Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Way We Used To Shop.

Woolworths is no more, the former retail giant has become the latest victim of the credit crunch.

As feature of the British high street it will be much missed, not all that long ago we used to troop through its doors to buy everything from cheap household goods to the latest hit single, at least we did until it stopped providing the things we wanted at a price we were willing to pay.

The fall of Woolworths brings to mind the demise of other retailers the fickle British shopper fell out of love with.

Remember C&A? For years they were the butt of jokes for the pedestrian styling of their clothes, fit for middle managers living in Middle England perhaps but not the sort of thing people with pretensions to style would want to be caught dead wearing. Actually they sold decent clothes at bargain prices, rather like current high street favourite Primark, but fashion spoke and, eventually they walked the plank into oblivion.

A more poignant memory of how we used to shop related to the small independent traders that operated near to my childhood home in Shelton, all of which have gone the way of C&A and Woollies.

There was Stevenson’s, the newsagent, where every Sunday morning a parade of children would present their pocket money with the plaintive cry of ‘what can I get for this?, quite a lot as it turned out.

Bennett’s on the corner of Cauldon Road, the sort of shop that sold only what its owner thought there was a ‘call for’ in the neighbourhood, meaning noting remotely ‘exotic.’ There was, I recall, an antique bacon slicer on the counter that made a reassuring clunk as it went about its business.

The most exotic shop of them all was the splendidly named Shelton Model Home Store, an emporium that sold everything in the hardware line from a single screw to a fully working steam engine.

They are all gone now and, until recently, I would have said the business model under which they operated was consigned to history too. People didn’t want personal service they wanted to visit vast malls on the edge of town where they could be bludgeoned into indecision by endless choice, now I’m not so sure.

If these frightening economic times have taught us anything of value it is that the customer is king, Woolworths and the other once great businesses that will surely follow it into oblivion forgot that simple fact to their ultimate cost.

Perhaps the answer isn’t a change to the levels of VAT designed to get people back into the habit of spending, perhaps the answer is to go back to the sort of practices favoured by yesterday’s small shopkeepers.

They may have been decidedly conservative in their tastes but they never stocked anything they couldn’t sell and they knew, without the benefit of having studied for an MBA, that if you look after your customers they will look after you in return.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Britain’s Week Of Shame.

By now a sea of words has been written about the brutal murder of the child who has become known to the nation as Baby P.

The photograph of this nameless toddler looking into the camera with the innocence of which only the very young are capable has flashed around the world and must, for those with long enough memories have recalled another picture that, in any other context, would have seemed sweetly mundane. It showed two boys leading another child by that hand, taking him off not to play but to meet a brutal death.

The picture related, of course, the murder of James Bulger in the early 1990’s and it, like the picture of Baby P has become a symbol of horror and social decay.

Try as I might I cannot join the chorus of voices heaping blame on the social workers who abandoned Baby P to his lonely death, they are far from innocent and yet, social work is hardly a profession people enter with dreams of earning vast wealth, rather it is one they enter because they have a conscience and a desire to do good, as such the guilt they will feel for the rest of the days over their failure to act is a punishment harsher than any court of law could ever hand down.

Our righteous anger should, instead, be directed at the system within which they were obliged to operate.

A system exemplified in all its callous arrogance by Sharon Shoesmith the head of Haringey Social Services who, seemingly without shame, told the press following the trial and conviction of Baby P’s killers that her department should be absolved of all blame for his death because the correct procedures had been followed.

For decades the British have laughed at pompous and self serving officialdom, its foolish diktats are regularly mocked by the tabloid press and generally ignored by the population at large. Now we know the truth; now we know there is nothing at all to laugh at in the bureaucratic mindset that dominates so much of the public sector. It is cold, self serving and, when applied to the most vulnerable members of society, more dangerous than a loaded pistol in the hands of a toddler.

While we are in the mood for apportioning blame we should be prepared to address our own culpability in the tragic death of Baby P.

The British public has stood by while whole housing estates have been turned into dispiriting reservations for the disadvantaged, blinded by the astronomical rise in the value of our own homes we failed to ask our political masters why they failed to build sustainable communities alongside affordable housing and why they’ve now lost the will to create either.

