The giant vending machine (Image from youtube)

The giant vending machine (Image from youtube)

As one door closes, another opens.  I kept this hopeful saying in mind when pondering recent reports that a giant vending machine has replaced a village shop.  I wasn’t thinking so much of the plastic swing door at the bottom of the automated shop, or even the tinkling bell alerting Granville of a customer’s entry into his establishment in “Open All Hours”, but of the metaphorical significance of the phrase.  So, as your eyes adjust to the rather gloomy hallway of this blog, just keep thinking of the sunlit doorway that’s coming up.

I’m afraid the idea of the vending machine – however big, however prettified with red bricks and stripy awning, and however quaintly (if misleadingly) called Clifton Village Stores – fills me with unease.  It’s undoubtedly useful, as the residents of the Derbyshire village where it’s been installed were quick to say.  I suppose it could be called the 21st century equivalent of the village shop, a high-tech convenience store.

Except it’s not a shop, or a store (despite its name); it’s a faceless machine.  And there’s the rub.

Hardly a day goes by without news of the challenges – of health, loneliness and isolation –faced by our growing population of pensioners.   There’s a national drive towards “dementia-friendly communities” to counteract some of the stresses and fears of the increasing numbers of us living with this pernicious condition.  In light of all this, the notion of an auto-shop, while welcome for many, strikes the wrong note with me.

Scores of sub-post offices, both rural and urban, closed their doors for the final time a few years ago; ticket machines at railway stations and cinemas are gradually replacing people sitting behind counters.  It’s quicker and more economical, and suits our busy lives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against automation.  And I’m not averse to the new vending machine per se, which obviously provides a valuable service.  However, it’s a telling image of the tensions between the different strands of our complex modern world.

As soon as I saw pictures of the rows of numbered provisions and the cashpoint style method of payment I imagined how this “store” would seem to anyone with mild cognitive impairment, striving to remain independent.  How would he or she cope faced with such a battery of automated choices and no one to turn to for help?

344124_759ad64bAuthentic village shops, the ones with people rather than buttons, are more than idealised versions of motherhood and apple pie. They’re places where all sorts – rich, poor, young, old, fit and infirm – congregate as they queue at the counter and browse the shelves.  Think of the numerous scenes played out in Ambridge’s very own shop – and the way the fictional villagers of The Archers joined forces in 2010 to keep it going on a voluntary basis when it was threatened with closure.   The shop (along with the Bull and its endless pints of Shires, and St Stephen’s church) lies at the heart of the community.   It’s where everyone meets for a chat (or a snipe at the outlandish Lynda Snell).

So you get my drift.  A giant vending machine is no replacement for human contact, a friendly word or a helping hand.  It may be better than nothing, but it can’t begin to compare with the real thing if you’re old or infirm.

And yet, as I’ve been discovering recently, there is one ultra-modern – even post-modern (whatever that means) – high-tech community that really works even though it involves no physical interaction, no face-to-face meetings.

This sunlit portal is of course the Internet, where “virtual friends” converse across continents, sharing ideas and best practice, encouraging each other and providing support.  Nowhere is this more applicable than for those whose lives are limited, both physically and mentally.  And – and this is the truly wonderful bit – the benefits of social media apply equally to carers, who often struggle on for years, their own needs pushed aside or unrecognised as their health and wellbeing pay the price.

Long-term and terminal conditions can be isolating, both for those they afflict and those looking after them.  A few months ago Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt described the fact that 800,000 OAPs were chronically lonely as a source of “national shame” and said that loneliness was a problem “that in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society”.

A giant vending machine despatching goods fast and efficiently at any time of the day or night without recourse to any human interaction makes Mr Hunt’s last point rather too well.

On the other hand, social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and blogging allow individuals on opposite sides of the world to communicate with each other at a time of their choosing.  I’ve chatted with several people on Twitter I now consider friends although I’ve never met them.  Of course 140 characters is limiting, but it focuses the mind and if two tweeters want to communicate at greater length, one of them can direct message (or DM) the other secure in the knowledge that no one else can see the correspondence, and then ask for an email address and extend the conversation.

I view Twitter as a fabulous global cocktail party.  Anyone and everyone (and everyone who’s anyone) is almost certainly there, somewhere.  You just have to find them in whichever corner of the Twittersphere they’re hanging out.  The sheer diversity is very much part of the fun.  My Twitter feed hops from world news to toddlers to dementia to fracking to a greeting card folder who dreams of owning a chicken sanctuary.   If variety is the spice of life, I’m tweeting on.

But if, for me, Twitter and blogging broaden my horizons and widen my circle of friends and informative contacts, for others who can’t, or daren’t, set foot outside their door, social media networks provide a wealth of supportive and comforting voices.  The online community can be famously bitchy.  Less talked about is the companionship and empathy it can provide – at any time of the day or night.

The giant vending machine may be the ultimate convenience, if not a store.  It may be open 24/7, 365 days a year.   But even this high-tech wonder of the Peak District isn’t of use to someone in Australia.  Twitter is.

Blinking in the sunlight, I have to admit that technological advances are mainly good.  But it still seems perverse that in a world where we’re encouraged to be “dementia friendly”, village shops – friendly and inviting to all – are being replaced by huge machines that are anything but.   The one place that I would urge OAPs and those living with the early stages of dementia to visit is that most modern of communities, the Internet.   It’s surprisingly friendly.  And open all hours.