2015: out with “new”

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To paraphrase the Electric Light Orchestra, the big wheel keeps on turning. But before 2015 winds down and 2016 rattles into view, I thought I’d reflect on the old year with a stock-take of new experiences I have notched up since January 1. This may not be a long list, as life tends to solidify into routine when you pass 40 unless it doesn’t, and fresh experiences are rarer. This also makes them more cherishable.

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For the record, these are my cultural roundups of the year, now patted into shape after a few last-minute additions, the incorrigible bean-counter that I am.

I didn’t do the year in theatre or gigs as I didn’t step foot inside a theatre in 2015, and only attended one live show, albeit a splendid one, and a new experience, so let’s start there.

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  • Classic FM Live | I have been to a classical concert before – the then-controller of Radio 2 invited me to a Prom when I was at 6 Music – and I’ve been to the Royal Albert Hall countless times, albeit usually to see rock or pop in the line of duty (Elton John, Echo & The Bunnymen, the Manics), and once, a ballet. This was my first Classic FM concert, and my first time seeing the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of their Principal Conductor Vasily Petrenko. It was their 175th anniversary year and a very special night – also, my initiation into the rites of Classic FM, my new employer, who provided a box, and sat me with a selection of Lords (who were the first peers I have ever met). I loved seeing the young pianist Ji Liu doing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, and it was fun to see James Galway playing a selection of favourites, as I had actually heard of him! I would say that the explosive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture by the RLPO was a musical highlight of 2015. (I also saw my pal Justin Moorhouse live; he was on terrific form in Edinburgh – arguably his best – but this is not the first time I have seen him so does not count as a “new” experience. If I hadn’t been working in Edinburgh, I might have seen a few more shows and chosen them less conservatively.)

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  • Saturday Night At The Movies | One thing I didn’t foresee when this year began was a new job on the near horizon. Since my tenure at 6 Music ran out in 2012, I’ve relied on the occasional Front Row nod to keep my voice on the radio, but the wireless took a back seat. When the eminent Howard Goodall announced that he would no longer be able to present Classic FM’s weekly film programme Saturday Night at the Movies (due to having a West End musical to write and oversee), I didn’t expect to be asked to audition for the gig. I leaped at the chance. And, after a couple of tryouts in late 2014, I found myself royally announced in February as a new, contracted Classic FM presenter. My first show was on March 7, and I’ve been on pretty much every Saturday thereafter, a new experience all round. I’ve been on commercial radio stations as a guest (I’ve even reviewed the papers on Nick Ferrari’s LBC breakfast show, which is in the same building as Classic, and is owned by the same media company, Global), but I’ve never presented on one, and it’s a whole new ballgame, and I feel incredibly proud to slot in between the august likes of John Suchet, Alexander Armstrong and Charlotte Green. My appreciation of classical music, and movie music, has been vastly expanded and refined over the year and the experience has given so much back. I’ve also loved discovering videogame music (which we also cover), and becoming an evangelist for it, and communicating with the listeners and movie music fans via social media. One new thing I’ve discovered is how appreciative composers are when you play their music on the radio – as, frankly, movie music doesn’t get much of a look in. I genuinely feel as if I am offering a public service.

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  • County Cork | I’ve been to Cork before, but it’s not a county I know as well as I know Galway, or Kerry, and this year’s holiday in Glengarriff was a highlight of 2015, and packed with the new! First time in Glengarriff itself, a tidy harbour town, and first time to neighbouring Bantry, a metropolis by comparison, and a surefire spot for picking up the Guardian of a morning. We also visited Garinish Island by boat, saw seals in repose and dolphins at play along the way, and drove through the pretty Bandon, where Graham Norton was raised (and which has named a river walk after its most famous son). The waterwheel in the large photo above is in Bantry.

