Jamie Oliver’s pukka poverty

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Preston, the Lancashire city with some of the highest rates of unemployment in England. Looking for food on low- and fixed-incomes in Preston is not easy, and the results are less salubrious fare than “25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence” as Jamie Oliver says he wants to “teleport” a poor family to see.

Besides Preston’s covered markets, in which you can buy from a wide selection of fruits, vegetables, South Asian and East Asian ingredients, Caribbean and East African foods, tripe, black pudding, fish and pigs trotters, stands the city centre branch of Iceland. The city center branch is rarely empty, and when I potter round for my usuals, it’s pretty much packed from the checkouts all the way back to the vacuum packed value bacon. Outside the entrance is a circular seating area based around an “inspirational” mosaic which has been hacked, scuffed and ignored from the day it was installed. Chain-smokers and women eating Greggs from the packet sit around watching other Prestonians go about their business. From the seating area outside a pub, men of a certain age consider the world through their pint glasses.

Inside Iceland the world of Jamie Oliver is far from peoples’ minds. A mother and her exuberant bundle of hyperactivity stop-start along the aisles, picking up or putting down the various in-house prepared meals Iceland proudly advertise as being a step above the kind of value meal cost-cutters which were involved in the horse-meat scandal. There are other mother-with-children grouplets all over the store, bagging multi-pack crisps, cartons of £1 orange juice and yoghurts. Everything the man in front of me puts out onto the checkout are in cardboard boxes: a Sunday roast, a pasta-bake type affair with sausages, Yorkshire pudding filled with beef slices. I stock up on pasta meals too, and a pork pie, and Yazoo milkshakes.

Oliver has skirted around the realities of poverty and poor living in Britain, though only with a camera crew or researchers around him. His most often quoted remark this week – concerning the couple eating cheesy chips in front of a “massive fucking television” – is typical of his comfortable ignorance. The poor are predominately proud as a rule, who want to show a brave face and nothing of the feet flicking madly underneath the water. Suggesting the aspirational route – eat pasta! make your own pasta! rustle up some ricotta fritters with tomato sauce! – is only throwing the map down from a very tall height, and that map probably doesn’t show the best route to travel. In the middle are jobs which can’t be found, money which is almost impossible to save, demands from banks and utility services that cannot be ignored, and food which has to be affordable, often for anybody but the person buying it. The low- and fixed- income families who want to show their children that they, like any other family, can sit down in front of a television aren’t trying to put TV over nutrition; it’s wanting to carry on as normal with as little negative judgement from strangers as possible.

Eating pasta with mussles in front of a moderately sized television may well be an option for some on low- and fixed-incomes, Jamie, but not from where I’m looking.

Affordable food is not necessarily healthy food. It can be, and indeed really should be if supermarkets had any morals about them. There are options but they’re shrinking. The price of chicken, once a fairly safe option for cheap stand-by meals, has gone through the roof. Most other meats have seen similar price rises. Fresh fruit and veg, so often packed into bags of 6- or more, cannot always be stored away for long amount of times, and they’re not as cheap as they used to be either. Faced with mounting living costs or the need to visit a foodbank, the low- and fixed income poor can’t count as an option the dozen or so ingredients required to make the “cheap” foods so many middle class TV chefs assume just lie waiting in the pantries and fridges of the nation. I wonder if Oliver knows this, deep down, and refuses to accept it.

There are moments of sense and reason in the Oliver interview, given to promote another of his social-conscience television shows. He is right to point to local markets and more sensible purchases, but has gone about it in the completely wrong way. The little dictator attitude is that of most typical Tories and small-c conservatives, who have provided a generation-and-then-some-long soundtrack of tuts and moans from the sidelines on most subjects under the sun. Education? Not as good as it was for the poor or those Northerners, don’t you know. Jobs? They’ve got no grit, those poor and unemployed folks, that’s the problem, need to bring National Service back, I say!

