Sunday, 7 August 2011

God save little shops, china cups, and virginity

This is a horrendous long one! Grit your teeth!

Those of you who have been with me for a while (and for those of you, congratulations and hello!) may remember that I once had a dramatic Damascene revelation in Sheringham and decided I was going to make more of an effort to avoid supermarkets and seek out more local options. Well, it has been quite a ride. It has had high points, i.e. I have discovered that there is still fruit that tastes like fruit in this world, and have been introduced to such things as purslane, sea bream, sloes, samphire, it has been thrilling. It has had low points, notably when I managed to spend £7 on a single portion of fish, how did I manage this and was it gold plated or the fish equivalent of fillet steak, I do not know but fortunately it has not been repeated. Before I started heading bravely out and seeking out markets and farm shops, this is what I thought of the whole avoiding-supermarkets situation:

1/ I thought people who made a point of avoiding supermarkets were effete middle class people who ought to be worrying about more serious things.
2/ I thought there were no local shopping alternatives anywhere near where I live.
3/ I thought when people talked about non-supermarket shopping they meant things like expensive Italian delis like on  food programmes on the TV where you go and buy a slice of proscuitto and a small block of parmesan and it costs you £10.
4/ I didn’t understand what people were talking about when they said eating seasonally was cheaper.
5/ I thought if I was busy or tired it was reasonable that cooking was the first thing to go and I could be perfectly healthy if I chose my ready meals carefully.
And the moral of this is, never pose with a pig, even a dead one, as the resulting photograph will inevitably turn up on some kind of protest literature
What I actually found was that there were lots of local alternatives to the supermarkets, and as soon as I looked for them, I found them. Like pixies. And they aren’t special expensive delis: they’re as cheap as or cheaper than the supermarket, for miles better quality. I mean, I don’t think it makes a difference necessarily in terms of taste if you’re getting your tinned tomatoes from the wholefood co-operative or Tesco, but for things like fruit and veg, meat and fish and especially CHEESE, I can’t describe how different it is when it’s not from the supermarket. And being able to get a sense of the seasons, and what’s new in, is so much easier, because you just cook what’s in season, simply. Then when you’re bored of eating rhubarb or peas or whatever bang, it’s out of season, and it’s time for something else. Whereas I couldn’t get any sense of what was in season when I bought things from the supermarket, because TBH, unless I got really lucky, strawberries from Tesco tasted just as crap in July as they did in January and often are on offer at really strange times anyway.

In terms of eating supermarket ready meals: I now cook from scratch for (virtually) every single meal. It’s often no more trouble than putting a ready meal in the oven, because I don’t cook complicated things all the time, and now I’m buying better food I don’t mind having it plain. I don’t know if it’s better for me, but I will tell you that I used to have IBS so badly that up until last year I used to spend a couple of days every fortnight doubled up with stomach ache, if I woke up too early I would throw up, and it was generally a bit miserable to be spending quite so much time googling ‘acute appendicitis’ every five minutes and wondering if I ought to drive myself to casualty. Now my stomach is fine, and I look a lot healthier. Obviously there are other factors (trust me on this one) so don’t take that as gospel, but, you know, I do wonder if eating better food has helped a tiny bit.
I can absolutely promise you that this shop sells things you can't find in Tesco
So this has been my experience. I don’t think we should have no supermarkets at all, I can see why that would be inconvenient: but I think there should be the choice to not shop there, and I think a vibrant non-supermarket food culture is a necessary thing. Unfortunately though, it feels a bit like, if Tesco or Sainsbury’s have decided they are going to bring their special brand of never-quite-fresh food to your neighbourhood, it is as if it has been ordained by God. You have got to have them. There is nothing you can do. You can fight, but they can fight harder. You can campaign, but they can campaign longer. I had been thinking about this because of what is happening on Mill Road in Cambridge, and then there was this article in the Guardian which talked about it as well.

Basically, because the supermarkets have levels of wealth that would make Croesus a bit nervous, they buy their way out of the planning regulations. They do this by appealing, appealing and appealing again, while the council runs out of money to fight the appeals, until they get a foothold, or by offering to pay for other things a town might need at the same time as building their depressing warehouse full of crisps. In Clay Cross, which is near where I am from, Tesco used the latter method, and gave Clay Cross money to ‘redevelop’ in return for building a huge superstore in the town centre. In Cambridge, which is a (relatively) wealthy city, Tesco used the first trick to get a supermarket on Mill Road, which is famous for its independent shops. Now Sainsbury’s is trying to open a store a couple of hundred yards down the road.
Apparently not universal support for a new Sainsbury's
People are protesting. Opposite the proposed Sainsbury’s is Al-Amin, which is a lovely grocery shop which has lots of brilliant things which Sainsbury’s would never stock in a million years, and the owner is standing for Chancellor of the University to publicise what is happening. There is an action group. There is the Mill Road Song (God help us). But, this is the thing: there was a HUGE swell of protest against Tesco, before. There were petitions. There were meetings. There were people arguing nicely and compellingly. There was an anarchist collective established in the building Tesco wanted to take over which held events for the local community. And none of it worked. Tesco opened. And I cannot believe that Sainsbury’s won’t open, too. For those of you thinking, well, people could just not shop there, that is true: but, Sainsbury’s and Tesco make huge, huge profits. Do you think every store they open has to turn a profit? Do you not think some of them might just be useful strategically? And for those of you thinking, well, perhaps there are some people who live near Mill Road who would find a local supermarket useful, well, yes, I agree. But the first Tesco was opened practically next door to a big Co-op: there was a supermarket there already. There is another small Tesco round the corner. There is a huge Sainsbury’s at the end of the road. There is a huge Asda behind. This is nothing about making useful provision for the local people; it is about destroying an area to make a profit. I do find it a bit depressing.

