Friday, 19 December 2008

Jamie Oliver should teach people to fry chips.

In his recent series Jamie's Ministry of Food the archetypal celebrity chef set out to get the people of Rotherham off junk food and into the kitchen. His big idea was to teach a small group basic recipes such as stir-fry and spaghetti bolognese and then get these people to pass on the newly acquired skills to their friends, this new group would then pass it on again and so on, spreading his own vision of culinary correctness far and wide.

In the flurry of media debate that followed all sorts of arguments were aired. Wasn't there a conflict of interest with his lucrative Sainsbury's sponsorship? What about the economics of trying to cook on benefits?, etc. What seemed to be missed was the obvious question of why, if Jamie Oliver wanted the people of Rotherham to be more healthy, did he not teach them to fry chips?

This simple counter-intuitive move could have overcome a host of problems. Firstly it would have undercut the class-cultural issues which have plagued Jamie's campaigning since he first launched his philanthropic broadside at the nation's school dinners. By hectoring working class people about their diet from the rolled-down window of his Range Rover he reinforces the perception that posh food is for posh people. Obviously being patronised by millionaires is not the sort of thing that gets ordinary folk on-side.

While he tried to sidestep this by recruiting arch-enemy Julie Critchlow(the infamous Rotherham mother who passed crisps and burgers through the school railings)to advise him on his latest project, this was little more than tokenistic appropriation saying, "look, even Julie thinks I'm right, you lot had better listen this time".

By teaching people to cook chips, rather than telling them they would be better off eating how he eats and spouting in the press about how he's so saintly that he'd never let his kid's eat a McDonald's, he could reassure people that he is not judging them or attempting to undermine their cultural identity. As a consequence surely they would be far more receptive to his ideas.

The second benefit of the chips method is that it would have allowed those he was teaching to learn the basic cooking skills that many seemed to lack without dealing with an overwhelming host of unfamiliar ingredients. Peeling and washing their spuds introduces basic vegetable preparation, and slicing them into chips would get people used to handling knives without the need for complex chopping techniques. The chips can then be cooked by a combination of par-boiling and shallow-frying providing both a grounding in the two most widely used cooking methods and a lovely plate of chips with a considerably lower fat content than the deep fried takeaway variety.

Finally, by equipping people with the ability to inexpensively produce a meal which they already like to eat Jamie may have found that the extra money suddenly weighing down their pockets was all the encouragement they would need to get with the program. Perhaps they would even pop down to Sainsbury's and pick up some ingredients for that spaghetti bolognese.

Then again, showing the poor folk of Rotherham going from the terrible destitution of eating chips to the liberating experience of, erm.., eating more chips might not have made quite the moral impact on television Jamie was looking for.

For more on why all of Jamie's campaign show titles are prefigured by the possessive form of his own ubiquitous moniker check out this post over at Lenin's Tomb.
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Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Trouble With Woolworth's pt.4

In our series of articles examining the downfall of retailer Woolworth's we have seen how this event was really just a sideshow in the ongoing war between the giant supermarket chains.

So do the soon to be ex-workers of Woolworth's have any alternative but to join the dole queue and hope to pick up jobs should those who have placed them in this sitution(the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, and Asda) deem it profitable to re-open their old workplace as a convenience store? It's a pretty bleak prospect with the commercial pressures of Christmas mounting, the mainstream media driving home the message that 'the age of austerity' is dawning and a government once more attacking the poorest in society precisely when they need most help.

Well while it might not feel like a time to party, I would argue that is exactly what they should do. The first concern of administrator Deloitte will be to divest the Woolworth's carcass of it's prime cuts, selling off the portfolio of prime high street retail space to secure as much cash for the creditors and shareholders as possible. The last thing on their agenda will be the welfare of the 30,000 staff. This makes those stores the key in resisting the assault on these people's livelihoods.

