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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To the Memory of Keith Floyd, d. 14th September 2009

‘All they can do is assemble gastronomic lego.’ Keith Floyd talking to Keith Allen about the culinary abilities of the British public.

Ever since his death, just over a month ago, my thoughts have often turned to Keith Floyd. I watched Keith Allen’s documentary about him a day or so after Floyd died, and on the programme heard Marco Pierre White recommend Floyd’s early books ( Floyd on France especially) and decided to invest in a few. I bought a cheap secondhand copies of Floyd on France, Floyd on Britain and Ireland, Floyd on Italy and Far Flung Floyd. I watched clips of his cooking sketches on youtube and began to cook his recipes, the first of which was the outstanding ‘beef in red wine’ (I include a link below).

Why the obsession? By the early nineties, when Floyd’s TV career was on the wane, he had become a joke in the public imagination: a stunt-chef, a drunken dandy who cooked puffin on North Sea trawlers. Rory Bremner had satirised his drinking in a sketch where his ‘Floyd’ downed hideous cocktails including lighter fuel and didn’t cook food at all. But, as the Allen documentary began to demonstrate, Keith Floyd’s cooking was no joke. Far from being a bow-tied buffoon, he was a serious chef, a gastronome of the highest order. The man had taste. Not only that, he loved food.

On Professional Masterchef recently, much was made by the contestants of their ‘passion’ for cooking. Yet somehow, when they used this word, or said how they ‘loved’ working with food, these emotive words  fell curiously flat. But when Floyd enthused about a dish he was making, you believed him. He didn’t have to tell you he loved food and cooking and drinking. His joy was obvious. For all the sophistication of his culinary skill, his pleasure in food was wonderfully childlike. There is a moment during the documentary that makes clear how much food and drink meant to him. Floyd was a serious epicurean, and someone whose psyche is marked by a very profoud loneliness, as his comments on the importance of ‘the table’ make clear:

‘I think, outside of the marital bed, the dining table, the kitchen table, is where everything takes place…If I can produce a glass of wine for you or some food for you, we are able to communicate. From my understanding, nowadays a lot of homes don’t have tables. Kids who haven’t been to school all day come back from not having been to school all day and open up a fridge of inedible stuff…’

At the root of his desire to eat and drink is the desire to communicate, be intimate and express love. He might have a difficult personality (he calls other TV chefs ‘cunts’ for example) but like a sea urchin, his sometimes spiny manner conceals a fine inner delicacy. And this is why he is an important figure: he is someone who, sometimes grouchily but always passionately, reminds us that hospitality is a mark of humanity and that joie de vivre is a serious business– a human duty, even. Although rather right wing, he is instinctively the enemy of supermarket Britain with its TV food porn. He doesn’t analyse why supermarkets exert an increasingly pernicious influence on the way we shop, eat and, ultimately, socialise, but as the youtube clip I link to shows us, he is deeply offended by the way in which supermarkets are destroying what remains of British food culture.

That supermarkets are doing this is in evidence in almost every current TV cookery show. Economy Gastronomy and Jamie’s Ministry of Food are two good recent examples.  Jamie Oliver’s programme was designed to get people who can’t cook to learn at least one recipe and then pass that recipe on to a handful of friends: a noble aspiration reflecting a miserable reality. How awful that there are millions of folk out there who can’t or won’t cook even one simple dish for themselves or people they care about. The premise behind Economy Gastronomy was equally depressing. It was another learn-to-cook show designed especially for cash-strapped families hit by the recession. But what emerged very quickly from the show was that every family involved wasted hideous amounts of money and time at the supermarket buying so-called convenience food which they often didn’t eat and threw away. One man featured was even ‘in love’ with his waste disposal unit down which he stuffed all the food his family didn’t eat. Eventually, his darling gadget broke down under the pressure of being force-fed misery chicken and assorted out-of-date vegetables, but not before he had made himself into a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the key social aspects of modern British life.

Members of the public who are invited to appear on such cookery shows are supposedly representative of a large proportion of the UK population, and judging from the the Economy Gastronomy series, that population is, without the help of experts, incapable of planning ahead, unimaginative, wasteful, politically ignorant, deskilled, unsociable and lonely. Nice enough, but useless. Yet no TV show I have yet come across dares to place the blame where it truly lies: at the feet of the supermarkets.

Politicians in interviews are frequently subjected to tough and even hostile questioning, and it is right that they should be. Without such rigorous journalism we wouldn’t be able to claim that we live in any sort of democracy at all. But is it right that the bosses of multinational corporations, including millionaire bankers and the bosses of polluting budget airlines should be given different treatment when they are interviewed? Why should CEOs, and especially supermarket CEOs be able to make radio, TV and newspaper interviews into corporate promos? Yet they do, even in the midst of the current recession. Terry Leahy of Tesco is allowed to make comments about the supposed inadequacy of British schools and teachers on the BBC website, but isn’t cross-questioned about the pay, conditions and unskilled or deskilled nature of the jobs that his company offers(1). I also remember an interview with Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer some time ago, conducted by the venerable Jim Naughtie, in which Rose was able to promote M&S’s supposed eco-credentials for a good ten minutes to a key M&S client base (your middle-class, Radio 4 Today listener) without so much as a hint of a sceptical rejoinder from Naughtie.