Now, this is where I normally think of something cheerful to say at the end: but, like I say, I do think it’s a bit depressing, so instead I’m going to recommend some things to read which will depress you more, but if you’re interested it’s worth having a look. When I was at university, someone once had a Tesco Value Range party (aaaaand I was at Oxford. You are more than welcome to refer to my last post about poverty tourism). They were more innocent times, when the blue and white of the Value Range was looked on with affection, and when Tesco was not seen as a mean old rampaging beast. Perhaps if the Big Four would all bugger off with their mad expansionist plans those happy times could come again?

Further Reading:
Tescopoly. Information, articles and reports on the impact of supermarket expansion
Shopped, by Joanna Blythman. This is v exciting and actually a page turner
Bad Food Britain, also by Joanna Blythman – more about the effects of supermarkets on our food culture. I am her biggest fan in a non-creepy way
The No Mill Road Tesco campaign which failed
The No Mill Road Sainsbury’s campaign setting off
Clay Cross, which was ‘regenerated’ with money from Tesco (I rang and asked how much but they refused to give me a figure, although he said they wouldn’t ever have had the chance to regenerate Clay Cross without Tesco)
Guardian article on supermarket protesters, no beard or muesli necessary


Denise said...

Just wait til you have the evils that is a Wal-Mart supercenter in your back yard. It's hard to find small shops around here. The one's that I think are smaller grocery stores, I find out later are still chain stores. *sigh*

adacottage said...

I won't be much consolation but I only use the Tesco on Mill Road when I am in an insane hurry because I know there is never busy enough to have a queue.

mooncalf said...

Lots of good points. And I'm going to rudely ignore most of them and point out that a Tesco Value party isn't (necessarily) poverty tourism for Oxford students.

I was a student at Oxford in the 90s and we weren't all rich and eating caviar and roast swan. Tesco Value was what many of us ate every day. Unthinkable sausages and very very very mild cheddar.

Susie said...

Denise!!! {waves}. adacottage, that is interesting, I wonder how it is getting on? (And I won't criticise anyone for going to Tesco, I go there myself).

Mooncalf, no we weren't all rich either (although some of us were well off), yes the party was because that was what everyone ate (I can't remember where the Tesco was - is there one on Cowley Rd?). I was there 93-96 doing English, we could have met (if we did and I was grumpy I apologise. I'm friendlier now :-) ).

mooncalf said...

There is still a Tesco on the Cowley Road (and there's a couple more in the centre of town now which makes your point nicely).

We could conceivably have met but 95-96 I spent studying Philosophy and Theology before switching over to English for the rest of the course so it seems unlikely it was the same Tesco Value Party. Perhaps, in retrospect, we weren't quite an uniquely witty and original as we believed ;)

In retrospect I also deeply regret eating the Teco Value sausages.

Anonymous said...

I have a Sainsbury's and Tesco already within walking distance. In the last week 2 Tesco Express have opened each 5 minutes away from either Sainsbury's or Tesco and a mere 10 minutes away from each other! I can shop quite well without supermarkets it is true but only because there is a green-grocer (they are as rare as Hen's Teeth around here), also fruit/vegetable markets not so far away. It isn't the same everywhere however. The monopoly of supermarkets can be horrendus. Well done for your commendable efforts!

Rachel said...

Our nearest Tesco is over 25 miles away and Sainsbury isn't much closer. We do have a Morrisons in Aberystwyth, though, and I do use it for 'store cupboard' things because the alternatives are so much more expensive.

I had a conversation with someone recently who'd moved to the area ten years ago. He said, "It's better now. There didn't used to be a Morrison's and you had to go to three different supermarkets for all your shopping." Between dumbfoundedness, politeness, and wondering where those other supermarkets were, I completely failed to formulate a reply to this.

Oh, and I was also at Oxford from 93-96 (and poor. I was very proud of living within my means - the diminishing student grant - for my first year), though unless we were in the same college (Somerville...?) it's unlikely we met. We psychologists were an insular bunch.