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  • Nice people | My job, when writing, can be solitary. However, over the last few years, hosting has grown into a more significant string to my professional bow. My fourth consecutive year at the Edinburgh TV Festival, hosting Q&As and screenings both public and industry-only, was another blast, but something of a regular event for me. What’s always new about the job is the sparkling parade of people I get to meet and talk to in the name of work. I’ve upped my work-rate for UKTV this year with events for channels Watch and Dave that have been among my favourites. And among those new people I’ve met and green-roomed with have been: Ron Perlman and the cast of Hand Of God; the band Glasvegas (unexpected stars of the reality show Singing In The Rainforest); Monica Galetti of Masterchef: The Professionals; Roger Allam (pictured, with Barry Cryer, as voluble as ever, at January’s Radio Times Covers Party); Myleene Klass (also a colleague now); Charlie Simpson of Busted; Peter Kosminsky, who I interviewed as part of a BBC staff morale-boosting day in Salford, where I met DG Tony Hall for the first time too, too; the entire dramatis personae of Gogglebox as it stood after series 5 (minus Steph and Dom, who were busy), with special mention for the lovable and witty Giles and Mary, with whom I caroused at the Radio Times Festival before interviewing them in a freezing cold tent in front of an audience who doggedly refused to throw in the towel and seek warmth elsewhere; it was, naturally, a boyhood dream come true when I interviewed Harrison Ford in the flesh for Classic FM, in December – a hell of a way to end my Zelig year.

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  • Such thing as a free lunch | Sky Atlantic invited me, along with other gentlefolk of the press, to dinner at the top of the Gherkin in the City of London (a building that now stands as a paragon of architectural modesty in the gruesome shadows of the Shard and the Walkie Talkie), which was another first for 2015. I also discovered for the first time that the SD memory card in my knackered old phone sometimes erases all your photos for a laugh, never to be recovered. This pic was taken by Charlie Jordan. It was a fabulous evening, with a top view, and we were there to watch exclusive clips from The Last Panthers, which turned out to be one of the TV dramas of the year, luckily. UKTV also kindly invited me to a noisy Christmas press lunch at Mossiman’s, the “private dining club”, my first time there as well, although fine dining is not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s no point putting on airs and graces if you have tacky, framed pictures on the wall of all the celebrities who’ve privately dined there!

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That’s it for the new. It’s already old, so let’s throw it out with the neither new nor old. I’ve totted it up and I saw 140 films in 2015 that I hadn’t seen before, of which 97 were released in 2015. Nothing to trouble Mark Kermode but I pay to the go to the cinema and he doesn’t have to. And in any case, that’s quite a bit of new. I’ve also started to try and pronounce the word “new” properly, having noticed that it still comes out as the flat Northamptonian “noo” on the radio, when I prefer to to hear it exit my lips to rhyme with “phew”. Just goes to show that, even at 50, you’re not finished yet, and there’s more to do, things to improve and refine. I’ve blogged only intermittently this year, but not through want of things that enrage and engage me. May things do both once again in the new year. I am definitely getting more left wing as I get older, which I wholeheartedly welcome.

 

On a rubbish tip

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I’m not a serial restaurant user, as I rather resent how much they charge and I like cooking, but it’s nice to go out occasionally as a treat, and I have been to the large French eaterie chain Côte. They do an especially nice breakfast deal for a tenner. In fact, oddly, I went to the first ever Côte, before it was a chain. (Get me.) It now has 72 restaurants around Britain and is one of those brands that ensures that everywhere is the same. It was last year bought out by the statutory private equity firm. It is dead to me now.

If I ever use a chain restaurant and the service charge is not automatically included, I will ask the waiter if they still get the tip if I add it to my bill on my credit card and then start doing the maths. I assume they are not lying if they tell me that they do. Or at least I did. No longer. Because, thanks to an exposé in my local free newspaper, I now know that Côte, which adds the “optional” 12.5% service charge, does not pass this onto its staff. It goes straight to the company instead of being kept by workers at the restaurant where the diner dined.

The chain defended this practice in the article, saying it “allows them to pay restaurant staff an hourly rate of around £7.50-£8, above the national minimum wage of £6.50 for over 21s.” (Good luck with that in London, where the Living Wage is £9.15.) A whisleblower told the Evening Standard One that the staff are supposed to be “grateful, but most of us would prefer earning the minimum wage and take home our tips for the hard work we do.”

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The worst part of all this – and it’s probably occurring in every restaurant chain run by a fucking loveless, food-hating, bottom-line-chasing private equity firm – is that Côte staff are “told to tell customers who ask where the service charges goes that it is given out between workers.” They are being instructed to lie in order that they don’t get to keep their tips. It’s like living in Ripper Street times. I know, you can technically ask for the “optional” charge to be removed, and then put your tip, in cash, into the palm of your waiter’s hand. That’s the only way to get round it. Except that in Côte, management have got this covered. They said that waiting staff can “decide” whether to keep any cash tips left on top of the service charge or put it into a general pot to be shared with other members of staff. So the service charge doesn’t cover service.