Whilst we are meant to look on in horror at the ineptitude of the punters who appear on Economy Gastronomy and to applaud them when they quickly become competent cooks, one thing this show in particular fails to do is to even hint at the causes of this widespread British culinary incompetence. Like Naughtie on the Today programme, they don’t dare to criticise  supermarkets and their fundamental role in the decay of family life.  It seems to be fine to blame career women, single mothers, immigrants, or even dead gay popstars, but no-one seems prepared to admit the role of supermarkets in all this.

Supermarkets aren’t working alone here, admittedly. There are three or four factors acting together in unholy combination: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl etc, are extraordinarily powerful but so too are the media (TV and the internet especially) and the motor car; also important is the weakness of our CBI-dictated employment law which means that we have some of the longest working hours in Europe.

So how do these factors combine? It isn’t difficult to imagine. After our long, and often boring, frustrating days at work, we are exhausted. When human beings become exhausted, our powers of reasoning tend to shut down, especially after that monotonous drive back from work. In this state, we then find ourselves hungry. Unable to face trying to park our cars in town-centre carparks, we sleep-drive to the supermarket, with its acre or three of free parking spaces. Barely awake, we then stumble into the supermarket itself, propping ourselves up on that zimmer frame for the able-bodied, the shopping trolley. We might not need a trolley full of stuff, but we take a trolley because we know that a basket, when full of bottles of milk or wine or cola, gets too heavy and our arms go numb. Having opted for the vast maw of the trolley, we then proceed to fill it with crap that we don’t really need. Shopping expands to fill the trolley-space available.

Most likely, we haven’t brought a list, we haven’t got a budget, and we’ve even forgotten to bring in plastic bags, despite having a mountain of them at home that we keep meaning to re-use. Seduced by the £2 chickens and the BOGOF deals on strawberries and bags of salad, we also pile up the little plastic trays of ready-made lasagne, packets of choc-chip biscuits and giant-sized bags of crisps, ready for a night slouched in front of the telly.

Leaving the supermarket, we may hardly have registered the amount we have spent, and we may only have a vague idea what we have spent the money on. In other words, we have become the supermarkets’ dream customers. The BOGOFs and special offers have soothed us into thinking that the large bill is in fact ‘value for money’ –there is a recession on, you know–and in searching for Crunch-busting deals we haven’t paid too much attention to where that £2 chicken came from; or thought about the working conditions of those who put our ‘healthy’ salad into nitrogen-filled plastic packaging; much less considered how farmers in Spain fertilise and irrigate the soil where all those ‘luxury’ vine-ripened tomatoes grow. We don’t care. We think we can’t afford to.

Keith Floyd did care about what he ate and where it came from, and it’s in his memory that I urge anyone reading this to buy his books (especially the early ones) and use them to learn to cook. Not all of his recipes are ‘cheffy’ or extravagant. Many are simple. All of them are a delight to cook– far more entertaining than an hour spent in front of the telly watching food porn–and they’re a delight to eat. Try some fabulous, cheap and easy British nosh, such as ‘pork chops in beer sauce’ or ‘Ipswich almond pudding’ (Floyd on Britain and Ireland) or taste the astonishing difference some orange peel and a pig’s trotter makes to a beef stew in ‘beef in red wine’ (heaven…). Then get more adventurous with something like a trout soufflé (Floyd on France). Get round a table to eat and drink and talk and think. And read, because if mainstream TV doesn’t criticise the supermarkets effectively, there are journalists out there in print and on the internet who do.

But why should you? Because if you don’t, the remaining (and utterly wonderful) small shops in towns like George Monbiot’s Machynlleth and my beloved Shipston-on-Stour will die, and we will no longer have any alternative to the Tescos and Asdas of this world. You don’t just owe it to your digestive system to take an interest in what you eat, how you prepare it and where it came from. The environment, local communities and families all benefit from a commitment to Floydian eating. The revolution may well begin with your tastebuds, and activism, like charity, needs to begin at home in a sociable, thrifty and inventive kitchen.

Notes:

Read Floyd if you haven’t already for both entertainment and edification (although note that the early classics I have mentioned are currently out of print) and then have a go at some food politics. Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped: The Shocking Power of the Supermarkets is essential reading, as is George Monbiot’s Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain and anything by Felicity Lawrence. If you want to get cracking immediately, follow the links below and read George Monbiot’s recent article on Tesco and Blythman’s introduction to her work in her interview with The Idler (2). And have a go at cooking that ‘beef in red wine,’ not forgetting to include the trig’s potter and orange peel. Cheers, fellow gastronauts!

 1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8306013.stm

2) http://idler.co.uk/conversations/conversations-joanna-blythman/

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/08/10/tesco-opted/