Thursday, 31 January 2008

Trend spotting

To a journalist, a one-off event is an exceptional, anomalous moment. However, two such occurrences make an emerging trend.

So I was greatly interested to hear that my mother has also decided to give up supermarkets, and to try to rely solely on her local shops.

She does not live in Brockley, but in Isleworth, a south-west London suburb.

It was the arrival of a new fish shop in a nearby small-scale high street that triggered her Damascene conversion.

And at the moment she says she's doing well, feeling good about putting her money where her mouth is, as well as saving a little money.

"I went in and bought some mackerel the other day and it lasted for three or so meals," she says. "I hope that by shopping locally I'll not only be able to support local ventures but also save some money."

It's not without its other costs though.

"I know that people complain about going to the supermarket, but I do miss it a bit. The whole ritual of getting into the car, parking up and then choosing everything at once, there was something quite enjoyable about the whole thing."

She is – probably to her credit – less dogmatic than me, in that she will go to supermarkets if necessary. I, on the other hand, have not been to one for some three weeks now, and will not enter one again for as long as this experiment lasts.

It is a curious coincidence that we both chose to give up supermarkets at the same time. Obviously we share a cultural background, and so look at the world in much the same way, and that explains some of the coincidence.

However, I can't help but wonder whether this is part of something bigger, a wider reaction against fast-food culture, anonymous retailing and agro-business.

There is also the looming economic downturn. While the severity of this is unknown, the alarmist headlines in our newspapers will be focusing many peoples' attention on their spending habits, particularly coming just after Christmas. As a result, a new era of earnest engagement with the locality may be emerging.

It's possible. But it may just be me and my mum!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Hidden talent

Councillors do not have a particularly good reputation for changing the world.

It is difficult to remember reading any mainstream media discussing their work, unless it is conjunction with some sleazy scandal, often involving planning.

So their invisibility is a problem. People do not know what they do, how they do it or why they are there. And maybe sometimes the councillors get confused also, explaining why Private Eye can fill a page or more each edition with tales of dubious practice amongst councillors.

Local government is, I'm afraid, almost terminally unfashionable. When I studied British politics the local bit was always the dullest, the part that seemed most worthy, and so least interesting.

Radicalism tends towards the grandiose. I often see people reading Noam Chomsky's striking re-interpretations of world history on the train; rarely do I spy works written by leading localists such as Gerry Stoker.

I have only ever written to a councillor once. And that was last week (as recorded below).

I received a very positive response, I am glad to say. Councillor Sue Luxton, the lucky recipient of my email, sent me an informative response, as well as a message of good luck and a link to here from her blog. Can't say better than that!

In answer to my question, she said confirmed that objections to planning applications have to be specific and that it is worth checking here for more detail. She also notes that the grounds for objecting to an advertising board – the issue at hand – are more limited than for other applications (presumably because of their temporary nature?).

Finally, she noted that my local councillor is called Dean Walton, who is also a member of the Green Party and another blogger. He's my next port of call.

Dean's blog suggests that he has a say in some of the borough's planning decisions, so that is interesting to know. He might have something to say about the badly cut-down tree that so vexed me earlier in the week.

Again it is good to see the internet being used in such a positive way in the locality. All councillors should work to make their work more transparent, and I thoroughly support those that are taking even small steps towards doing so.

Two wheels good

I read about a survey that said cyclists were more community-minded than other groups in society. I do not know if it is true, but I can see why it might be so.

On a bike you get a sense of place that you do not have in a car. And unlike walking or running, you maintain a slightly separateness from your surroundings, and can travel longer distances.

Tonight I cycled east from the City. Through Wapping, Poplar, into Canning Town and then Beckton, before heading back around the docks to Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich, Deptford and New Cross.

Some people might describe Brockley, where I live now, as quite rough, but there are places I saw tonight that are much tougher, with large areas of deprivation.

The bike I ride around town is a single-speed track bike designed for a velodrome. In the summer I’ll be racing it again, but for the winter I have added brakes to it and have found a good gear that seems to work wherever I go.

It will just about get me up the short, steep hill that I have to climb from Deptford to Blackheath, though with some effort. But in exchange for that occasional extra work I have a fantastically light bike, stripped of cumbersome gears and weighty and unnecessary equipment.

I am certainly not the first to enjoy the freedom riding a single-speed bike allows. If you look for them, you’ll see many couriers and commuters also go without gears. So popular has riding single-speed bikes become, that it has spawned a variety of sub-cultures, offering the fashion-conscious cyclist a range of identities to decide between.