One staff member told the Standard they were “told to hand over cash tips”. I’m sure there’s small print in the waiting staff’s contracts to cover this, otherwise it would be theft. One sympathetic politician failed to see his own joke when he told the newspaper, “This seems to be the tip of the iceberg.”

Or the tip for the iceberg lettuce. Côte’s profits rose 27% last year to £16.3 million. I bet private equity firm BC Partners went out for a nice meal at somewhere other than Côte. It’s all bullshit. Pizza Express, Strada, Zizzi and Ask Italian charge between 10% and 8% to staff to claim back their tips paid on cards, making up some flimsy excuse about having the pay for the administration of taking credit cards. Don’t take credits cards then and see how many customers you lose. Does anybody care about their staff? Of course they don’t. Staff are expendable units of labour

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t stand for it.

 

Whatever | March 2007

Whatever | Food
Why does food packaging turn us all into kids?

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As a practising asthmatic I sensibly avoid dairy products, which are, as I am always happy to report at dinner parties, mucus-forming. As a substitute that’s altogether kinder in matters bronchial, I buy oat milk – to which the correct knockabout response is: how do you milk an oat? You’d better ask the company that makes Oatly in Landskrona, Sweden. While you’re about it, ask them why they have redesigned their once-authoritative, functional cartons so that they now look as if an errant child has scribbled all over them in felt tip?

Opening my fridge, I am greeted with foreshadowed lettering reminiscent of a fourth-form pencil case declaiming, “An ode to oats”, under which folksy eulogy is a rudimentary drawing of some kernels (“Oats look good too!” it says). Next to the illustrated serving suggestion on the side of the box – Oatly over some cereals – a further squiggled message says, “Feel free to use a bigger bowl.” Because the photo of the bowl is very small! Stop it, you’re killing me.

The irony is, Oatly isn’t killing me. It’s free from added sugar, low in saturated fat and contains oat fibre. And it certainly doesn’t block my pipes with pesky mucus. A thoughtful and health-giving elixir with a grown-up function as a lactose alternative, it is nonetheless marketed at me as if I have the mental age of seven.

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There is something insidious and deeply patronising at work here. Take Innocent smoothies – and you do, with over a million of those little plastic bottles sold every week. A joyous little product (fruit drink made from real fruit, not concentrate, I’m glugging from one now) but packaged to make you feel as if you are sitting in a high chair and being spoon-fed with talk of a train going into the tunnel. Those wacky ingredients lists (“half a pressed mango, half a mashed banana, one double-decker bus”), quirky claims (“NO stabilisers, NO added sugar, NO funny business – and if we do you can tell our mums”) and ticklesome instructions (“please shake me before pouring – it helps if the cap’s on”). PLENTY of added irony.

You might argue that this matey, idiosyncratic spin helps remind us that Innocent started out as a trestle table at a rock festival and wishes nobly to retain this co-operative, back-of-a-van ethic. Innocent, named Employer of the Year by the Guardian in 2005, makes great play of ethical fruit-sourcing and giving 10 per cent of their profits to charity, so no need to “tell their mums” on that score, but let’s not kid ourselves that they make their smoothies in a kitchen blender any more. In 2005, the company posted a turnover of £38m; last year, £75m. In December, Innocent appointed the former head of brands at Nestlé as its marketing director. The twee TV ads and funny cartons (“once opened consume within 4 days or we’ll come round and get you”) are there to distract us: a knitted tea cosy over capitalism’s iron fist.

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Blame Ben and Jerry. Overturning decades of clearly-defined food and drink packaging that was either squarely aimed at kids (Coco Pops, Cresta, Turkey Drummers), or mums and dads (Black Magic, Cointreau, Vienetta), the hairy dairymen farsightedly bridged the “kidult” divide with their cartoony ice cream. Small Businessmen of the Year by 1988, the Vermont-based Deadheads sold out to corporate giant Unilever in 2000 for a chunky-monkey $326m. Peddling the long-defunct myth of two old hippies throwing handfuls of pecans about in a shed thick with aromatic smoke, the combined corporate stamp of Play School design and puerile, punning flavours – at least two to date named after the Dave Matthews Band – continues to work its magic on consumers old enough to know better. Unless, of course, as we get closer to our own mortality, self-deception on such matters helps to get us through the day.

