On the field in York where the bloke who taught me canoeing had his pig farm, there is now a Tesco's, open 24 hours. My dad buys most of his groceries there, and is no doubt gradually undermining his local small shops by doing so, although his local butcher is still going strong, and is an international expert on pork pies, or so he told me. It is a cliche that Britain's high streets are being wrecked by supermarkets or bland chains, but things are just as bad in London, and it's not one high street here that's being eviscerated, but hundreds.
The city is correctly understood as roughly 300 villages, tied together only by the sticking plaster of the Underground, and the loyalty of true Londoners to their own bit is very striking. In recent years, I've had several Londoner friends who have undergone big life changes: divorce, career crises, spiritual realignments. Usually they've lived in Notting Hill, and at some point they've announced: "That's it, I'm selling the flat, making a whole new start." "Where are you going to move to?" I've asked them. "Well," they've all replied, "I'm staying within the Notting Hill area, obviously . . ." (Incidentally, I know one man in Notting Hill who is so deeply attuned to the place that he even claims to be able to detect the hill.)
Yet when I think of Notting Hill, I think of W H Smith, McDonald's, Starbucks. Things are worse here in Highgate, though. I was once sitting behind an old lady on a bus going along Highgate High Street. "That used to be a hardware shop," she was saying to her companion, ". . . that used to be the milliner's . . . that was the second butcher's . . ."
Today, the prime spots on the high street are taken by Cafe Rouge, Costa Coffee and Starbucks, and most of the other shops are estate agents. Until last month, there were ten estate agents on Highgate High Street, occupying roughly half the available premises - just about enough, you'd have thought, for the local community's house-purchasing needs to be met. Then a small independent restaurant closed down, and news of the exciting plans for the building leaked out. It was to become an estate agent's. A petition was raised against this, attracting more than 2,000 signatures, but the estate agents duly opened about a week later, to be filled with men who will all no doubt have the nerve to write, in their particulars for houses in the area, "close to the High Street, with its wide range of shops and amenities".
The Green Group at the London Assembly is campaigning for proper shops to return to London's high streets. Noel Lynch, a group member, told me: "Not long ago there were four butchers' shops in East Finchley, where I'm from. Now there are none."