Thursday, 4 November 2010

Turn Back Time- The High Street: Retail was never tougher than this & Spooks

Now we know what Greg Wallace was doing that one time he skived off Masterchef. He was attending Market day in Shepton Mallet. BBC's long anticipated, at least by me, Turn Back Time- The High Street, kicked off with the Victorian era. Greg Wallace greengrocer and foody, Juliet Gardiner social historian and Tom Herbert baker and food historian with High Street experience, form the "Chamber of Commerce" charged with guiding the participating families through the various eras that will take us all the way through to the era I was born in, the swingeing 60's. I love the concept of this programme, it does for retail what Victorian Farm did for agriculture.

In this series we follow a grocer  a baker, a butcher, and a candlestick maker ( ironmonger ), who must try to attract modern shoppers back to the town market square with old fashioned goods and services. As we'll see, some things never go out of style and others are a bit of a stretch for the modern sensitive Briton. With a combination of advertising, guile and  judicious use of ingredients, these families must try to make a profit by the end of the week. At the end of each week they have a Market Day when they have a last chance to sell off any perishable goods that hadn't moved during the week. Will the people of Shepton Mallet warm to the return of the weekly market or will they continue going out of the way to a big box store? The results will surprise you.

Whatever conceptions you may have had about Victorian retail, romantic or otherwise, they are shattered into a million pieces. While Larkrise to Candleford paints a pretty picture of happy merchants being nice to punters, never dreaming of thinning out quality material for a bit of profit, High Street pulls back the veil to reveal the truth of early High street commerce.  There is a reason we have standards and practices and quality control regulated by government, the imperative to make a profit and avoid the workhouse was enough for many merchants to skip on hygiene, proper ingredients, add poisons or useless fillers like sawdust, plaster of paris,  clay or poisonous alum and be economical with the truth. Oh wasn't it grand when the government stayed out of our business?  Well actually no. People died, got ill, workers lived even rougher than the poor merchants did and clients were generally ripped off.

What was interesting to note in episode one was the modern families taking up the trades, were already modern day practitioners. What they took for granted as normal and they considered as standard for the industry was turned on it's head. Seems that years of state intervention, sociological change in the family unit as well as commercial law, has moved commerce from furtive struggle to get as much for as little possible off un demanding clients to the current high standards and inspections that insure that even the tattiest shop today is still safer for even least careful shopper.

 What hasn't changed is the hard graft required to get raw materials turned into product in the shop window. To the last man woman and child involved, they were early to rise and late to bed. Merchants often shared a single large room over the shop. Working conditions were tougher than now, at least in part down to the fact they had to do everything by hand, had no labour saving devices and water had to be taken from the one pump in the town square. Refrigeration was a nightmare for the butcher if the twice weekly ice delivery wasn't on time, but did serve to inspire butchers to come up with novel quick ways to sell off stock. These included Pease pudding, sausages and pork pies. For the Baker it meant creating demand for product that wasn't always of the best quality or was on the point of becoming too hard to eat. Had they had enough time, I'm sure our bakers would have discovered bread crumbs. Our Ironmonger realized quickly he'd need an apprentice if he was to keep up with orders and sell goods from the shop, and the grocer fell back on home delivery, to insure people got in and out of the shop quickly and still felt they had been served.

So what sacrifices were made this Victorian week. The funniest had to be the Baking family, when the mum who is the master baker in 2010 had to stand back and let her husband take over duties. She found it hard to hold back and he found it hard to take advice. His first batch of 25 horribly burned, salty,  and under baked loaves was a complete disaster that cost them money and taught them the need to understand the materials at hand. With help they learned to add filler to the bread, which in this case was rice, not a bad thing, but could have been much worse. Alum, sawdust and far worse was put into bread to manage expensive flour. Baker Steven Oxford showed how authentic Victorian bread was made and uttered the phrase" Have you ever licked wallpaper before?" to describe the experience of eating it. Dry heavy and nasty, it's no wonder Victorian Farm Ruth Goodman was keen to make her own bread, which of course is what farm wives did in fact do. Later on they moved into 1870 and new lighter easier to use flour, producing a tastier and easier to make bread.

