Carla Carlisle on CCTV

I know it’s triste, but, like E. F. Benson’s Lucia, I think everything sounds better in French. For instance, ‘L’Ang-leterre est une nation de boutiquiers’ sounds like music to me, although it was Napoleon’s idea of an insult. Disparaging or not, however, saying that ‘England is a nation of shopkeepers’ really doesn’t have the same ring to it. Which is not to say that I’m embarrassed to be a shopkeeper. True, it wasn’t my dream as I set out in life it’s not exactly saving lives but I like to think that I sell beautiful and useful goods that enhance life. I only cringe when people call it a ‘gift shop’. I call it a ‘country store’, which has a purposeful and worthy ring that fits comfortably with the youthful idealist who once thought capitalism was rather iffy.

During those high-minded years, I had a prized poster, sent to me by my friend Patty, who was on her junior year abroad. The year was 1968, the abroad was Paris, and the poster, a clenched fist around the Eiffel Tower, read ‘La propriété, c’est le vol’. In fact, I wasn’t sure what it meant. I thought it said ‘Propriety is robbery’, a quirky slogan, but plausible. I soon learnt the correct translation ‘All property is theft’, the rallying cry of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. For years, the poster hung on my many kitchen walls, and if I’d kept it, it would now fetch a hefty sum at Christie’s South Kensington. The irony isn’t lost on me.

But life and slogans move on. Now, if I saw ‘All property is theft’ posted, I’d scrawl beneath it ‘Let me rephrase that’. I’m spending the morning with John from Quantumatic, a company in Cambridge that sells CCTV cameras and alarm systems. He’s explaining to me the differences between colour, black-and-white, quads, multiplexers and 4-8-16 cameras, as well as the significance of static Mini-Dome, SpeedDome, Standard-Resolution, High-Resolution. He’s committed to helping me create a ‘secure retail environment’.

The array of digital technology in front of me is disheartening, but not as depressing as our need for it. Last Saturday, the most expensive item in the shop, a cashmere throw, was stolen. Sarah, the shop manager, had seen a young man in his early thirties looking at it, and noted that he didn’t seem like he was in the market for cashmere. She alerted the other staff, but then there was a flurry of customers. Half an hour later, the throw (blue herringbone from Johnston’s in Scotland, £350) and the man had disappeared.

This is the reality of being a shopkeeper today. Even if you’re a country store in an idyllic setting, if you don’t have a security system, between 5% and 10% of your stock is lost to theft. As the economy worsens, shopkeepers are warned that shoplifting will increase. As I try to decide (four cameras? eight?), I waver between despair and rage. Britain has the highest degree of surveillance in Europe. I think it’s intrusive and plain creepy. But when cashmere throws (and books, Brio toys, Hawes watering cans) disappear, a part of me wants to add a shotgun to my order. However, I calmly tell John that I want to find the system most likely to stop the crime before it starts, not shoot the thief in the act.

The shop staff are all in favour of the system and I’m thinking of the wording for a hand-painted sign for my customers, who will be amazed and appalled at cameras in a store like mine. I know what Lucia would write: ‘Surveillance’, from the French surveiller, to watch over. As in: ‘Malheuresement, il faut surveiller.’