Drinking outside the Bucks

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If I was less busy trying to earn a living, I’d blog every time I had a passing thought that I wanted to solidify, get down and expand upon. Because I don’t have the luxury of spare time at the moment, I often take to the immediate medium of Twitter and type sentences that, at best, come out as pithy aphorisms and, at worst, cheap slogans. I wrote this about Starbucks and the corporation’s notorious UK tax-avoidance doctrine on Monday morning. I enjoyed typing it.

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As you can see, its deft combination of jokey tone and serious message struck a chord with 99 people, who passed it on. (Like Oscar Wilde in a donkey jacket, I cooked it up while walking past a Starbucks that morning and wondering what the patrons inside it thought about the economy they were in.) However, once you’ve dropped a pith-bomb and you are followed by more than a manageable number people, you must expect a percentage of antagonistic responses from people you have never met and will never meet, most of them reasoned and fair, one or two of them simply patronising, insulting, or borne of what seems like misunderstanding for furious effect. I sincerely believe in the power of the consumer. It is the predominant power we have as individuals when there’s not an election taking place.

If we accept – without prejudice – the reality that big business runs the world, because it does, and that politicians largely do the bidding of big business, whether by oiling the wheels, relaxing regulation or, more fundamentally, running an economy based on “growth”, which naturally favours more business and never less, then unless we are on the board of a large global corporation, we live in a world shaped by large global corporations.

Starbucks, which began as a local store in Seattle in the early 70s, arrived in this country in 1998 and, through a successful programme of aggressive expansion, it quickly made a mark on our high streets. A Starbucks coffee was probably the first takeaway coffee I’d ever gone out of my way to buy, not really being a coffee drinker at that point, and certainly no connoisseur.  I enjoyed the drink, albeit mostly the fluffed-up milk, and the relatively new experience (“experience” being the key to the brand’s success, of course). The proliferation of Starbucks, followed by the others that bloomed in its wake, did indeed change the way a nation of tea drinkers viewed coffee. You have to hand that to them. But this soon went sour.

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Before I could settle into a new routine of buying lattes on my way to Broadcasting House, for instance, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and my head was turned. Overnight, I despised Starbucks for the way it did business, along with what had become the new usual suspects of corporate greed, sharp practice, exploitation, non-unionisation and bullying: Nike, Gap, Coca Cola, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, you know the drill. I have, in my adult life, given money to some if not all of these corporations. I am not a saint.

But when I feel a boycott is called for, I only have my own conscience to deal with. And the recent exposé of Starbucks’ tax affairs in the UK, the payment of which has been deftly avoided by sleight of hand involving licences, the Netherlands and declaring losses, has put the chain in a lot of people’s sights. It may be that pressure from the MPs – led by Margaret Hodge – who sat on the select committee flicked the switch, and forced the corporate hand into face-saving reparationary action, but it was surely the fear of loss of custom and attendant share price threat that sealed the case.

Give or take the odd exception since 1999, I’ve hardly given any money to Starbucks, so they won’t have noticed my total blanket boycott since the Reuters report into their UK tax-avoidance, but as I always say, if enough people make what seems like a futile gesture, it might just amount to a meaningful one. I once read an interview with Klein, in which, admirably, she admitted to occasionally grabbing a Starbucks if it was the only concession in an airport, say, and she really wanted a coffee.

I admired her candour. It’s easy to avoid Starbucks in any UK high street, as there’s usually another chain nearby, if not an independent outlet. (I understand that Whitbread, the UK hotel and restaurant firm, which owns Costa, pay their full UK corporation tax, so if you must use one of them … ) However, that’s not what I intended to blog about. I was more interested in the nature of the way Twitter extends a dialogue, and why it’s foolhardy to do as I do, which is type in cheap slogans.

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Having published my call-to-arms on Twitter on Monday, I spent way too much of the following days counter-arguing my case with nitpickers and, in some cases, outright apologists for corporate tax-dodging. (There was also one rude bastard who began his reply, “FFS, wake up, man …”, which guaranteed him a blocking. As Billy Bragg says, freedom of speech comes with the freedom not to have to listen.) Most people hit back along the lines of, “Don’t boycott Starbucks; pressure government to close tax loopholes and force HMRC to hit the corporations harder.” This rather assumed that in being angry with a corporation, I was fine with HMRC’s timidity and failure to act, and with the government’s protectionism with regards tax loopholes. I’m not fine with it. (Oh, and I’m not angry with the people who work at HMRC, like the wife of one affable plaintiff on Twitter – “she’s lovely” – I’m angry with the management.)