Let’s not demonise the low- and fixed-income poor. There’s ingenuity with that pride and sense too. It makes good copy to draw attention to cheesy chips and expensive unhealthy options, but that distracts from the real economic hardships facing millions across the country.  Maybe the best recipe for Jamie Oliver is not to brag about 101 solutions to national poverty whilst preparing yourself for another lucrative television programme. Come to Iceland or B&M Bargains without a camera or researcher to watch the reality of those people who can’t just be marched into a market for a swift transformation into people who could pick up dozens of fresh ingredients and all the necessary herbs and spices without denting their weekly budget.  It’s not “poverty” as our grandparents or great-grandparents might have known it, but whatever we’ve got cannot be fixed with theatrical gasps at the sight of a Greggs pastie or Bird’s Eye fish-finger. If you want people to see the Sicilian fishermen with their mussels and pasta, Jamie, you’re going to have to pay….

welfare state of the nation

Remember the horsemeat scandal? A hurried panictime spread across the news media with more urgency than any usually given to food stories (such as those concerning the world’s population which has no access to regular food, or those nations with an obscene excess of the stuff.) Much to the dismay of Queen of the Gloom Kate Hurley-Burley, nobody died from eating horse DNA, so the heatlamp of scrutiny was slowly dimmed until there was barely a flicker left to read recent stories about dodgy fish. Daily updates from warehouses in Romania to three paragraphs on page twenty, and all because nobody died

In the light of Iain Duncan Smith claiming he could live on £53 a week, and the interconnected April 1 onslaught of welfare changes, the horsemeat scandal comes back to mind. Undercutting the media’s coverage was the inconvenient truth about the types of people who bought frozen ready meals on the cheap. Why do people buy low-cost, big bulk Tesco burgers fleshed out (if that’s the right phrase) with horse, or pile ’em high quid-a-box Lidl lasagna? What are these poor people thinking? Or doing?

Despite the popularity of Great British Menu and Masterchef, the general public are no more able to make confit of duck than they could name Zimbabwe’s highest scoring batsman*.

This is not primarily down to a lack of ingredients in most towns and cities, but their cost. On the now totemic £53 a week figure a Masterchef lunch is out of the question, even within walking/bus distance of the ‘world foods’ aisle at Morrisons. And I did say walk/bus for a reason; there’s a good chance that the economically challenged trying to rustle up something like a good meal every day won’t be able to hop into the car every journey. I should know, I’m one of them.

If you don’t already do so, join me in picking up odds and sods at Iceland every week, with bright £1 and £3 stickers on almost every shelf. Shopping budgets can only stretch so far even here, as IDS would find out if he took up the challenge to reduce his incomings to the bare minimum. It wouldn’t go amiss for David Miliband, able to fly off to a £300,000 job away from his working class constituency, to push his trolley around Iceland or Aldi either, to watch as banknotes become pocket-shrapnel far quicker than you realise. It’s not always possible to store away herbs and spices for future recipes if that week’s budget is taken up on basic ingredients.

The quality of food on a low level budget plunges too, which is both how any why the horsemeat scandal affected families on fixed or battered incomes. The bacon you fancy is far too expensive, that’s why what’s currently sizzling in the pan looks see-through and as though the pig was drowned. Pies are thick with tasteless pastry, chicken inflated with water, pizza barely covered with a shredded substance pretending to be cheese.

General assumptions of modern life are predicated on ideas about earning and spending, rather than saving and making do. It’s the opposite of the post-war generation (and the teaching they received) about the value of money coming in, the depth and breadth of opportunity. I know very well what happens when there’s too much month for the money, having been an office monkey with between 60-75% of my monthly wage taken in bills and private landlord rent. There’s only so often a northerner in a low-paid job can stretch the funds for social events, never mind eating something made from scratch. This is being repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, away from the cookbook world and glossy magazine fashion shoots.

How you react to the ready-meal reality of people defines your politics; some will urge people to aim towards better jobs with more pay, others would demand better pay and conditions, or more generous welfare payments. I think our current age is the most politically polarised time for a generation, fuelled by the very opposite of political anger. There has not been an ideology-age since the dual work of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reshaped political parties as lifestyle management companies, and one consequence of all that is the righteous fury on both sides of the spectrum trying to reclaim their relevance. Somewhere away from all this is a group of ordinary people, millions in number, who couldn’t say with much confidence that they, like a Secretary of State of HM’s Government,  would live on £53 a week without any problems. The lifestyle choices you make now may well be formed by the comfort and complacency of your current surroundings. When these are taken away, even the taste of food changes with it.

The bad taste from all this debate, be it flavoured by welfare reform or Union fears, will rest on the tongue of only a small percentage of the population. Whatever term you use, it’s likely that politician’s won’t be part of them.


*Andy Flower, I’m told.

High Street Voice

And lo, it came to pass, that HMV is to bring in the administrators.