The infantilising influence of Ben & Jerry’s is everywhere, from those irritating Japanese creatures making us buy 3G mobile phones, to E4, with all that self-conscious talk of “your telly-box.” The franchised coffee-shop chain Puccino’s scribbles on everything from its paper cups to the walls of its outlets. I smiled the first time they served me a cappuccino with what is labelled on the wrapper a “stupid little biscuit”, but like the wacky outgoing ansaphone message, the funny car sticker and the Gromit tie, its comedic levity can wear pretty thin.

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The worst culprits remain those brands seeking to put on an ethical front, whose message is, look, we’re just mucking about here, it’s not about the money or anything. Firefly health tonics, becoming ubiquitous, are also packaged with added-on scribbles (“Wakey wakey!”). Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent, writes a self-effacing business column for the Guardian: “If you went up to any member of our commercial team right now and asked them about budget forecasting, they’d probably grimace slightly.” Yeah, because work sucks, right? Oh, and we’ve just opened an office in Copenhagen. More profits. Bummer.

We’re not daft. We know that Sara Lee doesn’t get her hands doughy making the cakes and that the Laughing Cow, kept in an unnatural state of permanent pregnancy to provide milk for cheese triangles, barely raises a smile. Ben & Jerry’s is horrible, but I buy Innocent, Oatly, Firefly – to quote Bill Hicks, I love these products. What I don’t buy is this American anti-corporate “campus” culture. I once met the Executive Vice President of Strategy, Imagineering & Futurology, aged 45, at Orange. The door of his office simply said “Future Boy”. It had a Space Hopper in it.

Published in Word magazine, June 2007

Open the box

TA124There are scenes of a sexual nature in this week’s Telly Addict. Indeed, it’s impossible to ignore the old in-out in-out in a week that gave us the actually rather coy Sex Box on C4; the much more frank but simulated Masters Of Sex on C4; and the frankly gynaecological Breathless on ITV. Also given a once-over: a very promising pilot in the form of Sleepy Hollow on Universal; the “proper lush” Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food on BBC2; and a nice report from Downing Street on BBC News.

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TA112Sorry, got distracted this week on Telly Addict by a gloriously pointless and condescending documentary on BBC1, Britain’s Favourite Supermarket Foods, which ought to have been on CBBC, except it might have been rejected by that channel’s core audience for being too facile (but full marks to presenter Cherry Healey for giving it her all). More meat was to be found on the estate-set drama Run on C4, a  four-parter so unrelentingly grim I decided not to watch it over the prescribed four consecutive night, but spread its grimness out over four weeks; Family Tree on BBC2 was an expectedly gentle comic treat; there was more humanity on Route Masters on BBC2; The Americans pulled me back in on ITV; and law-firm fixer procedural Ray Donovan from Showtime made a big impression on Sky Atlantic. But what is Britain’s favourite supermarket food? Find out in part two next week. I expect.

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It’s all sex and drugs and buns this week on Telly Addict (three things apart from telly, of course, that you can be addicted to). Nigella returns to BBC2 in the Italian-themed Nigellissima; Keith Allen returns to C4 with Drugs Live, except he doesn’t really, he’s just one of 25 volunteers taking drugs, but not live, in actual current affairs’ latest attempt to outdo Brass Eye; and over at the Great British Bake Off, two bakers will stop rising in a double-knockout. But which two? And will either of my two favourites remain? (There are no Bake Off spoilers here, by the way, so if you have “taped” Week 7, you may tune in with confidence. Having said that, it’s bloody Friday! Watch the programme!)

Save £££££££££££s!

I had a realisation yesterday, and it may be a sign of the times, but it hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead all the same: I get much more of a kick out of saving money than I do from spending money. I made the vanilla and almond biscotti that I have very badly photographed above, and, on carving out around 48 biscuits from one baking tray and popping them into Tupperware tubs, I decided to calculate exactly how much they cost to make. (It was fun to cook them, by the way, and took just over an hour.)

