I spent two torturously long years living next door to what is widely considered to be the official worst Tesco in London, and thus, by extension, potentially the worst Tesco in the world. Haggerston Tesco – an unassuming little ‘Express’ just beside the Overground station on Kingsland Road, open 7am till 11pm – is a cult favourite for the real heads. The shop is so reviled that in 2015 (the same year I moved in next door, which is either a happy accident or a cosmic joke), it gained notoriety thanks to a Tumblr blog simply entitled Worst Place On Earth. ‘The Tesco Express in Haggerston, E8 is simply the worst place on earth,’ reads the page, still accessible despite Tumblr having fallen off the face of the earth in the six years since. ‘The place is a complete disaster. This blog catalogues why. Please feel free to contribute.’
Unsurprisingly, the Londoners of Tumblr obliged. Today, the page remains a memorial to the mundane mania of the city’s most despised shop: melting ice-cream congealing in the narrow aisles, opened lunch pots of tomato pasta exploding onto warm bottles of Pepsi Max in the open fridges, Tetley’s teabags chaotically stocked next to tampons, a buy-one-get-one-free offer on Cup-A-Soup with only one Cup-A-Soup, maddeningly, left on display. The blog was so much of a hit that it even inspired its own Guardian feature, which called Haggerston ‘the store they should have closed’, and spoke to James Allan, the 30-year-old Hackney resident who created the blog after being kept awake by mice setting off the store’s alarms at night.
Six years on, Haggerston Tesco is still reviled and, perhaps remarkably, still open. As testament to the passage of time and the theory that everything is slowly getting worse, a recent pilgrimage has proven that it’s not, by comparison to London’s general vibe in 2021… even that bad. The shelves are only as empty as the shelves in the rest of the HGV-starved country. The aisles are only as messy as the aisles in every other pandemic-understaffed shop. Buying my lukewarm Pepsi Max from the self-checkout before hopping on the Overground home, it’s hard to see why this particular place is so reviled. I certainly wasn’t immune to the hype. Even before I knew about the blog, I hated Haggerston Tesco with disproportionate ferocity. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it’s clear that this was tied to my circumstances at the time (cockroach infestations, shitty boyfriend, depression, the fact there was only one washing machine for the whole building and someone took a shit in there more than once), which meant that simply having no pasta left to cook for my sad dinner was enough to tip me into a rage.
The vibes in there today, while still demonstrably cursed, certainly don’t seem worthy of a semi-viral Tumblr account. It’s hard to imagine the complaints over empty shelves, overworked staff and messy aisles being taken with the same attitude after a year of panic buying and shortages.
It’s easy, by the same token, to imagine that the complaints were motivated by the same ennui which spurred my own hatred of Haggerston Tesco. It’s not the store itself that is so depressing, so much as the experience of trudging to a chaotic, poorly stocked budget ‘Express’ after a day of being overworked at one of the city’s disruptive start-ups, ready to buy a ready meal – any ready meal – to cook in the grimy, communal microwave of the flat you share with three semi-strangers, unable to wrestle with the concept that it’s not London’s Tescos you hate, but London itself. The way it leaves you with no time and no money, the way it shines on you with relentless fluorescent strip-lighting, the way that your choices are not really choices at all. You may, ten years from now, have the time and money to visit a farmers’ market on a Saturday, to press the produce and test it for freshness and ask about GMO and seasonality. But now you are stuck in your shit little ‘Express’ and your shit little flat and you must buy what the city and the world offers you – which is not a lot. And so you queue and seethe about the lack of good ‘Meal Deal’ options and the price of cashews you force yourself to buy because they provide you a simulacrum of healthiness, because at least that’s better than seething about property ownership or having a job where the perks aren’t limited to a single lukewarm beer on a Friday. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a shit Tesco.
Looking back on the blog now – the one about the worst of the shit Tescos – there’s an uncomfortable tweeness to the whole thing which makes it feel weird to laugh about. As with most popular London things – the misogynistic, wildly popular Facebook group ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’, for instance, or the café started by those two lads from Belfast who were selling bowls of Cheerios for a fiver, which everyone lambasted as though it was the worst thing lads from Belfast had done to London in recent history – it’s aged a bit like milk in an open fridge. When you read back, it’s hard to miss the barely disguised glee with which the Guardian wondered why Haggerston Tesco wasn’t one of the stores that ‘got the chop’ in company cuts that resulted in the loss of 2,000 jobs.
The worst of the Twitter and Tumblr posts about the store – ‘This is not where the crisps live! SORT IT OUT.’ ‘Bit of a serious one… This is the park behind Haggerston station. And there are knife-wielding cyclists. Be careful, locals!!’ – smack of an unpleasant mix of London exceptionalism and twee Britishness. The pettiness got so much in fact that Allan, the blog’s original creator, even had to qualify it as just a bit of fun, not to be taken seriously. People, though, as people on the internet are wont to do, ignored that. And so did a Tesco spokesperson, who gave a dour statement to the paper: ‘We are aware of the blog and agree that this store has not met our high standards. We are working with the store to make sure we offer the best possible service for our customers.’
This year, when I asked Londoners about the city’s worst Tescos, Haggerston continued to rank pretty highly (‘an insane hellhole’, was the general consensus). But there are plenty more contenders to rival its reputation as a liminal space where dreams of happy shopping go to die. ‘I will only revisit Brixton Tesco when I’m sent there as part of my own personal hell’, ‘last year the fridges broke down in the Highgate one and they just replaced all the stock with Advent calendars’, and ‘I saw a woman gave birth in Hackney Central’ were among my personal favourite responses, although perhaps the simple ‘there’s no such thing as a good London Tesco’ summed it up best.
What interested me most in this debate was not how it was possible to birth a child in the chilled goods aisle (a close second), but instead the sense of camaraderie and community people got from complaining together, and the realisation of what a strange collective space the supermarket has become for us as the world becomes apocalyptic. Although it feels like aeons ago now, when the pandemic first hit and the world shut its doors, the spaces we used to go, to see each other and remember other humans existed, all went away – clubs, pubs, restaurants, schools, offices, ridiculously overpriced little coffee shops where the flat whites are served in unthinkably tiny polystyrene cups.
We had literally nowhere to go and nothing to do, and so when we were done fighting each other over toilet roll and fusilli, we all began going en masse to the big Sainsbury’s just to feel something. We convinced each other that George at Asda was the height of fashion. We indulged in collective hysteria over where the Little Moons were hidden. What a time.
Londoners are bad at many things – perspective, pricing, not being smug about being Londoners – but they are good at socialising. While the old adage that the capital is supposedly anti-community might hold out, the fact is that in a city full of so many young people, so many flat sharers and so many families, human connection will always be at the heart of London.
Okay, fine, nobody is chatting on the tube in front of wide-eyed tourists. Instead, they’re eyes down in four separate WhatsApp groups at once, trying to stay connected in between stations before the Wi-Fi goes dark.
We are eight million sociable souls, tired, ill-housed and lonely as an unaccompanied Cup-A-Soup. So allow us to find communion, commiseration, even pride, in the worst Tesco on Earth.