(Try a read of the fabulous NYC Bike Snob for a feel of the scene. London’s scenesters are a bit punkier, if the Hackney-types I’ve seen around are anything to go by. That said, there are some art boys into track bikes too, and they like their bikes absolutely perfect, and pink or yellow, or both.)

Deeply unfashionable it may be, but the core of my bike riding is the commute into town. And for this, both Brockley and the bike are pretty perfect. It’s a flat ride (if you skirt around Telegraph Hill) and just far enough – around five miles to St Pauls – to get a good ride in, but not too far as to tire yourself out too much before work.

In February, it will be exactly five years since I began cycling to work. Over those five years the freedom from the dreaded commute – which I did for the previous five – has allowed me to enjoy London so much more.

Not only does the bike provide a wonderful way of travelling to work, it locks me into the city that I live, as well as giving me the freedom to escape it. Not only that, but I have met many wonderful people through clubs, racing and other shared experiences.

Without the bike I wonder if I would stay in London at all.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The M&S test

If spending money locally is a virtue, then yesterday I was good.

The total amount I spent in Brockley shops was £21.64, split between three different food shops.

Yesterday evening I set Brockley’s shops the ‘M&S Test’, a crucial method to extricate well-off people’s money. I’ll explain what I mean.

There is an M&S store at London Bridge station, which sells tired commuters packaged evening meals. Either they are completely packaged, with one range of these labelled ‘gastropub’, or they are key meat cuts so that you need only add vegetables, which either the customer has at home or can buy at M&S.

For this form of convenience – the convenience of eating quickly, well and not getting a takeaway – M&S is able to charge high prices. Good cuts of meat or quality fish can easily cost more than £5, and I spent £7 on a pair of individual meat pies the other week.

This may sound expensive, but the total cost of that meal was substantially less than if I had ordered out for a take-away, or gone out for a meal.

But back to the test, of finding a premium, easy-to-cook meal locally, plus good-quality alcohol, without reverting to a supermarket or a take-away.

The alcohol part was easy. I got off the train at Crofton Park and went to Mr Lawrence's (review to follow) and bought a selection of real ales (the wine selection is even better, but again I was on a beer mission). Without wishing to pre-empt the review, if local shops are to be supported, then shops like Mr Lawrence's are the type that we should go to – quality products, good service and competitive prices.

Because it was late (7pm) I had more doubts about the food part but tried out Dandelion Blue. It worked out, and I bought some nice cheese, pasta and some sauce. M&S test passed. But only just, with some worries beforehand that the meal I was to cook would end up being newsagent cheese and that meal-equivalent stuff out of a tin.

This is one problem with local shops – unless you know them, and know their stock, then they can seem very off-putting. When I was in Dandelion Blue someone came up to the door, looking rather frightened, clearly not knowing if he should come in. Eventually he did come in, and ended up buying some ice cream.

But I recognised that man's doubt - I am yet to go into Dandelion Blue's near competitor Degustation for lack of knowing why I would want to go there. That said, I am an active local now, so must pluck up the courage.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Highly objectionable

I am lucky enough to live in a road lined with large trees. On both sides of road, there are trees in the front gardens. There is one in mine.

However, these trees are not an unalloyed good. They block the light into people's houses, as well as potentially undermining foundations.

But in the conservation area that I live in, you need planning permission to substantially alter trees.

Petty this may sound, but when one of my neighbours cut all the branches from a tree near my house it was clear why trees are seen as part of the area's character.

Curiously, after the tree was cut, a planning permission noticed appeared on the tree, backdated, informing that any attempt to alter the tree was against the law.

This made me – for the first time – investigate how you would find out about local planning decisions, and how you could try to object to them.

Pleasantly, I was able to find them on my local council's website, and I can even do a search using my road name.

Now, I see that local councillor Sue Luxton wants to deny planning permission for an advertising hoarding on Brockley Road. I have – for the first time – written an objection to the council (by email, nice and easy), and sent Sue an email asking if she has any tips for a successful objection letter.

I'll be interested to read her response.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Trawling for beer

It's 9pm and I needed some beer. Not normal beer, but interesting beer, local beer. Real ales, Kentish if possible.

There's two options, buy some in or go to the pub. I tried both.

So, where to buy real ale from a shop? The first idea was Mr Lawrence's wine place down in Crofton Park. It's about a mile away, so I jumped in the car. But it was closed.

There are a number of convenience stores in Crofton Park, as well as a Co-op, but I didn't know what they sold, so I drove on to likely target number 2: Degustation, the wine-selling deli near the station. Closed again!

That's one problem with many local places – they are open not at your convenience, but at the owners' convenience.

So I went to Mira Off Licence, on the parade of shops opposite the Barge. He had some ales! Brilliant. He had five or six different types of real ale, plus a good range of unusual lagers.

