Welwyn Hatfield Guy

Existential angst from semi rural Hertfordshire

What not to eat – part one.

As food increasingly becomes a global commodity a whole host of new ethical and political problems attach themselves to it.  Think of it perhaps as another set of ingredients which should be printed on the packaging but usually isn’t.  That’s because if we really knew about the origins of everything presented to us at the Supermarket we’d steer well clear of quite a lot of it. These cathedrals of choice on our doorsteps often have a lot to answer for on this front.

Palm oil is a great example. I’d never heard of it until environmental pressure groups began telling us how much rainforest was being destroyed and replaced with a monoculture of palms to produce this cheap oil.  To read a bit more about the damage it does to already endangered species and threatened habitats have a look at this article from the independent.

Palm oil

The jar above is available a Supermarket near you, and it will probably be the cheapest oil on the shelf, which is probably why its also present in a huge amount of processed foods.  Tons of the stuff is sitting on the shelves of ASDA, Sainsbury and the like waiting to be bought right now. Apparently the vast majority of it is not classified as from sustainable sources.

Finally, if that doesn’t put you off, have  a look at this powerful short clip from Greenpeace.  I’ve been lucky enough to see Orang-utans in the wilds of Indonesia, and the amazing rainforest habitat they live in. It really saddens me that all this can be put at risk of extinction, just so we can buy cheap (and unhealthy) cooking oil and processed foods.

Have a break? from Greenpeace UK on Vimeo.

If you want to see how deforestation is changing the face places like Sumatra Indonesia, have a look at this picture. It was probably taken a couple of years back so the situation will be a lot worse by now!

We can all do our bit by avoiding anything containing  this oil, at least until it can be guaranteed that it is from sustainable sources. Our Supermarkets once again put profit before responsibility.

Malcolm McLaren’s counter-cultural legacy

Uniform and attitude designed by Malcolm McClaren

Uniform and attitude designed by Malcolm McLaren

Much has been written about the life of Malcolm McLaren this week, who died this week age 64. The obit’s I’ve read mostly talk about how he was a self-obsessed publicity seeker, who mopped up credit for things wherever he could.

Whilst that may be true in part, he did make a huge contribution to popular culture, or counter culture to be more precise. Perhaps a bit like Brian Epstein and the Beatles he read the mood of youth in the country at a specific time and created a product he knew they would buy.  I’m reminded of the lyrics of Morrisey in the song Panic: ” Hang the blessed DJ, because the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life”.  People like music they can relate to, 70′s glam-rock and disco didn’t fulfil that need, that was escapism. Punk was reality for young people, as  Sham 69, another punk band sung in 1978: ‘If kids are united, then we’ll never be divided’. McLaren’s punk movement swept away all the superficial poppy pop and ‘I wanna boogey wit cha baby’ that had gone before.

Britain of the late 70′s was not a place of optimism, the hope and ambition of the hippy generation 10 years before had largely evaporated.  Social mobility was lacking and class still mattered. This was probably when the term ‘disaffected youth’ first came into popular use. As an art school student in north west London McLaren must have seen what was going on around him and invented a new way for young people to express their dissatisfaction with the way that their own country had seemingly failed them. He tapped into the ‘blank generation’ and showed them how to rebel, how to shock, how to challenge the establishment. These were not new forms of protest, to a lesser degree Elvis and the Beatles had done similar. But McLaren took it to a whole new level.

He’d seen what was going on in New York and re-packaged it for London.  Working class kids everywhere could adopt the look, safety pins, hair gel and dye,  piercings and ripped clothes could be created and individualised. He gave youth a new identity, one which absorbed their anger and frustration. It was no holds barred! I still find it amazing that in Silver Jubilee year (1977) his creation topped the music charts with ‘God save the Queen’, an anthemic song which proclaimed:

God save the Queen
she ain’t no human being.
There is no future
in England’s dreaming

Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need.
There’s no future
there’s no future
there’s no future for you

At this point in time to criticise royalty was practically a sin. In buying this record the youth could really upset the establishment, this was headline news. McLaren had really shaken things up, corrupting the national anthem was a serious no-no. You could argue that this was the beginning of the end of unfailing deferential treatment of the royal family. The head of state was no longer beyond reproach. It’s widely rumoured that the song easily outsold every other, but the national BBC music chart mysteriously only put it as the number two best seller.  The record was also banned from the airwaves,  McLaren’s timing was perfect,  the song peaked in June 1977, the month of nationwide Jubilee street parties and celebrations.  It was clear to many that the state had intervened; to stop the Sex Pistols humiliating the Queen, and to stop this national mood of unrest from escalating.  What a triumph for McLaren’s creation!

McLaren moved on and left punk to find it’s own way. The picture above shows what a lasting legacy the movement had, from China to Australia to Camden Lock, punks wearing the same uniform, bearing the same rebellious snarl, can be seen adorning shopping centre’s and high streets. I remember a radio interview not long ago where McLaren said he laughed when he saw punks today. He claimed he created the look 30 years ago and it was supposed to be just another seasons fashion statement, the fact that people still followed it made him laugh, it was so out-dated nowadays.