In a possibly over-forensic manner, I worked out how much I’d spent on flour, sugar, eggs, butter etc. (this is easy to do if you know the price of the food you buy), and the grand total, discounting the electricity I’d used to bake the biscotti for a total of 40 minutes, was £3.88. Now, I could have reduced this total sharply by not using organic eggs, organic almonds, organic butter and – added ingredient! – about eight squares of Green & Black’s chocolate. (I had to buy the flour round the corner, having spontaneously decided to make the biscotti, and they only had non-organic.) Although I saved on vanilla pods by using a drop of essence, I used flaked almonds instead of whole, as I had some in the cupboard; next time, it would be much cheaper to smash up whole almonds bought in big bags. In other words, I reckon it could be done for closer to £2. Even at my organic price, that’s about 8p a biscuit, but at £2 it would be more like 4p. I sometimes treat myself (those words) to a shop-bought box of biscotti and they cost £2.19 for about 20 biscuits – the rest is packaging – which is almost 11p a biscuit. Over 40 biscuits, that’s a saving of £1.20, which would rocket to £2.80 if you spent less on the ingredients, as I will do next time. If you buy a single biscotti in a high street coffee shop, it’s 99p. You don’t need to do the maths (which is lucky, as I am shit at maths). The maths does itself.

In yesterday’s Observer, the ever-reliable David Mitchell was writing about Michael Gove, chiefly, but had this enlightening thing to say about saving money.

In my life, the money I would otherwise spend on shampoo is very dear to me: I buy the cheapest possible shampoo. When I can steal it from hotels, I do. I use every last squirt from every bottle, eking out days’ more use from each one when most people would have thrown it away. I dote on the thought of that saved money. It may amount to as much as £14 over my lifetime. Meanwhile, the money I waste because I’m perpetually on the wrong mobile phone tariff is sent out into the world neglected and unloved.

Now, Mitchell is a well-recompensed TV personality and broadsheet columnist; he has less need to scrimp and save and worry about money than most. But unless you’re actually in the 1%, we really are all in this recession – or these recessions – together, and if Mitchell instinctively squeezes shampoo bottles, so should we all. And if we’re not squeezing them, we should ask ourselves why not. It may be the vilified “bankers” who got us into this mess – or more rightly, the governments that let them get us into it, or even more rightly, the free market that so dazzled the governments in the first place that they turned two blind eyes to the deregulated sleight-of-greed that was going on in their name – but we were happy to spend, on credit, when the going was good, and it’s up to us, I think, to put the brakes on and adjust to the new world order.

In the past couple of weeks, as you can see, I have made beetroot soup, a banana cake, and a radish and mint soup (which tastes a lot nicer than it looks). My imperative for doing this has been to use up what we’ve got. My fruit and vegetables are delivered, in a box, and that means you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. One week, you might get 700g of beetroots, which is exactly the amount required for Delia’s beetroot soup recipe, which is free online [see: Factsheet at bottom]. Rather than see the beetroots going wrinkly and unloved in a drawer, I used them, and it serves four, which means it serves me, four times, over four days. The banana cake was, like the biscotti, a cunning method of giving myself a sweet treat in my packed lunch which obviates the need for me to buy expensive cakes and biscuits in coffee shops, or the overpriced British Library café.

I used to work in a rented office, but that had to go come the crash of 2008, when all but the most affluent belts were tightened. I have been working in the Library ever since, as it’s free once you have a Reader’s Pass. But in those early days, I used to buy my lunch, and a mid-morning snack, and even sometimes breakfast, in the cafeteria or café. Even though I was cutting back on expenditure by letting the office go, and cancelling my gym membership, and picking up my newspaper rather than having it delivered, it’s amazing how much I found myself spending per day on food. So the packed lunch became my creed. I cook up something meaty and long-lasting on a Sunday, and apportion it out Monday to Friday. I add to that something sweet, and maybe a Tupperware tub of plain yoghurt with dried fruit or stewed apple in it. Lovely! Although, yes, some days I wish I didn’t have quite so much in my bag, I always relish getting it all out for my lunch. (And to sneak out a couple of biscuits, especially homemade ones, in a coffee shop, feels like a moral victory.)

