Interview: Thompson Brothers

Photos: David Blenkey
Interview: James Walker
Monday 22 December 2008
reading time: min, words

"We’ve seen the world. We’ve been to Ireland and we’ve been to Crete, and we don’t want to see the rest"


The Thompson Brothers - Stephen and Andrew - run a greengrocers in Sherwood, and are possibly the most legendary people from that part of town since You Know Who. They seem to treat the shop as a side-project to their real career of talking endlessly with people about anything and everything, and generally behave like shopkeepers used to do in the pre-Tescofication of Britain. Cherish them, Nottingham, for we may never see their like again…

So what kind of shop is this?
Andrew: We tell people; “Just serve yourself, but you’ve got to speak to us. We’re here to talk to you.” That’s what we do. Talk to people all day.

Are the people in Nottingham friendly?
Stephen: Of course. They are marvellous.
Andrew: It’s because we’ve never relied on one industry, like other cities such as Sunderland which have shipping and nothing else. Well, they don’t even have that anymore. Nottingham is different. It’s got or had everything. We’ve had Players, Boots, Home Ales, Raleigh, the pits. All different people working in different industries in the same place. Well, you’re going to be friendly then, aren’t you? Because you have to. 

You must have built up quite a few friendships over the years…
Stephen: Quite, and a few enemies as well. It’s all highly amusing. Marvellous. Now if you’re a shop assistant in Tescos, you’re not allowed to talk. I mean, our sister has tried to make polite conversation to them in supermarkets and they look bamboozled. They don’t understand what she’s doing. I think they’re getting slightly better now, but only slightly.
Andrew: Talk to them on any other level than the weather and they start to freak out. Well, it’s like buying lemongrass, isn’t it?
Stephen: Yes, I mean who wants a big bunch of bloody lemongrass? We say, just take a strand and put it in your bag. We can’t force people to buy a big bunch of the ruddy stuff like they do in supermarkets. Honestly, what’s happening to the world? Same with chillies. If you want one blasted chilli, just take one and put it in your bag.

Have sales gone up recently, now that everyone’s on an organic health kick? 
Andrew: Our sales have gone up, yes. Not because of the fruit and veg, but because of the other things we have started to stock like olive oil. We sell olive oil like it’s going out of fashion. We’ve got so much of the stuff we bathe in it every night.

So have you always had to adapt?
Stephen: Only really over the last five years, but it’s been a roaring success. Trade was definitely slipping. One time we thought we would only sell fruit and veg, but a friend of ours who owns a greengrocers in East Leek said; “You want to get in other things”, and we said “Like what?” and he said “Anything”. So we got in the olive oil… (as if by a magic a women walks into the shop and buys two jars. You couldn’t have scripted it) …then we went to Southwould. Have you ever been to Southwould? No? You must. It’s an absolute paradise. There’s a lovely deli there and they were selling Cooks and Co, so we rang them up and they sent out a rep and now it accounts for all of the shelves over there. I mean, he must have a field day when he comes in here.
Andrew: Now we get people who come in on a Saturday and they start at one side of the shop and walk all the way around, and this is a pretty small shop which we think is fantastic. Marvellous.

Where do you get your produce from?
Andrew: The greens come from Mr. Foster. Do you know him? He’s a market gardener. The rest is from the wholesale market. The potatoes are from Lincolnshire. The trouble is nowadays people are very concerned about air miles, so we tell them that the oranges are from the orange tree in the corner and the bananas were freshly picked from Woodthorpe Park. But we always point out to them, where do you go for your holidays? And they say it’s not the point but we say yes it is the point. You can’t say I don’t want my apples from Australia and then nip off to Australia with the kids for a fortnight.
Stephen: We had one woman in who had been away to Kenya. Kenya! Before they had the riots, of course, and she said they are suffering so bad these days, because they have lovely roses because of the sunlight, but now there are no tourists they can’t bring them over, she said, because they go in the back of the plane. Honestly, I said to my brother, have you ever heard such poppycock? She actually believes all of this. Haven’t you heard of cargo planes? About thirty of the things land at Heathrow every night. I said you’re in cuckooland, mate.

Why do you think people aren’t protesting anymore?
Stephen: A few years ago, the picket lines were out when petrol got to ninety pence a gallon. What’s happened to all of them? I was told a few weeks ago in the shop that the lorry drivers and others can’t picket fuel stations anymore because it’s against the law.
Andrew: The French wouldn’t put up with that. We should all club together and have a national strike and say look, enough’s enough, you’re taking the flaming piss. We’re paying too much tax for everything. I mean the only thing that’s not taxed is fresh fruit and veg, newspapers, children’s’ clothes and bloody shoes.
Stephen: Well you know who’s to blame, don’t you? It’s the steelworkers and the nurses. Years ago the nurses went on strike, and then the steelworkers went on strike in Scunthorpe or wherever the last steel works were. And there was this union man who said to these nurses, are you going to come and strike with us because we want to save the British steel industry? Well the nurses said no, you don’t care about us and we don’t care about you, and that I think was the end of any kind of solidarity on these shores.
Andrew: No other union has backed up another union since. But then again the government have now banned second picketry. So it’s curtains for everyone.