Our grocer and his family was struck by the lack of goods we assume should be a staple of any such shop, mayonnaise, fresh fruit and crisps. The rest all had to be made, wrapped and delivered to customers by cart. Eggs, butter, cheese, jams and veg were seasonal and had none off the preservatives that lurk in our food now. Perhaps the greatest adjustment was for the butcher, who had to re introduce the art of entertaining punters while making sausages and cutting meat. There's a reason why good food retailers until recently were such great showmen. You needed to to do everything you could to get customers to YOUR shop. The best stunt was the giant cheese, a massive round of cheddar brought in special for market day. It was the star of the show and was advertised with sandwich board and loudspeaker! the worst thing to happen wasn't the burned bread, but the burned pork pies left alone in the baker's oven while ALL the men were down the pub. On reflection, you had to see this coming, but I suspect no self respecting butcher would have left his pies untended like that back in the day.

The biggest challenge in this programme easily had to got to the ironmonger. He had the doubly hard job of selling what he himself called  "a pile of useless old tat". Today we would call him the hardware store and buy a variety of goods like lamps, tools and fencing material. Just how was he going to make any money at all? Turns out it was one of the most profitable enterprises in the experiment. He first spend a great deal of time catering to the needs of the High Street merchants then on market day , he sold an incredible amount of candles and candle holders. As for the useless old tat, lots of it went as well.

Quality over reputation was the balance and choice that had to be made by our families, see for yourself how well they did, but all in all I would say they came out well and the people of Shepton Mallet came to appreciate the experience. The biggest joy among shoppers over the age of 10 seemed to be the discovery that they enjoyed market day, not least because they could talk to friends and take it easy an experience you can still have in any ethnic neighbourhood you visit. It's the modern rushed suburban consumer of today that has forgotten the joy of what it meant to shop on a high street. What really struck me was the finickiness of the  ill informed people who turned their noses up at bread with lard in, or were put off by the sight of cured meats hanging outside the shop. One little girl made a remark about how that was why she wanted to be a vegetarian. Well honey, even veg was dirty once, and just what DID YOU think goes into your food? The direct connection between source and finished product was on display in the High Street for all to see. I grew up in this and to this day do not feel offended by the sight of lung or pig's trotters, nor do I find it an alien concept to include animal fat in my baked goods.  Modern folk are cut off from their food and  have sanitized their lives and eating habits to such an extent that the Briton of 1870 would not recognize them as English. For more information on the programme, click here.

Spooks fans, it's down to one last ep before the current series ends. Sad news ladies, seems Lucas North is not who seems to be, in fact he's not even Lucas North. Will he redeem himself? will he save the world yet again? Will he die in the attempt to pay for his sins?  Yes , yes and most probably! Harry Pierce and his agents are lured into a chase for the real killers who planted a bomb in the British embassy 15 years ago. Vaughan tries to sell Harry Pierce the information with Lucas in full view. What secrets is Lucas North hiding, what is the awful truth he so wants to avoid getting out? If you watched, you know, If you didn't,I'm not telling you, but it was cracking good fun. The quality of the writing this series has been head and shoulders above last year's and I liked that series as well, despite it's low ratings. What has happened this year is simply that the characters are that much more compelling and from the first ep, it was obvious Lucas was going to be in trouble.

What a rotter you say, a scoundrel and a bounder and a cad. But I suspect we'll be seeing the sort of end you give to tragic heroes in stories of old. That great speech in which he comes clean, the moment he betrays the bad guys and put's pay to the Chinese plot to do something nasty capped by his ultimate sacrifice in a heroic bid to save his mates, or even his cold killing at the end by a vengeful Vaughan, a ticked off spy, or an inconsolable Maya. Any way it goes, it's sure to be a heartbreaking bit of telly.

Ruth's story is also picking up pace and leading to something dreadful, I doubt she'll be killed, but clearly there is going to be a heavy price paid for her current emotional tumult. We know she will be deeply involved next week in the denouement  of the Lucas story line, just how it will play out will determine how many funerals we'll be watching in the last 5 minutes and just what cliff hanger they leave us on

Dear readers, I accidentally switched over to ITV2 during "The only way is Essex". After about 5 minutes I turned it off fearing for my sanity should I watch it any longer. These people vote? They are allowed to carry on reproducing and living among us?  Lord help us if any of these glakes gets near a position of responsibility, but no how could a bunch of vacuous, spray tanned, Visigoths get anywhere near power?  Shhh don't tell me I know, the PM is one of them isn't he?

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