I have, it seems, turned into a 1950s austerity housewife. And that suits me fine. It takes time to make your own food, but as long as you enjoy cooking, as I do, it’s a surefire way of de-leveraging. We are all feeling the pinch to varying degrees, but it feels good not to throw your money away, doesn’t it? Capitalism requires us all to feel constantly dissatisfied, and to want to own more goods, and better goods. I have had my car for 11 years. By now, according to capitalism, I should have replaced it, or, at the very least, started to envy the better, newer cars of those around me. I don’t. I just don’t. (I am lucky enough to live in London, with its excellent public transport links, so I really don’t use the car much. I feel sorry for those who don’t have that luxury and can’t get about without a car.) I remember reading Will Hutton’s excellent The World We’re In a few years ago and being struck by the observation that the middle classes are the engine of free market capitalism, as, according to the rules, they own some stuff, and it’s the people who own some stuff who are in a constant state of anxiety about their stuff not being enough, or good enough, so they thrive to work harder and earn more money, so they can spend it, and thus, they motor the economy. This, one assumes, is why right-wing politicians are keen to convince us that we’re all middle class now. If we are, then we are the suckers.

This is a horrible period to be living through. I am personally not on my knees, but that’s mainly because I’m self-employed and cannot lose all my clients overnight in the same way that someone who is employed can lose their job overnight. Even in the media, budgets are being cut everywhere, and the BBC, one of my main employers, is public sector. And we all know how much love the Tories have for the public sector. It’s hard to imagine that, a few years ago, I had a gym membership. That seems so wasteful now. (Walking, I have discovered, is free.) Surely it’s better to bake your own biscuits than to buy them?

Oh, and my biscuits taste better. They’re not as sweet as the Arden & Amici ones, but the money I’ve saved is sweet enough.

 

Factsheet: the recipes mentioned are here, although I have customised them freely, as I often do, to accommodate what’s in the cupboard and fridge, which is a frugal way of doing it.

The almond and vanilla biscotti came from a Waitrose recipe. I used plain four instead of self-raising, so added bicarb and baking powder. I also added choc chips. The beetroot soup, Polish apparently, is a Delia recipe; again, adapted – I added red chilli for kick, and have tried both bacon for the stock, and the giblets from a chicken. The radish and mint soup was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, although it’s designed to be eaten cold and I warmed mine up and used yoghurt instead of creme fraiche, and paprika for cayenne pepper (again, through necessity), which may have changed it for the worse. The beautiful banana cake – which lasted me for a week and a half, rationed to one slice a day – is by Dan Lepard, from the Guardian magazine. (I must admit, I was so exited by the outcome, I sent him the photo on Twitter, and he replied and everything.)

Incidentally, my food photography is rubbish because I don’t have a mobile phone with a camera, and instead use the rudimentary and awkward PhotoBooth application on my laptop. I don’t have a posh phone for the same reasons that I don’t belong to a gym or pay 99p for a biscotti in a coffee shop.

Me and the farmer

When you get past a certain age, you stop expecting new things to take you by surprise. You think you’ve pretty much got the measure of what you’re into, and what you’re not into, and from which direction things that might occupy your mind will come from. And then you’ll find yourself hooked into a world you had no prior interest in. For me, such has become the Farming Today Podcast. It is my new favourite thing in the world.

Now, some context. I wouldn’t say I was not interested in farming before. Indeed, over the past 15 years, as I’ve become more and more sensitive to where the food I eat comes from, and how it gets to my plate, I’d say I’ve also become more interested in farming, but at one remove, like most vacuum-packed townies. Thanks to the organic revolution, and the cultural and legislative ripples extending therefrom, I now know the names of the farms where my meat comes from, as does every supermarket shopper who cares to read the label. I choose to order a lot of my meat from Abel & Cole, and it is accompanied by a tremendous amount of information about the farms – and farmers – it comes from. Assuming you’d rather eat local produce – and why the heck wouldn’t you? – this gets you attuned to the seasons. I’ve long been acquainted with “the hungry gap” and the difficulties of growing broccoli in a cold spring, or indeed a hot summer, without ever having once planted a seed.

That said, until my most recent stint on the 6 Music Breakfast show, I would never have sought out Farming Today on Radio 4. But because my Monday-Friday BBC cab ride put me on the back seat for half an hour each day, starting at 5.30am, I found myself listening with rapt attention to presenter Charlotte Smith one morning – Farming Today airs daily from 5.45-6am – as she linked items about Schmallenberg, public footpath legislation, the East Anglian drought and the National Farmers’ Union conference. (She and Anna Hill share presenting duties.) I found myself asking the next day’s driver if he minded putting Radio 4 on, and within two days I was a convert. I started looking forward to 5.45am.