So do you think we are still a democratic and free country?
Stephen: Of course we are, but the country needs to go off and have a good old chinwag and arrange something. Now we don’t want just one day of striking. We want it to last all week. If all the shops closed and said we’re calling it a day until the government does something, they’d be in limbo land.

But don’t you think we’re too selfish? When there was a petrol strike all we did was shoot off to Tescos and stock up on milk and bread…
Stephen: Well the French would blockade the tunnels. Us lot, we just don’t care. All we do is moan about people who go on strike. It’s like the teachers. Nobody cares about them…
Andrew: Nobody.
Stephen: We won’t change the government one iota until we back each other. You only have to look at the post office when they went on strike in 1971. A bloke called Jackson started it, I think. They went on for bloody months.
Andrew: Well, now if you go on strike, they privatise you.

Talking of holidays, we heard a rumour that neither of you has a passport..
Stephen: It’s true. We don’t. We bought one in 1987 when they were thinking of changing from the Royal Blue to the navy blue.
Andrew: (disdainfully) The European colour.
Stephen: We thought; we’re going to stay British here and purchased one. But it ran out in 1997 and we thought, well, we’ve seen the world. We’ve been to Ireland and we’ve been to Crete on this passport, and we don’t want to see the rest. And when you’ve discovered Suffolk, as we did twenty years ago, you don’t want to go anywhere else. It’s paradise.

So, Britain for you then?
Andrew: Yes. Definitely.
Stephen: If people are talking about you at least you can understand them.

So will you retire there or are you Nottingham through and through?
Stephen: We’re Nottingham born and bred, but we’d like to retire there or at least go there for a few months a year.

Won’t it be strange to up sticks?
Stephen: It will be fantastic! Marvellous. No we would come back and visit. See the sister and the mother. Then back to the seaside. Fantastic.
Andrew: Talking of strange, do you know what Hotel Babylon is? We switched on the television and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. What’s it about? (Interviewer explains about post-modernism and irony. They are not impressed).
Andrew: Well, we switched it straight off. Fancy not knowing if you’re serious drama or comedy. I don’t know what’s happening to the world.
Stephen: And Radio One has never been the same since Simon Bates left.

So what do you watch?
Stephen: We don’t watch television anymore. Not since M*A*S*H and The Likely Lads finished. We used to make sure we got home for those two. Do you remember M*A*S*H when it was on on a Wednesday? Fantastic. We have watched a bit of The Apprentice, but they are absolute morons. I mean, did you see last night? They were pathetic.Fancy going to supermarket for damn tomato base! Alan Sugar said, here’s a wholesaler. They ignored him. We thought, what idiots. They’re meant to be university graduates.
Andrew: I mean, that bloody Raith. He should have been naming his fish in the van on the way to the market, for goodness sake. What hope have you got if you don’t even know the difference between a mackerel and a kipper? They are so blaise. It’s almost like they don’t care.

You are both very well-spoken. Where did you go to school?
Andrew: Our parents are Roman Catholics and we’ve lived in Nottingham all our lives so we went to the Good Shepherd, then St. Bernadettes’ and finally Christ the King.

My son goes to Christ The King…
Stephen: Well it’s not the same anymore. We were there when it first opened in 1972/3. It was a good school then. They had a firm Head then, but now it’s a weak Head. There’s a lot of Polish kids as well, so you can’t understand what anyone is saying. There’s nothing worse than a weak Head.
Andrew: When we went you couldn’t swear at school but now you can. It’s no wonder teachers are leaving like it’s going out of fashion.

So do you think discipline is missing from modern life?
Stephen: Yes. You shouldn’t be able to swear in a classroom. It’s all wrong. We used to have a woman in here - she’s now moved to West Bridgford - who taught in Sutton-on-Ashfield. Now it’s not the best part of Nottingham, but this woman said the Head knew every child in the school and there were 2,500 of them. There was no swearing whatsoever. The sixth-formers even had a swear box, because it becomes tempting as you get older. The important thing was the Head knew who was behind him, never mind who was in front of him.

So what’s changed?
Stephen: It’s all these middle-classes goody-goodies. They’re so weak and wishy-washy. You don’t have to belt a kid to get the best out of it. We get them in here with their ‘there’s nothing wrong’ expressionless faces. And then of course there’s the uniform.