We ignored the plight of people struggling to get by on benefits while maxing out our own credit cards, watched industries and the towns they shaped die but failed to act to end the curse of long term unemployment that hands misery on from one generation to the next in case it added a few pounds to our tax bill.

None of this excuses the behaviour of Baby P’s parents, their actions were evil and deserve to be met by an ultimate punishment our judicial system no longer has the courage to enforce, but those of us lucky enough not to live chaotic, brutish lives on the bottom rung of the social ladder must accept responsibility for preventing such crimes from happening again.

If we do not then ‘the correct procedures were followed’ may well join ‘I was only following orders’ in the shaming lexicon used by societies that choose to ignore the suffering of their dispossessed underclass.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Typically British.

We live in an age when the opinion poll is king. They help to choose our governments, give the press something to print on a slow news day and keep the whole nation informed about what nine out of ten cats prefer to find in their food bowls.

Opinion polls, if such an exercise carried out by a company going by the name of onepoll.com are to be believed, can also give the rest of the world some useful pointers as to the British character.

We are, according to the poll, fond of a cup of tea and TV soap operas; we’re generally polite but feel awkward about expressing our emotions in public, needless to say we enjoy nothing more than a good moan.

The poll also highlights our national talent for queuing; some wags have said that if the British ever conquer the world they will do so in order to teach everyone else how to form an orderly queue.

Queues in Britain must be the one thing that visitors marvel at more than anything else; they are impeccably orderly and totally spontaneous. This national gift for standing in line has even been mentioned recently in the pages of the rather austere cultural magazine Standpoint, with Jonathan Foreman commenting on the eminent good sense behind out habit of always standing on the right when riding an escalator so that people in a hurry can pass on the left.

Nobody taught us to do this, it just seems to be hardwired into our brains that it is the done thing, and long may that continue to be the case, so long as I can see people waiting patiently in line I will know that despite all predictions to the contrary our culture isn’t yet ready to crash into the rocks.

One aspect of the British character that seems to have eluded the diligent souls at onepoll, or the 5000 Britons they surveyed anyway, is the way we use the word ‘typical.’

In her book ‘Watching The English’, which is probably the standard work on the character traits of the largest nation in the UK, the anthropologist Kate Fox describes the use of ‘typical’ as a despairing exclamation as our national response to the frustrations thrown in our path by life.

It is both a symbol of our deeply pragmatic understanding that this isn’t and never will be a perfect world and a symptom of a resigned apathy that means we are more willing than most peoples to put up with dirty, overcrowded trains, stifling bureaucracy and inept governments.

One last thing the poll manages to catch with perfect clarity is our national obsession with the weather, as a spokesman for onepoll told the press this week, ‘You can’t go anywhere or do anything in Britain without someone talking about the weather. We’re almost proud of our rain.

Quite so, in no other nation could reading the weather forecast on television be a passport to minor celebrity. In fact in no other country would a poll than identified the inhabitants as a group of grumpy tea drinkers obsessed with the weather and standing in line be greeted as an amusing diversion rather than a damning indictment or a heinous insult.

Perhaps, as the spokesman for onepoll said ‘what this poll demonstrates really well is how proud we are to be British.’

Despite all the minor frustrations that go hand in hand with living on this damp island those are sentiments with which I cannot help but agree.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Remarkable Mr Hamilton.

I have never given much currency to the idea that sports people can serve as role models for the young or anyone else. The wasted talents and truncated lives of the likes of football legend George Best have always seemed to provide ample evidence that a modicum of talent expressed with a ball at your feet is no guarantee of anything in the way of strength of character.

This week though a unassuming young man made his way the centre stage of our nation’s sporting life who seems to be the exception that proves this sad rule, his name is Lewis Hamilton and last Sunday he won the Formula 1 championship.

His story is as simple as it is inspiring, born of ‘humble’ origins in Stevenage his triumph against all odds has been based on old fashioned values such as family loyalty and hard work. How refreshingly different from the here today, forgotten tomorrow celebrities of the reality television age thrust into the limelight as moral exemplars for the young.

The reaction to his success has though been rather more complex, last Monday the national press and many of the phone in shows that are now a staple of the radio network were filled by hymns of praise to his victory and vicious attacks on his status as a tax exile in Switzerland, often delivered by the same person.