McLaren later became the first person to introduce scratching and sampling to the UK music scene. I remember buying ‘Buffalo Gals’ in 1983 and listening in awe at this wizardry of mixing two different record together and adding new words from somewhere else. Along with a few American tracks this was the birth of electronic dance music, rap, hip-hop, call it what you will. Buffalo Gals remains one of the most sampled songs of all time, a landmark recording.

So Malcolm McLaren, for all his apparent faults contributed a huge amount to popular culture, even though much of it was very unpopular to those over 25.  I often wondered what he would  make of hearing God Save the Queen being played today as background music in places like McDonalds and supermarkets.  I’ve heard it whilst shopping  and it makes me smile, it must have had him in stitches. The counter culture he helped invent is now embraced by major corporate companies because the punks of 1977 are now respectable, home owning, ABC1′s, and big business wants their money. The irony of it!

If only Simon Cowell had the balls of McLaren, how much more original, challenging and creative mass youth culture would be today.

Work less, enjoy more.

Naughty but nice!

Naughty but nice!

This Easter most of the big supermarkets are open everyday bar Sunday.  The nearest Tesco is even open 24hrs a day most days.

Good news for Supermarket shoppers but less good news for staff, judging by the comments I’ve heard them utter when perusing the aisles. So much for family values and the work life balance, things that the PR departments of the major supermarkets would have us believe are important to them. As we know profits trump all.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a debate in in the House of Commons. It was a discussion about whether it is feasible for people to work fewer hours a week, and how that could be achieved. It was hosted by a London MP and organised by the ‘Think and do tank’ the New Economics Foundation.  The debate was based around a new report from NEF called ’21 hours Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st Century’. Read it here.

I think the following extract succinctly defines what’s broken in our current economic model:

Highly competitive, rich consumer economies promise satisfaction for all but actually tend to deliver the opposite. Those who can afford to participate are never truly satisfied, however much they consume. That’s because the system is designed to promote dissatisfaction precisely to keep us all spending to boost and justify continuing growth. Meanwhile, those who cannot afford to take part are excluded socially and economically. Overall the model drives environmentally destructive materialism. Continuing growth in high-income countries cannot be ‘decoupled’ from carbon emissions sufficiently and in time to avoid catastrophic damage to the environment.

The utopian dream of doing little work and a lot of socialising, as depicted in many science fiction works of the 20th Century shows no sign of ever coming true, more like the opposite. We now work longer hours than in the past, particularly in the UK were employee rights have been eroded to favour employers. For example many shop workers earn little more than minimum wage, and while they can’t be forced to work Sundays, they can be asked at their job interview whether they will do so. If they say no,  I’m  sure we can guess the consequences.

Going back the quote above, our economy depends on perpetual growth. Staying the same is not an option. Business needs to produce more to thrive, which means they spend fortunes on convincing us all we need to buy more. We are tricked into believing that buying more and more stuff is the path to a lifetime of happiness. The evidence is mounting that the opposite is true, but if you’re a millionaire  director of a Supermarket you’ll not want to hear that. I once read a book with the tag line “Much of what we cherish is dross”, how true that is. But it’s only dross because we are told what to cherish by a powerful media that has an immense impact on our cultural values. Our own free will plays less and less of a part in our decision making process. What’s more valued by society,  a £40 bottle of aftershave endorsed by a footballer, or a craggy sprawling 3oo year old Oak Tree?

Anyway, I digress! If I have to go to the shops this Easter I’ll spare a thought for those that don’t want to be there. No, not most of the shoppers, but the workers.

According to the NEF report, we could work less hours by doing more job sharing, this could reduce unemployment to near zero in fact. We could assign a bigger chunk of our week to doing the things we love, and a smaller chunk to buying the things we think we need and working in order to pay for them. What also needs to happen though is that minimum wage needs to be increased to a proper living wage which it clearly isn’t today. If it was, there would be no need for tax credits and other benefits that those in work are able to claim. The government effectively subsidises a low wage economy.

What really stops us working less and enjoying more? Inequality. The increasing chasm between rich in poor means that the poorer in society have to work harder to stand still, while the rich turn millions into billions, by convincing the poorer they need to buy more ‘stuff’ in order to mimic them, and gain status and fulfilment.  The yardstick of aspiration  only seems to be cash, cars and things ‘designer’.

I’m not a Marxist or a Communist or anything like that, but this doesn’t seem the fairest and most sustainable way for humanity to carry on. Three hundred years on from the start of the industrial revolution, where machines were invented to make life easier, we may not be working harder, but we are working just as long it seems.

I’m off to contemplate this more over Easter, whilst devouring a Cadbuy’s Creme Egg – my own version of excess!