You like uniforms and discipline?
Stephen: Without a uniform, school kids want marvellous clothes. If you all dress the same you are the same. It doesn’t stop you being an individual. The whole system has gone pear-shaped. It has to go back, because we’ll have anarchy in this country soon and youth is going to rule over the old people. And you can’t have that, can you?

Has anyone ever tried to break in to the shop?
Andrew: Oh yes. Three times. We had the door kicked in a few weeks ago.
Stephen: People are just idiots sometimes. Our old shop, which is down the road where the flower shop is, used to be like Fort Knox. The back door was solid. They stole a video of ours.

It wasn’t M*A*S*H, was it?
Stephen: Oh no. Room with a View. It’s very good you know.

So where’s your room with a view?
Stephen: We live on Private Road at the top.
Andrew: State side.
Stephen: We used to live on Hillcrest Grove but we couldn’t stand it any longer. It was the neighbours.

Have you always lived together?
Stephen: Yes. Always together and still do.
Andrew: Work together. Live together.

So do you fight?
Stephen: We argue all the time.
Andrew: It’s going to happen when you’re always together.

Have you ever come close to parting company?
Andrew: No, no, no.
Stephen: Ridiculous.

Have you ever been married?
Stephen: Oh, of course not. I’ve been seeing someone for six years, and so had Andrew up to a few months ago so he definitely won’t be getting married. Women are very nice, they are lovely, but you know. You’ve got to draw the line sensibly.
Andrew: I don’t know why she left. She came round the other week and just said she didn’t want to see me anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. Fancy doing that, eh?

Has it ever been a problem then, living together with lady friends on the scene?
Stephen: No. We have our own rooms! We have a spare room as well.
Andrew: If mine comes over he goes, or used to go over and see his at hers. At the end of the day we’ve been together longer than we will ever be with a woman.

How do you unwind?
Stephen: Not pubs anymore. We like to eat out - World Service, Harts, Merchants. We can’t go locally, or else everyone will say ‘hello you two’ and we don’t want that when we’ve finished work. We do find that a better class of restaurant is a better kind of food. We like good presentation, and you have to pay for that. If you’re going to go out, go to town. Marvellous.

Do you drink in town?
Andrew: Not really. We used to go to Yates but haven’t been back in since they did it up. We were there three times a week at one point. Now business is busy and serious we can’t drink and get up for work. If we did drink it would be a Saturday night.       

So who’s Clough and who’s Taylor?
Andrew: What did Clough and Taylor do?
Stephen: We are on equal terms, not like Cloughie who was the boss. We are fifty/fifty. We can’t do without the other. Not allowed.
Andrew: Company policy.

What would you say at Speakers’ corner?
Andrew: I would talk about the morals of society and how we should bring back a Christian society again and we should all love the monarchy.
Stephen: I would talk about buying British. You can’t complain about imports if you don’t buy British. I mean look at China and Tibet, yet we all buy Chinese produce. I don’t. My shoes are from Northampton. You have to pay for quality. If we all did that it would get them out of Tibet sharpish. You can’t complain about unemployment if you don’t support Britain. We make lots of things in this country but you do have to pay for them. You can’t complain about their human rights and then support them. It’s all cockeyed.  

So should Britain devolve?
Andrew: We should keep the union.
Stephen: There’s good and bad in both but all together we are a stronger nation. I mean Wales on its own would be useless. They only get free prescriptions because of us, but we have to pay £7.10. They would be bankrupt otherwise. Cut off Scotland and we’d only need to reopen Berwick on Tweed for the oil. I mean it’s not like it hasn’t been faught over before. It’s good that they have their own rugby teams, and we, of course, are, World Champions. But we need to keep the union together.

Who should follow the Queen?
Andrew: Charles of course.
Stephen: He’s next in line. You have to follow the line. His son will be good but he’s only a young man at the moment. He doesn’t know anything. Charles is wonderful. He does a marvellous job. We know a woman who came into the shop, Barbara White who set up Wish Upon A Star charity, and met him. She was getting an MBE and said I hope the Queen gives it to us and we said no.
Andrew: You want Charles.
Stephen: He will talk to you. Anyway she said she was in the second sitting and there was a hundred people per go and he knew everyone by name and what they did and there wasn’t a script of paper anywhere. He looked her in the eye and knew her name and said she was doing a marvellous job. He’s got more people in work than the Labour party. He raises a hundred and fifty four million a year through charity.

Any advice to our readers?
Stephen: Have a positive outlook of life. Everyday is a marvellous day, regardless of the weather and most of life is challenge but it can be a good fun challenge.
Andrew: Be marvellous.

Thompson Bros., 83 Haydn Road, Nottingham, NG5 2LA. Tel: 0115 960 9209

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