Sit-ins have proven their worth time and again as a powerful tool of resistance providing a rallying point for wider discontent. The Woolworth's staff have the opportunity to occupy their stores, refusing to leave unless the workers of every store are guaranteed work by the buyers. This would deny the supermarket giants who have cost them their jobs the luxury of picking and choosing the most lucrative leases, while leaving many redundant.

Furthermore by using these spaces to organise solidarity christmas parties, open to those at the sharp end of the recession, they could challenge the logic of the 'age of austerity'. Rather than accepting the idea that workers must bear the cost of the ruling elite's crisis and compete to be the most frugal, they could pinch a few turkeys and mince pies from Tesco, barricade the doors and start creating a festival of resistance.
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The Trouble With Woolworth's pt.3

In Yesterday's post we looked at how the big supermarket chains, which have driven Woolworth's out of business, now have little room to grow within their existing model of large-out-of town stores and price-wars.

The supermarkets are however still compelled by the logic of capitalism to compete for an ever greater share of the market. To this end they must seek out new ways to grab customers from their rivals. One way of doing this is to make it easier for consumers to shop at their stores than to visit a competitors. For example, if you were to regularly pass a supermarket on your journey home from work you might be more inclined to shop there than make an extra journey to a rival supermarket's out-of-town store. This is the logic that is driving the expansion of supermarket chains into the convenience store market. Tesco and Sainsbury's have already made inroads with Asda now trying to make sure it does not miss the boat.

If we look again at those empty Woolworth's stores we can now see where they fit into the supermarket giants' plans. While town centres may attract less shoppers than they used to, they are still locations where people live and go to work, many others travel through them, as train and bus stations are invariably found there. As the recession bites it will become common sense for people to incorporate their shopping into their everyday journeys instead of spending extra money on travelling to the supermarket. The Woolworth's properties provide a perfect opportunity for the supermarkets to launch an assault on their rivals by securing town-centre presences in areas where their competitors dominate with their out-of-town stores.

This then, leaves the Woolworth's staff with an uncertain future. While some may get jobs where new convenience stores open, this will only happen where it benefits the strategic position of the supermarket chains. Those that do find new work in this way will find that it is on the terms of some of the most notoriously anti-union employers in the UK. Others will be left to join the rapidly growing queues for jobseekers allowance at a time when there are no jobs to be sought.

To make matters worse the Labour government, backed by cowardly trade union leaders, is launching vile attacks on the welfare state. A welfare system largely won by union organised sit-ins in an age when union leaders understood that it was necessary to challenge the rule of law in order to win victories for the workers they are intended to serve.

Tomorrow: How the Woolworth's staff can fight back...
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The Trouble With Woolworth's pt.2

With Woolworth's now defunct and a raft of other high street retailers on the ropes, what could possibly make the high flying supermarket chains, raking in bumper profits from their out-of-town superstores want to get involved in town centre retail? Wouldn't they be better to stick to their winning formula.

Yesterday I explained how the large scale expansion of the chains allowed them to drive down prices and corner the market. This relied on building new superstores all over the UK and in order to remain competitive all the chains had to engage in this mass expansion of infrastructure. The result of standing still would have been to share in Woolworth's fate. However as more and more stores were built the returns on this large scale investment became diminished as rival stores opened in close proximity to one another dividing the customer base between them. As a result of this saturation the price wars between the big supermarkets became ever more important in the battle for customers and profits. It is no coincidence that advertising for the major chains now focuses so intently upon price comparisons with their competitors.

The escalation of the price war has led to the supermarkets squeezing their suppliers to breaking point. In last Sunday's Observer it was reported that, "fears that scores of supermarket suppliers will go bust next year have led the country's major chains to draw up emergency plans to replace them". Clearly it is not in the interest of a supermarket chain to bankrupt it's own suppliers, so the war to drive down prices has reached its conclusion; the products simply cannot be made any more cheaply.