So, that’s that argument dealt with. Others reckoned my boycott will only harm individual franchises who do pay tax, and throw ordinary, hard-working UK baristas out on the street. Nobody actively wants this. But in the same way, let’s say boycotting a bank because it invests in murderous regimes might ultimately affect those blameless individuals working in the bank who have no control over what their corporate employer does with its money. This kind of joined-up thinking is always enough to push you to the conclusion that it’s better to do nothing. Most people, after all, do nothing. (Except in Syria. And Egypt. And Palestine. And Greece. And so on.)

Other people – nigglers, really – said that if you’re going to boycott one corporation you have to follow through and boycott all corporations who avoid tax, and then they list the other offenders. Hey, the BBC have been caught out encouraging their contracted stars to set up limited companies, through which they are paid, thus reducing tax on both sides, so surely, if I’m so bloody righteous, I should boycott the BBC, too! (And my friends who are contracted BBC employees! Presumably by altering my Christmas card list?) Again, if you tie yourself up in knots, you will end up doing nothing. “They” would much rather you did nothing. We got into this recession by running up credit, and “they” seem to wish us to spend out way out of it by running up even more credit. Where will it all end?

I do not believe in criminal damage, so will not be smashing Starbucks’ windows in. I think UK Uncut’s planned series of civil disobedience sounds admirable, and witty and clever – turning coffee outlets into refuges for women, and creches, which are the worst hit by the cuts, which are linked to our failing economy, which is linked to the very rich not paying their fair share and being given a tacit blessing to Carry On Avoiding, so I’ll be interested to see how that works out tomorrow.

Having just spent a couple of days with Billy Bragg, researching a new chapter for his official biography, I am dangerously fired up with progressive left-wing ardour. His message these days is simple: it’s all about accountability. I’m cutting down on caffeine anyway.

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A word about our sponsors

Well, it wasn’t mean to be this way. I Tweeted this morning in reaction to seeing the great Mo Farah clowning in a new Virgin Media ad in my newspaper beside Usain Bolt in stick-on Richard Branson beards. I felt, instinctively, without thinking very hard about it, that it was a shame that an athlete so beloved and lauded for his amazing achievements on the track at the Olympics should be seen mucking about in an advert for broadband inside of a fortnight after the Games ended.

It’s not easy to convey complex feelings in under 140 characters, but I had a crack at it, and, judging by the deluge of antipathy it generated, I can now confidently conclude that I did a bad job of conveying my feelings. I’m going to try here, where it’s safe and warm, and I can ramble, which I’m better at.

The facts first: the Farah/Bolt print ad is a new campaign, launched across a number of national newspapers at the weekend. Virgin Media has signed up the Somali-born long distance runner in an open-ended deal estimated to be worth £500,000. The campaign has been created by BBH. Jeff Dodds, executive director of brand and marketing communications at Virgin Media, said: “After delivering a stellar performance in the Olympic Games, Mo has found a special place in all of our hearts and is a fully fledged national hero. We’re absolutely delighted to be working with him. Virgin Media is all about delivering brilliant entertainment, and nobody has got the nation cheering at their TVs more than Mo over the last couple of weeks.”

Nobody’s arguing with that. I have almost no interest in watching athletics, as you know, but even I found myself drawn to the living room to watch Farah win the 5000m. You’d have needed a hard heart not to be drawn into the drama. He seems like a nice chap, too. Indeed, it’s the unifying and, yes, iconic power of Farah crossing that finishing line that’s worth preserving. To me, on a visceral level, the sight of him mucking about with a stick-on beard, so soon after his magnificent victory threatens to subtract from it.

Now, in saying this, I do not deny Mo Farah £500,000. As many people were quick to point out, indignantly, he’s got a family, and twins on the way, and he can now support them in a manner that surely befits the love felt for him around GB. But I never meant to criticise him for taking money from a sponsor. All sportspeople do it, seemingly at every level. And, as others pointed out, Farah’s window of opportunity closes very quickly. I’m sure it does. Virgin were very clever to sign him up after signing Bolt. They’ve now got two runners on their books, who, together, are surely worth more than they would be individually.