The age of the High Street has been coming to pass since the 1990s, when councils fell in love with out of town shopping centres, and shoppers fell in love with not having to pay over the odds car parking prices for city centre shopping. Sure, the streets of central London and England’s second city Manchester may look exceptionally busy, but this is the era of massive increases in Internet commerce, and once tourists/day-trippers/hipsters are taken out of the equation, both major shopping centres look pretty ho-hum.

Just as “the smoking ban did it” is not a valid response to the question “why are dozens of pubs closing every month?”, so “the ‘net did it” can’t be accepted as an answer for the demise of specific stores or the general concept of “The High Street”. In short, it’s a long and complex list of reasons. Ultimately, nobody has been outside banging the drum for city shopping for decades now. Out of town developments are cheap to build and easy to fill. Councils then engage in a PR love-in with concepts like pedestrianisation, ‘street furniture’ and café culture ‘redesigns’. Being Britain, the results are almost always complete disasters, especially when most councils refuse to provide free parking, even on weekends.

Whilst Mary Portas might be well paid for telling people how to suck eggs….I mean, how to reinvent the town centres, the reality might be very different to that looked at from a purely cold faced economic stand point. Maybe, just maybe, HMV is close to death because it was suffering the same disease as Woolworths, and managed to find better medication? They could have died off simultaneously had one not chosen holistic medicine once a week.

Woolies stopped attracting shoppers, by and large, when shoppers stopped understanding what on earth the store was focused on selling. In the Internet age being a “root about” shop isn’t attractive. Woolies sold XBox games, DVDs, pick ‘n’ mix sweets, children’s clothes, toys, with a restaurant tucked away upstairs and a garden centre shoved into a corner. Like Wilkinsons, but in an unattractive jumble sale sort of way.

For HMV, dealing with Amazon, Spotify, live streaming and all the rest of it was to fling itself into panic mode, jerking around with new identities like a drunk man trying on fancy dress. Of course nobody could have predicted how quickly consumers would kill off CD singles, but HMV held on to them amongst computer consoles, headsets, books, box sets, chart acts and oddly specific specialist sections (“BBC Spoken Word”), and from outside their stores began to resemble one of those very wooden warehouse style shops which always has window displays selling Stone Roses, REM and Alanis Morrisette for £1.99. Was HMV the first place to go for the latest album release? If not, at what point did that happen?

The very idea of having “a High Street” is looking more and more as a notion of crazed nostalgists. The free market and those who subscribe to its teachings have seen off the traditional pub, defeated the greengrocer and the butcher, and now tick off electronic retailers and general stores. HMV will sit alongside Rumbleow’s and Dixons and Jessops and JJB, all faded brands and pub quiz questions now. The reason isn’t just one of “death by on-line shopping”, it’s as much a lack of focus by the stores themselves as it is a natural turning off the light by capitalism’s Spending Corps. Had HMV focused on, perhaps, DVDs and box-sets, it could have streamlined itself into a new kind of retail experience. Maybe 2013 was just the year the growths became incurable cancer?

One thing seems very clear now.  In Town Halls across the country, there are local elected officials grappling with the questions put to them by the economic downturn, the reduction in Government funding, and less popular town centres. Most of the glossy prospectuses produced by consultants on behalf of Town Halls speak of “reinventing the High Street”. I can’t help but wonder if this is just woefully, almost embarrassingly, out of date.

champagne and chips

“Mature, and depressing” was how I summed it up. Like the day you decide not to stay up late to masturbate over the Television X “ten minute preview”.

My decision was the big black line drawn through the one word question; “Laptop ?”. My April “budget” now reads like a list of actions rather than objects; nights out, at least two Burscough home matches, and payment of bills. I daren’t deal with percentages: over half my monthly wage is gone before the sun rises on pay day weekend…

Not having a laptop (and therefore regular internet access) is my biggest personal problem at the moment. Well, that and not bringing socks in from the washing line in time to avoid a passing storm. Oh, and eating most of an Easter Egg for breakfast this morning, that weighs pretty heavily, too. But let me focus on internet access for the time being. It’s not that I am the archetypal geek who misses live-tweeting Question Time and updating Wikipedia at 2 in the morning – as much as that truly is missed – it’s the very fact of being ‘locked away’ from a world I have grown accustomed to over ten years of dial-up and broadband access. Yes, okay, I have wandered into the 4chans and meme factories of the ‘net as much as anyone; I am with the Finns on this, Internet access is a human right, as important to business leaders as the child in a high-rise aspiring to be the best they can be in the world outside their flat.