So where now for the supermarket chains? They can no longer build their way to new profits, and they can no longer undercut their rivals for a bigger share of the market. How then can they provide the ever greater riches that their shareholders demand? Well that of course is where those empty Woolworth's stores come into play...

Tomorrow: Tesco, Tesco everywhere.
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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Trouble With Woolworth's

So after 99 years of trading Woolworth's is going out of business. Some 30,000 staff are to lose their jobs with little hope of finding alternative employment. Yet while these people worry about their futures some are greedily eying up the cut-price pic'n'mix.

Not the hordes of eager shoppers who, worried about their own finances, are looking to get their hands on some cheap chocolates for christmas, but the vultures of big capital who are keen to secure the portfolio of prime retail properties at bargain basement prices. The key players in the scramble for these sites are Asda and Tesco.

While many of the reports regarding the demise of Woolworth's have described it as a 'retail giant' this is misleading. The combined workforce of Asda and Tesco numbers 410,000 with Tesco having the greater share. With a UK workforce of 29million these two companies alone control over1.4% of the total. In comparison those losing out in the Woolworth's closure make up only 0.1%, not insignificant but it is clear who are the real giants here.

So why are these supermarket giants so eager to get into the high street after years of drawing shoppers away from town centres to their warehouse style superstores? Does the collapse of Woolworth's not herald the final triumph of their out-of-town business model and consign the idea of town centre retailing to the history books?

The answer is both yes and no. While the demise of Woolworth's is without doubt a direct result of the growth of the large supermarkets and the diversification of their product ranges which placed them in direct competition, it is the growth facilitated by the out-of-town model that is key, not the location of the stores themselves. The huge expansion evidenced by the swathes of new supermarkets built throughout the country gave Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's, et al unprecedented buying power which they exploited to pressure their suppliers and drive down prices in a competition for customers. This left Woolworth's, a traditional 'pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap' retailer hopelessly outclassed.

If the staff of Woolworth's are looking for a culprit the prime candidates must surely be the supermarket shareholders and the government who were complicit in allowing them to run roughshod over the UK retail landscape.

Tomorrow: Why the giants want to return to the high street.
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Monday, 15 December 2008

Tim Burton, a tool of oppression?

With a string of hits stretching from Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands to Sweeney Todd, Timothy William Burton has been lauded as Hollywood's great 'outsider' for two decades. His fanbase has coalesced around emotional identification with the 'misunderstood genius' characters and themes of social exclusion that permeate his body of work; indeed a common explanation of the popularity of Burton's work might be that it offers hope to those who feel misunderstood that they can overcome their 'intrinsic' social awkwardness.

This however disguises the reality that Burton is a de facto facsimile of the shadowy oppressive forces which frame the transcendental journeys of the privileged individuals around which his films are constructed.

Rather than acting as an emancipatory catalyst that encourages the disaffected to challenge the social norms which sidelined them in the first place, Burton's body of work offers a Dickensian sop to their misery. By celebrating the 'outsider' he legitimises the flaws of a capitalist society that marginalises those who do not serve it's agenda of profit at any cost. Burton's 'outsider heroes' can perversely only exist as part of a system which perpetuates the creation of 'outsiders'. The effect then of these films is to encourage the emergence of an 'outcast' sub-culture whereby people can only indulge their newly discovered sense of heroic uniqueness by going down to Blockbuster and renting the latest patronising dollop of schmaltz served up by Herr Burton.

Luckily for Tim this helps him fund his own continuing transcendental outsider narrative. This began with his misunderstood animator phase when the folks over at Disney told him they didn't like his drawings for The Fox and the Hound. Happily Tim overcame this tragic difference of opinion to wind up as an extremely wealthy film-director living in the home of former British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith with his girlfriend, Asquith's great-granddaughter, Helena-Bonham Carter.

I somewhat doubt the likelihood of Burton's fans following in his footsteps, however 'empowered' they might feel after a tenth viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas. After all there are only so many ex-prime minister's residences to go round.
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