supermarkets


Not my most elegant title, I think you’ll agree. But today I don’t feel elegant. I feel angry. Very, very angry. So much so that a couple of hours ago I found myself starting an argument with a complete stranger whilst doing the Good Friday shop in my local town of Shipston-on-Stour. I had been stopped by a lovely elderly lady with a placard around her neck who informed me that on the site of the old Norgren plant at the top of the hill a mile or so out of town, the council were planning to let a supermarket chain build a store. She was asking people to write to the council to lodge objections, and yet she could not tell me which supermarket chain it would be. In fact, when I later asked some of the local shopkeepers, none of them seemed to know either. Not only were these fundamental details unclear, but the council’s deadline for objections was 8th April, six days from today. And there was one, just one elderly lady standing outside the shops in the drizzle. Even the local Christians had a better turnout for their jolly crucifixion singalong in the main square. A local priest hugged a giant wooden cross, a group of thirty or so people warbled a hymn, and one woman was trying to muster enough support to prevent the town of Shipston from being eviscerated.

So when I saw her on my way back to the car and she was talking to a female punter she had stopped, I found myself wanting to offer some more support. I joined in. But the punter, it quickly became clear, was ignoring every single very good piece of evidence put to her about what will happen to Shipston if the development goes ahead. I gave the punter the statistics: that it only takes a shop to lose 15% of its business for that shop to go bust; that this is precisely the amount of profit a new supermarket will generally take from a small shop; that this has happened in town after town across the UK, and that I have seen it happen to my home town of Horwich.

When I was a kid, Horwich had a thriving high street with six butchers’ shops, three or more greengrocers’, a record shop run by a woman called Doreen who could order you just about anything, a quality wine merchant, a fine hardware shop, a card shop called ‘Fancy That,’ ‘The China Shop,’ ‘Casey’s Original Pie Shop’ and a good many more that I have now forgotten. Now, in 2010, there are just two butchers and one greengrocer left. All the others have gone or change hands every year or so. There are many ‘For Sale’ signs, empty shops, charity shops that used to sell food. No sign of the redoubtable Doreen: her wonderful emporium vanished long since. But within a mile or two there is a Lidl, and a little further away a gigantic Tesco’s. And Horwich itself looks tatty, bedraggled, defeated.

This is what will happen to Shipston. Give it five years and I predict we will lose at least one of the two butchers (both of which are excellent) and quite possibly the greengrocer’s, the deli. There are already four or five charity shops (some damage has been done by the small supermarkets already in Shipston itself). I await the arrival of a good few more.

I’m also waiting for someone to convince me that I live in a democracy, that there hasn’t already been what George Monbiot calls a ‘corporate takeover of Britain.’ OK, so we can change our government at the upcoming election, but we seemingly can’t use our local government to fight corporate power on our behalf. Local government is increasingly the agent of the supermarkets: they can’t afford to take on the might of these retail giants. A lengthy legal battle with Tesco’s could bankrupt any local authority that objected to a proposed store, as Monbiot outlines in his article on Tesco and Machynlleth (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/).

So I will write my objections to the proposed store in time for the deadline of April 8th. I will argue with anyone and everyone on the streets of Shipston who says something stupid like ‘let’s give the supermarket a go.’ I will write angry and inelegant blogs on the subject for anyone who cares enough about Shipston, their own town or the state of our democracy. But I am left feeling as Monbiot does about Machynlleth: ‘ it’s only now, when I’m caught in the middle of it, that the full force of this injustice hits me. Like everyone else here I feel powerless, unstrung as I watch disaster unfold in slow motion.’ And make no mistake, this is a disaster, one that is no less important for being local and apparently small-scale.

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Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.

http://pinterandmartin.com/epages/eshop274295.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/eshop274295/Products/978-1-905177-16-5

‘And if you’re northern, that makes it even worse.’ (Morrissey)

for George Deane

In ‘Let’s Ballad: Richard Hawley, Voicemanguitar’ I talked about Hawley being ‘northern.’ On the Hawley forum later, there was some dispute about whether Sheffield (Hawley’s home town) is really ‘north’ at all. But to me, Sheffield is north. Sheffield has a good deal of affinity with the northern town in which I was born, Bolton. In both cases, being northern is about neglected beauty, postindustrial decay, political radicalism, battered dignity. I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for five years now, and love its landscape (it’s not the chocolate box it at first appears to be). But I crave, will always crave, the Victorian red brick, the blackened sandstone of the north. It hurts me to go there: Bolton looks more impoverished with each visit, eviscerated as it is by the blight of supermarkets and what my Dad calls the ‘sheds,’ the vast hangars full of consumer tat to be found on the Bolton Wanderers carpark that is the ‘Middlebrook’ out-of-town shopping centre. My north fights against this north. My stone and brick north is also a dream place, a place of whinberry-filled moorland. Whinberries could stand as emblems of the north: tiny berries that cling to the earth, that bruise your teeth and tongue with their purple; sour-sweet bubbles containing larksong, reedy streams, peatbeds. Whinberry–a taste I haven’t had for so long but which stays on my palate. Those berries: so many unhealed, stubborn bruises the hill wears like a blazon.  