Unlike, say, Premiership football, which pays out large sums for most of the year to the biggest players at its biggest clubs, athletics is not a big-earning job, even though training is continuous between the big international meets, so the athletes must struggle to keep their dream alive. With this in mind, you’d have to be quite the idealist to suggest that Farah shouldn’t do whatever his sponsors ask him to. He seems like a laugh. He does that Mo-bot thing. I’m sure he’s totally fine with putting on a daft beard.

Dignity is subjective. Some people would do anything. Others would rather die than draw attention to themselves. Athletes compete in public, but this does not make them entertainers. I always feel sorry for them when a microphone is shoved in their face moments after finishing an event or game. It’s hard enough to articulate how you feel about winning or losing at the best of times, but when you are puffed out and rushing with conflicted emotions, it must be awful. But it’s part of the game.

I am an idealist. And it gets me into deep water. I seriously do not think Mo Farah should have told Jeff Dodds at Virgin Media, “Stick the false beard up your arse, contract or no contract!” It’s just a bit of fun, and if you take Virgin’s money, especially that much, then I’m afraid you work for them. I’m assuming Farah’s got a very good agent. I hope so.

To cite a really remote personal example: in the mid-90s, when I was the editor of Q magazine, Stuart Maconie and I had our photograph taken by ITV publicity to promote our film review show The Movie Club. We arrived at the photo studio to find racks of humorous, movie-related costumes. I took umbrage and had what must be one of five tantrums I have ever had in my professional life, refusing to wear any of the stupid wigs or costumes. I explained that I was, by day, the editor of a magazine, a job with a certain amount of responsibility, and that being photographed looking a dick would work against that. We found a compromise, and used some props, and it was all fine. But what I was trying to preserve was my dignity, I guess. Typically, only one shot from the session was ever used anywhere, in black and white. This is it.

Dignity fluctuates according to circumstance. People become more protective of their dignity as they get older. Now, I think you will agree, a magazine editor having to put on a hat for a promotional photo shoot for which he will not be paid extra, and a world-class, Olympic gold-medalist having to put on a beard for a print ad for which he will be paid handsomely are worlds apart. But I was closet to being a nobody in the mid-90s; if anybody “owned” me it was Emap, who paid my salary for editing Q, and my duty was to them. Rightly or wrongly, but with the best intentions, I think the nation feels a certain “ownership” not of Mo Farah, but of the shared experience of those two unforgettable Saturday-night track victories. Jeff Dodds is right: the nation does have a special place in its collective heart for Mo Farah. My love of Mo Farah manifests itself in an idealistic wish that he could earn money, plenty more than he needs, by appearing in adverts that are in some way connected to his achievement.

Hey, I have no love for the corporate hegemony of the likes of Nike or Adidas, but at least sportspeople who appear in their adverts are selling sports equipment. Virgin Media are no more evil than any large company or brand, but the link to the “speed” of their broadband is tenuous, and as such, is not about Farah’s athletic achievement. So he has to wear a beard for a joke about Richard Branson. Just like Usain Bolt did. I just wish he’d been able to wait for – I don’t know – a couple more weeks? Maybe the public’s window of opportunity to savour the moment also closes. I’m discussing this with myself now, in many more than 140 characters.

Don’t be an idealist, kids. It makes you feel sad on a near daily basis, when things don’t go according to your insane plan. If I was in charge, I’d make sure that all sport, amateur and professional, was properly funded and rewarded, so that stars like Farah wouldn’t need to take the corporate shilling. Fortunately, I am not in charge. And the world is run by private companies, who call the shots.

I like the idea of the Olympics being a truly egalitarian contest. May the best man or woman win, and reap the applause. Mo Farah was the fastest at running 5000m. Imagine if, instead of part funding sport through the National Lottery, which remains a tax on those who can least afford it, we funded it by collecting fair taxes from everybody, including corporations and the super rich? This mad system could then be adopted by other nations and the Olympics would belong to all of us, and not to Samsung and McDonald’s and Visa. And athletes could get bonuses, from this publicly-funded pot, for each medal they win, and use that to support their families, and further their careers.

I also made a satirical remark about how we could make the rich Premiership footballers share some of their earnings with the impoverished athletes – I even mentioned my own idealism to underline the joke – and you wouldn’t believe how many people took offence and started to defend Premiership footballers against my despicable plan. It was a joke about socialism, which will never work, right?

Kill me now.

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.