The guy on the till seemed genuinely pleased about my purchase, saying that the Ruddles Ale was particularly good.

But just as this life-enhancing local experience was getting going a teenage boy came in and came right into my private space, and asked me, with an implicit threat, to 'lend' him some money to buy his Rizlas! Is this the 'tax' that comes when you go local?

Maybe it is simply the product of the real-life exchanges – nasty and nice – that come with direct encounters with real people, rather than the avoidance that comes at the supermarkets. (Though I have had similar encounters at the New Cross Gate Sainsbury's, where local homeless people beg for the pound coin you put in your trolley.)

Next step was to check out the Wickham Arms, the pub on Upper Brockley Road. Despite it being only a few yards away from my house, I have only been to it twice in the three years I've lived there. So girlfriend and I went in on a mission to check out the local.

It was a Monday night, so a quiet one. A few blokes standing or sitting, we sat at the bar drinking our London Pride. The ale was good. After a while a bloke comes up to us and asks what we'd like to hear on the jukebox – sweet! He had paid for some credits, and was offering us a go. How welcoming can you get?

So, real ale mission accomplished. Have found a local place selling bottles of ale, and found my local pub also serves up a good pint. I also was reminded that with small, local places you do not know when they'll be open or what they will sell, until you go there.

The encounters with people along the way were interesting, both for good and bad. I was reminded that Brockley's still a tough place at times, and you have to prepared to stand up for yourself, but also it is a nicer place then I had sometimes imagined, where total strangers do you a favour for no cost or advantage.

Monday, 14 January 2008

First things first

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to write, while at other moments it is obvious. And at those times when things just seem to come together, and everything points the same way, it is usually best to give in to the inevitable and get on and write some words down.

And it was a series of such moments that brought me to start this blog.

The first was that after living in London for almost all my life the last year has seen my experience of the city change.

Suddenly, the things that I did, the places that I went and the people that I knew became increasingly local.

Instead of the city centre sports club I sporadically went to, I joined a local bike club, and started racing at a nearby velodrome. My social life changed also, with visits to other parts of London becoming less regular as I found friends with people in my locality and arranged evenings out within walking distance of where I lived.

And it was this context that two further things occurred, and these together spurred me to put pen to paper. The first of these was a book called Tescopoly.

Tescopoly was written by Andrew Simms, a policy director at a left-leaning thinktank called New Economics Foundation. He is also a board member of campaigning group Greenpeace. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, he is no great fan of Tesco.

And it is not just Tesco that Simms does not like, it is the entire system that Tesco represents, a form of big-business capitalism that he accuses of squeezing out the small and only rewarding remote and uncaring multinational corporates.

But writing a list – however long – of bad things does not an analysis make. Modern capitalism is more than simply a system designed by bad people to do evil things, as Simms repeatedly suggests, and understanding how our high streets have changed in recent years needs an explanation more complex than portraying supermarkets as scheming bad guys out to exploit the innocent consumer.

But despite my annoyance at Tescopoly’s dreary and unbalanced analysis, the book touched on a number of issues that did have some resonance.

While it might not have been the product of some evil scheme, our high streets have withered away, often being replaced by out-of-town shopping districts, which we travel to miserably along clogged roads. And because our visits to the high street and local shops have grown increasingly rare, we see less of the people that live near us than previous generations, making our communities feel less communal and a lot more threatening.

And I had this in mind when I happened across a rather wonderful thing. A blog that was all about my home town, Brockley. As I read through the posts, I felt so pleased that so many people were lavishing attention on the small part of the world that I lived in.

And this excitement was heightened because the Brockley blog isn’t just local, it is micro local. I knew the shops and restaurants reviewed, I had visited many of the shops listed, and the local issues discussed were often the same street-level concerns as those that I cared about.

Curiously, the internet, which is often thought of as a remote, unpersonal, globalised space, was drawing people from neighbouring streets together. The global was going local, and it was time for me to join in.

And so Going Local, the blog, will track my little adventure in localism, and look into the issues that are raised along the way.

It will initially look at some of the issues raised by Tescopoly. These are concerns not limited to where we shop and what we buy, but of the character of our towns and cities, where and how we work and the nature of our society as a whole.

Is Tescopoly right to claim that supermarkets have hollowed out our communities? Is it still possible to eat well at a good price and in a way that supports the community? And if our communities have been damaged is it possible to fix things? If so, how? And what would such a locality look like? And on the biggest scale, is it possible to be local in these globalised times?

I do not know the answers to these difficult questions. To my shame, I do not even know what the local shops sell. So that is my first task.