I write this piece with a little trepidation: I am about to utter remarks that might be deemed highly critical of a national institution. Delia Smith is part of the dictionary, part of the annual TV schedules and, if a brief trawl of internet book chatrooms is anything to go by, someone whose fanbase is pathologically loyal. And yet, no-one who really cares about food rates her, although chefs and food writers who should know better seem prepared to endorse her (Nigel Slater, of all people, made a guest appearance on a recent ‘How to Cheat’ show and even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, prepared as he is to take on the might of the supermarkets and the poultry industry, looked rather scared when Richard Madeley recently attempted to goad him into criticising Smith on live TV).

In one sense, I can understand Whittingstall’s reluctance. Delia is terrifying. Not only are her fans rather militant, but her recipes are often, especially these days, highly alarming (Aunt Bessie’s potatoes in your chocolate muffin anyone?). Her style of delivery is famously leaden, her TV manner so very Shaun of the Dead. But why, given the hostile reviews she generates (see The Guardian & The Telegraph for recent examples) does she end up dominating the bestseller lists?

Is it precisely because she has nothing passionate, creative or inspiring to say about food? With Delia we can forget all about air freight, food miles, the exploitation of farm labourers in this country and elsewhere. We can forget about misery meat and battery farming. We can forget about the skill and perseverence, enjoyment and experimentation involved in learning to cook. On Planet Delia, we do not let our consciences (or indeed our intellectual faculties, or even our tastebuds) bother us at all. Instead, as she outlines in the introduction to her book, we simply follow her commandments (she calls her prescriptions ‘a way forward’ (p.7)).

‘To begin with you have to rid yourself of prejudices which sometimes are… myths… or a form of snobbery’ (‘Life from the Freezer’). ‘Have to?’ Apparently what those who don’t cook for lack of time or due to lack of confidence simply need to get over is their desire to eat fresh food, in favour of a diet of ‘measured portions’ of frozen basmati rice, ‘frozen, ready-cooked chickpeas,’ and ‘ready-diced [frozen] onions’. This will mean, apparently, that we need only do ‘some smart shopping–probably once a month.’ Am I alone in finding this Delian Brave New World terrifying? Don’t bother with the remaining small-scale local greengrocers and butchers who struggle on in the face of Tescodification–let them rot and close down whilst the supermarkets take care of your every whim. And remember to shop around folks; don’t just stick to Sainsbury’s–try Tesco AND Asda AND M&S as well (the recipes in How to Cheat generally involve buying a brand from a named supermarket).

Of course, you could argue that it’s better to visit the supermarkets less, and that this will help cut greenhouse gas emissions as shoppers stop using their cars as often. However, any gains of this kind must surely be offset by the fact that Delia proposes we spend our cash on expensive ‘value-added’ products that are produced using God knows how much energy (what does the ‘blast-freezing’ process she mentions entail, exactly?) and made from products flown from Thailand, Kenya or elsewhere: ‘Now ingredients grown in Thailand are available deep-frozen in the UK’ (see? not the slightest tremor of conscience in that last sentence, was there?). These are also products which swell the coffers of the supermarkets. As Joanna Blythman points out in her excellent Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets, supermarkets don’t want to sell us fresh fruit and veg (low profit margins). Instead they are ever more greedy for us to buy ‘value added’ goods: ready meals, as we know, and, as Delia is currently to promoting with some zeal, as many other types of processed food as they possibly can. Tins (tinned lamb, Delia?), bottles (expensive passatas, pestos etc) and frozen chopped veg. Of course, not only are these value-added items better for supermarket profit-margins, these products also perpetuate their own popularity. The more people use them, the fewer people will learn to use a knife to chop onions, or will think about animal welfare (it’s easier not to worry about the beef in your spag bol if it comes in a tin), or will learn any kind of culinary independence. Therefore, the more people will need to buy these things. The upshot being that, instead of Delia fostering the desire in her audience to eat fresh food, grow their own and not use Tescos and their ilk, she simply reassures us that it’s OK to sleepwalk into a future of absolute dependence on supermarkets.

But of course, this should not surprise us. How to Cheat crowns the career of someone whose first book, in 1971, was called…How to Cheat at Cooking. If Delia is in so many ways a happy food colonialist*, and, as such, the enemy of the eco-warrior, she is at least adept at a certain amount of judicious recycling.

 *Part of the introduction to her latest book is entitled ‘Hidden Servants’, in which she tells us ‘there are a million and one servants around the world beavering away, preparing quality foods designed to help us around the home.’ I can’t be alone in finding this statement staggeringly offensive.

N.B. All references are to How to Cheat, 2008.