That the English are becoming (let’s say have become, not to put too fine an point on it)
“almost a de-cultured people. From the shops in our high streets to the vocabulary we use, we are becoming a cheap and nasty imitation of the worst of consumer America. We can’t sing our own folk songs, or, increasingly, cook our own national foods. We don’t know what grows in our local area. We sneer at morris dancers while we sip skinny lattes. We are cut off from who we are and where we have come from.” This quote is from Real England, by Paul Kingsworth. He writes with feeling about the death of the traditional pub, now that large and ambitious companies such as Spirit own over 2,500 pubs and, naturally, run them with the same corporate ethos as, say, Macdonalds.
“The meaning of England is different for everyone who lives in it…but whatever tone we hear , it is increasingly drowned out by the louder but flatter sound of landscapes being levelled, colour being drained and charcter driven out by money and self-interest and over-development. Whether the real England is, for you, is the local newsagent or the local church, the thatched cottage or the city terrace, the hardware store that clings on in your high street, the struggling street corner pub, the patch of overlooked waste ground, the chaotic street market, the hedgerows or the downlands, an old farm or an urban canal: you can be sure that it it isn’t sufficiently profitable or obedient then it is not safe from the accelerating forces of homogenisation and control.”
In Oxford, the colleges (who own much of the commercial property) and the good old Council have through laziness, greed and ignorance done their bit to further this. I’ve written about the Castle Mill development, where seven large, ugly, multi-storey blocks of student accommodation (mainly from the international marketplace, because they pay the most fees) loom like pallid spectres from inside the Iron Curtain over the pastoral views of Port Meadow.
In Oxford High Street, said by many to have the finest streetscape in Europe, I avert my eyes from a strategically placed shop selling cheap sweatshirts, several dodgy cafes all supplied by the same mass caterers with giant chocolate chip cookies and mass-produced tray bakes, yet another barber shop (there are about a dozen or more in this smallish town) which keeps threatening to “open soon”.
The historic Covered Market, mentioned in countless novels and stories, is going to be sold (so rumour has it) to a large conglomerate. Already many of its quirky and individual food outlets have disappeared, substituted by unnecessary gift shops selling junk from China. This is happening because the interesting purveyors of merchandise cannot afford the exorbitant rent rises all over town.
Of course a whole way of life has disappeared, where people cycled to the market on a daily basis and loaded their wicker baskets with provisions for a day or two. It used to be an adventure, seeing what was available and then building the day’s menus around that. The Tory government is now advising everyone to boycott foreign food imports in favour of British produce. Where can we buy British produce? The field are all inundated, my farmer friends are tearing out their hair and meanwhile Waitrose and Sainsbury (I won’t even mention the “T” word) are piling it high and selling it cheap- avocados, strawberries, cherries, grapes of several varieties etc etc. I was proudly harvesting salad from the allotment right up to Christmas. Now I dare not go down to even see the damage caused by the second cycle of floods in two years.
On New Year’s day, not having any exciting balls or parties to go to, I thought a minor treat wouldn’t go amiss. I stopped to order a little takeaway from the Szichuan Restaurant, which is housed in the Old School House by Gloucester Green. A Grade Two Listed Building dating from 1898, it has some interesting Arts and Crafts features and has seen many guises including Bus Station office and Bangladeshi, German, Chinese eateries. The food, when I got home, was excreble, if not disgusting. I took it back straightaway and asked for my money back.
Then I noticed that the interesting shop premises that had housed the dressmakers “Annabelinda ” for nearly 40 years was now another- yes, you’ve got it- panini shop!
Lovely angel-haired Belinda started the flowered pinafore look, with inserts of velvet and hand-covered buttons. We all coveted her dresses in gorgeous Liberty prints but could only afford them during the Sales. At one time in the 70s the arch charmer, Howard Marks, somehow managed to run his drug smuggling business from upstairs without Belinda knowing anything.
” The deal was that we would get the shop and Howard’s partner Rosie would look after the shop while we made clothes, but she never did one day’s work. I had the shop below and the top floor as a cutting room. Howard and Rosie lived on the middle floor.
“I was naive enough to think that if we put a bell on the door, I would be able to hear it and run down. I knew nothing. I didn’t even know what an invoice was, and Howard and Rosie were just stoned the whole time.”
At its high point from 1975-1980, Annabelinda employed 14 people directly and dozens of outworkers – many mothers of young children, beavering away on sewing machines at home. The dresses featured in glossy magazines, and were sold in an Annabelinda concession at Liberty’s in Regent Street, London, as well as in Harrods and Lucienne Phillips of Knightsbridge, and shops in Nantucket, Oslo and Padua.
Oxford desperately needs interesting shops- everyone bangs on about this- but only strange looking amateurs from Turkey, Albania, the Middle East and other foreign parts seem to be able to afford the rents. If Oxford is such a desirable place to live (house prices being on par with London) it should also provide some of the most interesting shopping in the South of England. But instead we have paninni bars galore, dozens of branded coffee shops, all the usual High Street stores, kebab houses and nothing that would tempt a discerning punter to buy anything. It looks as though the City Fathers are happy enough with mass tourism and the cheap rubbish it attracts because money, after all, is the only thing that matters.