It may sound somewhat like a sulk, and perhaps after nearly a year without access at home, my mild annoyance at having nothing to do when the television lets me down is close to developing into something less admirable.

I will land on one side of the argument, though. By deciding against buying a laptop this month, I have freed up spends and been awfully sensible about the use of my wage over a 5-week month. And that’s far more sensible than I have been recently.

This week Alistair Darling is set to read out Gordon Brown’s election budget, much like the Queen is forced to read Labour’s manifesto at least once a year. Oh for either Darling or Liz to bring their own script to Parliament.

In the case of Darling, he knows Brown cannot wait to get rid of him, which makes the cowardice over the Budget details all the more depressing. If it was me – and Good Lord, can you imagine that! – I wouldn’t let the Prime Minister within stapler-throwing distance of the Budget Speech until it was too late to change so much as the break in the first paragraph. Brown, responsible for the longest and deepest recession in British history, taking low income earners to 20p tax rate, and every other economic shit-storm since 1997, may well fail to impress this week in any case, given UNITE’s attempt to ensure every last detail of 1979 is recreated in colour prior to the election on May 6.

Darling does not want a “give away budget”, exactly the opposite to Brown, who would prefer to plunge into the bottomless pit [as he sees it] of debt to ensure more votes are bought for Labour in seven weeks time. Darling would be best to outline exactly how he intends to deal with the deficit and growing numbers of “invisible unemployed”, signing Brown up to a deal he cannot escape. Clearly in my current state I would prefer a £1,000 “citizens payment” straight into the bank accounts of everybody through some form of the fabled Robin Hood Tax. That personal moment aside, I am a Liberal Democrat, where fairness in the tax system has been at the centre of our policies for longer than Brown has been plotting to parachute Ed Balls into Number 11. And that’s a long time, readers.

I would have used this blog to vent spleen on the latest tabloid target – the legal high “MCat” or “drone”. However, given how well it is written, I leave you in the sensible hands on this subject to Charlie Brooker

Truth Be Told

Sky Sports News is going to be fun for a while. As much as the latest speculation about Rodallega or Hulk interests me, the Transfer Window real-time countdown which flashes up on screen is the least intentional cruel televisual feature since that 10-year old girl had the temerity to forget the lyrics of her favourite song in front of an audience of millions. The strap-line might as well say “LOOK HOW FAR PAYDAY IS YOU IRRESPONSIBLE SPIRAL-COCKED FREAK”.

Work had certain charms today. Although like most office bound types my main priorities was e-mail sorting, desk diary fathoming, and booking holidays for the rest of the year. I just hope the forthcoming general election is not in June, as that week was rejected. Hear that Gordon, come on, be nice.

On the subject of the next election, for most of the population the phrase “kerryout” probably means nothing at all. It could well be the first of the many election-based techniques used on-line free from most electoral law or media manipulation. Don’t switch off when I explain, please, because “kerryout” is a Tory-backed Twitter campaign, with the aim of defeating ultraloyal Labour Whip Kerry McCarthy in the Bristol East constituency.

It is not a campaign without flaws. Obviously I would rather Tory PPC Adeela Shafi did not win, as LibDem Michael Popham is in second place with a far more realistic chance of winning. In addition the “kerryout” campaign isn’t without its less mature followers. However it is encouraging to see social and citizen media being used in the UK for elections and democratic campaigning; there was comparison around the election of President Obama suggesting Britain was far behind the USA in terms of internet-based electioneering.

Like so many ultra-loyal, never questioning Labour MPs – Preston’s own Mark Hendrick among them – Kerry appears to be in complete denial whenever someone mentions the increasing gap between rich and poor, the ballooning deficit, decreasing standards in primary schools, selling University students into debt slavery, and of course her own personal dubious expenses claims. From the Labour Party of McBride/Draper “smear” emails, “kerryout” is fairly harmless.

Not that I will want to spend the whole three, or four, or five months, focusing on the battle in the eastern suburbs of Bristol. I’ve got to make it to this month’s pay day unscathed before most other priorities. Once upon a time, in living memory, I was forever walking home from supermarkets with bulging bags digging into my hands; now I’m somewhat too eager to nip into Tesco for whatever snacks and pre-packaged meal deals I can wolf down in between brews. Like the lost habits of buying Private Eye and keeping a diary, I’ve long since stopped being eager to steam fish or prepare slow-cooked stewes. Here’s to belated New Year’s Resolutions with some relation to this.

And without the real-time clock ticking in the corner, thanks.