We went to the cinema last week to see a National Theatre Encore production of One Man Two Governors and very funny it was too. Although made in 2011, adapted from an 18th century play and set in the 1960s, it had lost none of its wit and was really a good evening, which seemed to be enjoyed, as we say these days, ‘hugely’ by an audience of all ages.
Two of the characters had knives in their possession, which would be frowned upon now in case the mere sight incited murderous intent from the audience. There was also a reference to ‘Woollies’ (for younger readers a reference to at one time bastion of retail sales in most towns and cities until its demise in 2009 with the loss of 27,000 jobs. Who could resist their pick-n-mix counter?). The second reference was very topical as two characters talked about buying tickets from Thomas Cook which caused a murmur from the audience – 21,000 job losses with travel plans and holiday ruined for 150,000 travellers as the oldest travel company in Britain collapsed with, again, loss of choice for the consumer and a little more of traditional Britain gone.
Many will say, well that’s how capitalism and free markets work. Very true but it’s still another nail in the coffin of choice and, if you like, another sign that the old Britain is disappearing and not always for the best. How many older people grew up with high streets which included Burtons, Freeman Hardy Willis, Timothy White and Taylors, International, George Masons, Hepworth’s, C&A, Marks and Spencer’s, not only the corner shop, family butchers and all the rest? Can we honestly say that our High Streets are better now with ‘here today gone tomorrow’ shops and businesses, cafes and coffee shops (getting on for 30, not including pubs and other eateries in one town centre not far from St. Mary on the Wold).
Are we better off today with supposedly more choice brought to us from people who sell us what they want to sell and then set the price because there is little physical competition? Our town centres are more or less unrecognisable from even 20 years ago; most of the old retail names have gone and along with them consumer choice. Many of the retail malls built in the 1960s are now struggling and the more modern ones, although pleasant to spend some time in, are full of up-market nationals and expensive niche market outlets along with the now boring coffee and eating establishments.
Oh, I know superstores have many thousands of items on sale, but one superstore is the same as another. Have you tried to buy any furniture of late, mostly the same heavy wooden chunky designs for dining furniture along with enormous suites for the living area – presumably to cater for the larger fuller figure of many buyers these days? And everything it seems is made in China. There are exceptions of course. Retail palaces of the ‘new’ sort full of glass, marble effect and chrome furniture designed by someone you have never heard of but with a huge price tag to match the pretensions of the ‘wealthy’ purchasers.
Or how about a brand-new house? Anywhere you like as long as you want to live cheek by jowl with your neighbours and in a detached (almost) home with much the same floor space and design provided by one of the major national builders and located from Ripon to Redruth or from Cardiff to Cleethorpes. Some are so small these days that the design would have been turned down by councils for ‘social housing’ a generation ago. Still, you can at least choose the colour of the kitchen and bathroom suite along with the front door (well sometimes).
Look at the other so called ‘big ticket items’. Cars for example. Dad was mostly an Austin man himself; he did a lot of traveling around the U.K, clocking up 30,000 miles a year long before the advent of motorways and in all weathers, rain, wind and snow. He had a couple of Fords in the late 50s but always returned to the Austin marque, ‘solid, reliable and comfortable’ he used to say and that was the point I suppose, solid and dependable was how many people thought of Britain and the British at the time, even in the countries of the fast disappearing empire. But the point was and is that Dad had several British-designed and built vehicles to choose from, all built in various places and employing a mostly local and skilled workforce who quite often bought the vehicles from the company that gave them and hundreds of others an income.
Driving across the Midlands a couple of weeks ago I found myself thinking of those far off almost forgotten journeys and the choice that we had. It was in those days a long slow journey from the Midlands where we lived in what was still a market town to say Harrogate, particularly in the winter. Each town or county had its own identity, whether engineering Midlands, ship building Tyneside, aircraft manufacturing Bristol, carpets Kidderminster, horticulture Evesham, pottery Stoke, mills Lancashire, needles Redditch, shoes Northampton, porcelain and gloves Worcester. Almost an endless list produced locally by local people and – get this – exported all over the ‘globe’ from internationally known ports and shipping lines. Additionally, there were the mining and steel areas and the fishing fleets, bigger than anything you would find anywhere, now almost all gone, as we apparently, according to the media, trade only with the subsidy-driven EU.
Odd then as many items I buy are made, grown or built in sovereign countries all over the world. Clothes from China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, food from South American countries. Entertainment – what did happen to the British film industry? Cars – mainly either foreign owned and built elsewhere, Jaguar, Land Rover, Vauxhall, Ford, or foreign owned Japanese Nissan, Renault, MG and so on. Politicians constantly bleating economies of scale but, it seems, quite happy to import things manufactured in countries from across the world; things that a generation ago would have been made here.
We could look also at the financial and banking sector but with national debt now approaching £1.3 trillion, even these bastions of commerce are shedding jobs like there is no tomorrow so it’s obviously not a problem.
Part 2 will be published here tomorrow.