Once back in the routine of the real world, I was thrilled, if not surprised, to discover that Farming Today is available as a daily podcast – including the 25-minute Saturday morning compendium – and I immediately subscribed, by now desperate for my fix of farming news. I need to hear what latest excuse Caroline Spellman is giving for the badger cull, and whether they’ve had any more cases of Schmallenberg at the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar.

Charlotte Smith and Anna Hill are excellent presenters, always linking the show from somewhere farmy, like a lambing shed in Shropshire, or a ford in Norfolk (I think it’s Charlotte who always forgets to take her wellies), and brilliantly and poetically describing what they can see (the classic “painting with words” found in much quality radio). It seems to me to be a very balanced programme; no more anti-town or get-off-my-land than the farmers are anti-welfare. The programme clearly acts as a bulletin to those in the farming community, but it strikes me that it’s designed just as carefully to appeal to those of us on the outside of the perimeter fence. Difficult questions are always asked whether it’s of those in government, or in industrial food manufacturing, or environmental pressure groups. (For instance, a woman from Compassion In World Farming, a group with whom I might generally ally myself, was given a hard time for persecuting pig farmers in a recent edition, and she failed to defend the group’s actions in this case. An item on halal meat was similarly fair, covering the inconsistency of labelling and the cruelty of slaughtering cows without stunning them first, without disregarding the religious reasoning behind it.)

Hey, Schmallenberg. It’s a horribly unpredictable new German viral infection that causes birth defects in lambs and calves and has begun to crop up across Europe and in this country – potentially the next bluetongue – and although you won’t read much about it in the mainstream media, if you listen to Farming Today, you’ll be well ahead of the worrying curve. As yet, it is a condition farmers are not even legally obliged to report, and as it’s thought to be transmitted by midges, there’s nothing anybody can do about it yet, with livestock farmers able only to cross their fingers during lambing. Unlike The Archers, which I’ve always disliked, this really is the everyday story of country folk, and I would hate to miss an episode.

I’m not really writing this blog entry with the intention of sending anyone rushing to the Farming Today podcast page, but the programme is an excellent example of what the BBC should be doing. Since tuning in, I have become much better informed about so many aspects of farming, from livestock to arable, horticulture to straw production. (Did you know that power stations use straw for fuel, which drives up the price and reduces the stock generally used by livestock farmers to feed their cows and to make their lives more comfortable in sheds and yards?) Even better, they have yet to mention Alex James in all of the editions I’ve listened to. Long may that continue.

The PepsiCo Challenge

I went into a Shell garage for a paper and I saw some eye-catching signage promoting the Shell shop’s new sandwich/snack/drink range, Deli2go. Nothing unusual about this. Since the success of BP’s Wild Bean Café, petroleum giants have been falling over themselves to massage their garage shops upmarket. Deli2go is Shell’s go at this. The poster I saw was doing little more than advertise a “meal deal” promotion, where you pay a fixed price of £3.99 for a pre-packed sandwich, some kind of snack like a bag of crisps or a sausage roll, and a drink, such as a Coke, or a juice. I’m sure this will appeal to drivers looking for a quick fix of carbohydrate-based fuel, and will fool a few people into buying three items when they only want, or need, one or two. What tickled me about the promotion was this line, which appears underneath a mocked-up image of a wicker basket lined with gingham, containing the sandwich, crisps and Coke:

Inspired by farmers’ markets

Inspired by farmers’ markets? Have you ever heard anything so flimsy and pathetic? I’ve looked into it, and Deli2go use things like “farm-assured” cheese and “line and pole-caught” fish, which is to be praised and the veracity of whose ethical claims is not to be queried, but to throw in the weasel phrase “inspired by” and then link takeaway food to “farmers’ markets” is a cosmic joke. Since actual farmers’ markets are all about the producer cutting out the middle man and bringing their produce direct to consumers, which part of “farmers’ markets” is the processing of produce by a third party, packaging it up, distributing it around the country from a centralised base and selling it on at “value added” prices at garages is this “inspired by”? Oh. The idea of farmers’ markets! The notion of farmers’ markets! The general feeling of farmers’ markets! In actual fact, it’s inspired by the two words that make up the phrase “farmers’ markets”: farmers and markets. Sorry, I was being thick.