An ode to London’s East End

Big cities can be a mixed bag. They can be centres of pollution, deprivation, and conflict. However they can also be centres of vibrancy, diversity, and opportunity. London is no exception and has examples of all of the above. Most visitors to London probably think of Oxford Street, Covent Garden or perhaps the Tate modern as symbols of London and the prosperity and creativity it has nurtured over the centuries. For me through the gritty heart of London lies in the east. Away from the well trodden tourist tracks East London just gets on with it. Areas like Mile End or Whitechapel in the east are busy hubs swarming with ordinary people working hard to make a crust.

Petticoat Lane Market today

Petticoat Lane Market today

The east was where the industrial revolution first took hold, and where millions endured poverty and ill health for the sake of a dangerous and tedious factory job, often in the ‘rag trade’. While the new rich lived opulent lives in the west, their workers endured exploitation in the east. The rich chose the west because that’s where the sun sets; the sun could not  blotted out by the smoke from a thousand East End chimney stacks. The river Thames flows from the west, so the rich got the clean water, while the east got the polluted poisonous mire the river had become once all the sewage and industrial waste has been liberally added along its meanderings. Outbreaks of water born diseases like Cholera were common in East London, regularly killing umpteen thousands. In 1853 for example 12,000 people apparently died of the disease.

Roast Chestnuts - get 'em ere!

Roast Chestnuts – get 'em ere!

The struggle and poverty endured by those in the east end for generations though has shaped it today into a different place to West London. The East also felt the wrath of the Luftwaffe during the war and much of it was reduced to rubble. Nowadays the old, and the not so old, compete for space on the narrow streets. Ubiquitous factory and warehouse units, street markets, and traditional pubs all add up to really vibrant and interesting place. Far less pretentious than the West (except perhaps parts of Shoreditch!), and far more affordable and traversable to boot. It is place of enormous contrasts.

The Ten Bells pub - always features in stories about Jack the Ripper.

The Ten Bells pub – always features in stories about Jack the Ripper.

The financial capital of Europe, the City of London looms large over the East End. For example the landmark ‘Gherkin’, a 180m office block was sold for £630 million in 2007.  Yet, in the shadow of it, and other slices of the worlds most expensive real estate, sit some of the poorest boroughs in the whole country. All this means that  City banker from Surrey, with the million pound salary, can rush past the Big Issue vendor, as he goes to off to his long lunch, paid for on expenses. While the local Big Issue vendor aspires to a job filling sandwiches or washing up, at said lunch establishment – if he ever gets that lucky break he dreams about.

The sprouting Gherkin

The sprouting Gherkin

So much for that great promise of Capitalism – a slow trickle down of wealth from the rich that will empower everyone.

Toynbee Street - the new skyline encroaches from the city

Toynbee Street – the new skyline encroaches from the city

The diversity in the east though is to me it’s key strength. Waves of migration from around the world have added their distinct flavour, today you can hear a dozen different languages spoken as you walk the streets and nobody gives it a thought. Nothing reflects this more than the food on offer, it’s all here and it’s all authentic and all affordable to most. The epitome of this is the Brick Lane indoor Sunday market, it has a food stall area with everything from Brazilian to Sri Lankan to Vietnamese to Moroccan. The restaurants of Brick Lane itself need no introduction.

A slice of Brick Lane
A slice of Brick Lane

Anyway the point of all this? Just a nod to an unsung part of London. A part of the city with a gritty, practical take on life, brought about through necessity. It may often be tarnished with the brush of being an ‘inner city area’ which it is, but it’s also a lot more. Once you try your first Salt fish and Ackee, or Dhal Sambar you’ll be back for more. But keep the secret to yourself!

Sri Lankan food from the Sunday market.

Sri Lankan food from the Sunday market.

Jamaican Curry at the market

Jamaican Curry at the market

The old contrasts the new.

The old contrasts the new.

Finally, the gherkin slides into view from Petticoat Lane, the market is about 150 years old.

Petticoat Lane and the Gherkin

Petticoat Lane and the Gherkin

Charlie Brooker’s ‘new swipe’ at TV reporting

Career grump Charlie has done it again. Hit the protruding nail on it’s rusty head. The head being the talking heads of TV news reporting. I’ve often wondered why the  formulaic and hackneyed style of much  TV news reporting  doesn’t come under fire more often.  It’s banal sequences of nodding heads and insincere men in suits looking concerned, can be seen across the world. From WXKPY in Cincinnati, to Channel Nine in Melbourne.

TV commentator Charlie Booker had it in his sights recently. The two minute clip below sums up all that is mediocre, lacklustre and tedious about many of the reports presented to us. Whatever the subject the same production techniques are wheeled out. Charlie blows the lid on all this below, I bet this clip will quickly become required viewing for Media Studies students across the land!

Every time I see a news story presented this way in future, Charlie’s assault will be lurking somewhere in the back of my mind.  Charlie is on  BBC Four, let’s hope they don’t drop him in the cutbacks announced this week.