Much of this, of course, is another round in the war staged by the British public against anyone who has the nerve to be successful. In general we prefer our sporting heroes cut from the cloth of one time Wimbledon hopeful Tim Henman, plucky types who know above all else how to lose with dignity.

Encountering someone like Hamilton who manages to win with dignity tends to throw us, not least because it is a reminder that we might not be an island of hopeless amateurs after all, we might actually have the capacity to cut a dash in the world, if only we were a little less complacent and tried a lot harder.

I have not, until now, mentioned Lewis Hamilton’s race, not least because like most Britons I feel it neither helped nor hindered his eventual success.

I say most Britons think like this , but there are, of course, some painful exceptions, take for example Formula 1 Chief Bernie Ecclestone who claimed that the Spanish fans who blacked up to mock Hamilton earlier this year were merely making a joke at his expense and everyone should stop making a politically correct mountain out of a Spanish molehill.

He was wrong, the Spanish fans knew their actions were liable to cause offence and they should have been punished, if only to show that the sensible majority has moved forever out of the caves of crude stereotyping.

In a week when another man of mixed heritage achieved a success that astounded the world we must give consideration to the comments to the effect that while we have a black British F1 champion we may never have a black Prime Minister made by Trevor Phillips head of the Race Equality Council.

While I disagree with his claim that the UK’s main political parties are ‘institutionally racist’, I am willing to concede his wider point.

Both Lewis Hamilton and Barack Obama succeeded due to their innate talent and steely determination, qualities that vault the barriers of race, class and gender set up by human societies.

Too often in this country we accept mediocrity in sport, politics and other areas of our national life because we are hidebound by tradition and fear the uncertainty that must be the companion of change.

In a week when the world’s greatest nation said ‘yes we can,’ we in the UK seem, to our cost, to still be too inclined to say ‘no we can’t.’

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hear Middle England Roar.

By now enough, probably too much, has been written and said about the prank calls made to the actor Andrew Sachs by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand as part of a Radio 2 programme presented by the latter.

Far more interesting than the chorus of disapproval that has led to Brand’s resignation and Ross’s suspension for three months is the agency that brought about their downfall, the so called moral majority lodged in Middle England.

The term applies more to a state of mind than a specific geographical location and is used as a sort of shorthand for a type of stoic Englishness that is permanently at odds with all things fashionably metropolitan.

Middle England is both a derisive term used to denote small minded, cautious, lower case conservatism and to call up a mythic land of village cricket matches and old maids cycling to evensong through the mist by politicians who find themselves out of favour with the commentating classes.

Although it is mocked and appealed to almost daily middle England is seldom understood. Not least because it troubles the fashionable few by resolutely standing by those unfashionable, but necessary, values that make a society civilised.

Hard work done for the reward of a fair wage, quiet patriotism that is undeceived about Britain’s failings but chooses to emphasise the country’s good points, treating people in the way you would wish to be treated yourself and that most definitively English of all concerns, fair play.

None of this is the least bit ‘edgy’ or ‘post modern’ in fact you could be forgiven for thinking the middle English are worthy but dull; you would be wrong.

They, or should I say we since I include myself amongst the ranks of the middle Englanders by reason of where I was born, Staffordshire, and most of my inclinations, have a sense of humour that is both literate and quietly subversive in ways that would never have occurred to the likes of Brand and Ross. An example of this is the Mac cartoons that have mocked the great and the good from the pages of the Daily Mail for the past four decades.

They are marked more than anything else by the other trait of the Middle English that applies to the matters under discussion here, our instinctive dislike of pretension in all its forms. Both Brand and Ross are guilty of the worst pretension of all, hiding their considerable intelligence behind a fa├žade of boorish stupidity, that sort of thing might be considered frightfully ironic amongst people who patronise the Ivy, but it doesn’t play at all well out in the shire counties.

Despite the fuss generated in the media both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross will survive this particular scandal pretty much unscathed, history might not be so kind to them in the longer term.


Ross will be remembered, if at all, as a chat show host who more often than not went for a cheap laugh connected to a shocking remark rather than taking the trouble to emphasise with his guests. Brand, like most comedians, will end up bemusing and then boring his audience.

Middle England though will be around long after this scandal and its protagonists have been forgotten, forever out of step with ‘fashionable’ tastes but with its finger firmly on the pulse of what this country thinks and feels away from the glowing metropolitan centres.