Shell is one of the largest oil companies in the world, with revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I sometimes buy petrol from them. But I don’t take kindly to being treated like an idiot by their marketeers and corporate strategists. Shell and farmers’ markets are polar opposites in terms of what they do. How dare Shell claim to be inspired by markets? Inspired by the market, certainly. But not markets. I’ve been to a farmers’ market: it was some vans and trestle tables in a school playground on a Saturday morning with meat and cakes and vegetables for sale, in exchange for cash. The vans might run on Shell petrol but that’s where the connection ends.

I think we live in a deeply sad world. A world where an oil company might seriously believe that it can sell more oil by pretending its fast food is in some way taking us back to nature. Corporations run our world, not governments – corporations to which I regularly give money, so don’t get any funny ideas that I think I am above it all. But it’s as well to see the danger. Corporations care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. This is why they are corporations and not governments or charities. They will do and say anything in order to take more money off us, even a single penny. (I loved it on Episode 3 of The Apprentice when one of the idiots complained that a gentlemen’s outfitters wouldn’t even take “one penny” off the retail price of a top hat. “Not even a penny – I mean how greedy can you get?” This is not a woman who understands capitalism and yet capitalism is her career choice.)

I have just read a typically fascinating and rigorous article by John Seabrook in the New Yorker (which I’d provide a link for, except that you have to be a subscriber to read their articles in full – non-subscribers can read a precis here), about PepsiCo, the largest food-and-beverage producer in the United States, and the second largest in the world after Nestlé. If PepsiCo were a country, its GDP would place it 66th in the world, between Ecuador and Croatia. It is not a country, it is a company. It rules the roost thanks to Pepsi, Tropicana, Gatorade, Fritos and Lay’s (which are crisps) and other “bad for you” snack brands. Actually, they don’t class them as “bad for you” at PepsiCo, they are “fun for you.” But the big drive there, at the Mecca of Snack, is to render their famous branded products as “good for you.” How? By reducing the salt and sugar content, mainly, but also by reintroducing things like antioxidants and vitamins into products where such inconveniences have been processed out in the process of processing them into other things. Why are they doing this? Because they care about America’s obesity epidemic, and obesity epidemics further afield? No, because they care about the bottom line. And as people become increasingly aware of the link between eating snack food and drinking sweet drinks and getting fatter, they look to healthier options. In the piece, we learn that PepsiCo’s share of the useless food market is down – in 2010, sales of Pepsi cola were down 4.8%, and overall carbonated drinks were down 2.6%. One way to reverse this trend, the brains at boardroom level seem to think, is make people who eat unhealthy food think that it is healthy.

It’s a fascinating inside look at the way a massive corporation thinks, from the CEO – Indra Nooyi – down. Surprise, surprise, there’s a lot of jargon about food and drinks being “scientifically advantaged” (the Flora ProActiv revolution in action), and we discover that the PepsiCo HQ screensaver bears the phrase, “performance with purpose”, a brilliant way of rewriting the phrase, “profit with more profit.” On top of all this guff, Nooyi herself, while overseeing a taste test, says with a straight face that the next phase for PepsiCo is to “snackify” drinks, and “drinkify” snacks. It would be laughable were it not so deadly serious. Basically, the biggest food-and-beverage producer in America, whose $60 billion revenue in 2010 was largely supported by selling crisps and fizzy drinks, expects us to believe it when it tells us that it wishes to “re-educate” us. No it doesn’t. The only reason any corporation selling snacks and soda wants us to stay alive is so that we buy more snacks and soda. In an ideal world, it would keep us all on life-support systems so that we can at least still eat Fritos and drink Pepsi via tubes. It wants us alive, but only just.

This is fair enough. Why should any corporation care about obesity or health? Why should any corporation care about fair trade or farmers? It’s a corporation. It exists only to make money, and if it takes a penny off a top hat, it loses a penny that it would much prefer not to lose. Which is why it irritates me when a corporation, be it Pepsi or Shell, pretends it’s doing some good to the world. Pepsi doesn’t want its food to be “good for you,” it wants its food to appear better for you if it thinks you’re more likely to buy it if that’s the way it appears. If you, or I, fall for this, then more fool us. (And we do. We do.) Shell is not inspired by farmers’ markets; it wants to appear to be inspired by them if it thinks you’re more likely to buy their petrol if that’s the way it appears to you.

Mind you, £3.99 for a sandwich, crisps and Coke? More Coke! More Snickers! I love these products! I wish they sold them at the farmers’ market.