly a poignant historical document) as the ingredients for the official pudding for late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Others (“hairspray, eggs”; or “biscuits, 0% beer, potatoes”) are something like haiku. Of the latter, Lucy remarks that “it’s not a party I’d like to be invited to”.

One painstakingly made list caused a little sigh from the audience as it flashed up. The trembling, cramped, careful handwriting and misspellings suggest someone very old, or very young, taking extreme pains. “Everyone reacts like that to this one,” said Lucy. “It’s all about your imagination.”

Which was an appropriate way to gloss her final offering. It read: “KY jelly, tourniquet, Chlor prep, green tubing, syringes.” Now that’s a party I’d like to be invited to.

Key Takeaways

  1.  Even the most trivial rubbish can be a window into people’s lives

  1. If you’re buying the equipment to do a murder, and you live near Lucy Ireland Gray, make sure you take your list with you rather than leaving it on the floor of Aldi.

  1. You forgot washing-up liquid, didn’t you? Christ you’re useless. Make a list next time.