Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Chicken Shops

 The below is my attempt to put pen to paper some questions that have been going through my mind a lot lately. They’ve been going through my mind because I’ve been talking about them with people – in real life and on social networking sites and I’m yet to get any answers, so they are just that: questions. Some of the questions I am asking are based on assumptions. I flatter myself that they’re fairly reasonable assumptions, widely held or based on some evidence at the very least but I am quite happy to have these assumptions questioned too.
I start with this disclaimer and I will do my damndest to point out the assumptions I have made for two reasons. Firstly,  I am not a journalist* – I have not researched what I am about to say, other than asking people who I thought might be able to provide some answers what they thought – these are my thoughts, my questions, my assumptions and, as a result, form a loose hypothesis at best. They are not in any way fact and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that I was presenting a closed book. Secondly, because this is a hypothesis I would like someone to question my reasoning – I am keenly aware that the thoughts below are heavily weighted by my own liberal bias and that I am not a small business owner and I don’t have the full picture. I don’t even have a fraction of the picture. I am writing this because I have not had any conclusive answers to my questions and I want to know more. If you know more, or you think you can find someone who can find out more, I would be delighted to hear from you or them, either in the comments section below or via email.
I write a blog about Levenshulme, a district of South Manchester. If you want to know some of my personal reasons why I do that thenyou can read this, or you can just read the blog itself and draw your own conclusions about why it’s a place I’m passionate about. In brief, Levenshulme, is an area of massive social deprivation with a lot of problems but it is also blessed with an incredibly creative and politicised community of intelligent, well meaning people.
That community is growing and Levenshulme is starting to gain a reputation as a creative community hub and increasingly people are starting to think about ways that Levenshulme could be improved. The blog I write is essentially non-political and I have made a deliberate decision to steer it in the direction of being as politically neutral as possible (I bend this occasionally when I think something important needs documenting or publicising but I try to avoid it if I possibly can**)  and for that reason this post is not on there. This is a blog post about Levenshulme - although I get the impression it could be about many places in the UK but this is the one that I live in and am most concerned about – and some of the hard decisions I think we as a community need to address as that population continues to grow. This is, it is at heart, a political (with a small p) post.
As of today, the stretch of road a 1.2 miles long which makes up Levenshulme’s high street (A6 between the two “Welcome to Levenshulme” signs) has 31 fast food takeaways (I have not counted anything which calls itself a restaurant but will concede that it’s a pretty fine line in both directions). More are rumoured to be opening in the coming weeks. Assumption number one coming up: that is a high number of takeaways for a single district. I’ve not researched this – I’m sure someone out there would be able to tell me if I’m right on a takeaway per head of population basis or similar – but certainly the perception amongst the people I talk to and see talking on Facebook and similar is that that is high and that is – assumption number two - a problem.
Here’s another assumption: commercial rents in Levenshulme are higher than average. That’s one I have tried to do a little research into (because I know people who know things and they tell me stuff and tell me where to look – basically the laziest form of research) and, sadly, been unable to reach a conclusion.  It’s hard to establish a baseline – hardly any of the units for rent in Levenshulme are advertised publicly and of those there are currently none which are comparable in size and position to those in the areas we might want to measure against. If you can find any then please do let me know. I spoke to a local agent and who said that retail units in Levenshulme rent for a little higher than Longsight or Gorton, a little less than Chorlton and a lot less than the city centre. That seems reasonable, although out of step with what existing traders have said. So assumption number three comes with a coda: Levenshulme commercial rents are probably higher than average but it’s hard to establish that as fact.
Some other assumptions I think we will have to live with for now are:
  •    Takeaways sell a reasonably cheap product at a low profit margin
  •    Takeaways cost a relatively high amount of money to run in terms of staff (on low wages but working long hours)

  • When lots of businesses are competing for the same market (lovers of fast food) in a small geographical area turnover in those businesses will be lower than when they are the single supplier.

So it’s pretty obvious how all that comes together – lots of takeaways are blighting Levenshulme high street despite the fact that they are surely making hardly any money. That’s the issue that dominates most of the conversations I am privy to about our high street. There are other businesses models that people ask essentially the same question about (mobile phone unlocking services or internet cafes, for instance) and other issues (waste disposal, unkempt shop fronts) and I know people feel plenty of passion about them but this is the one that has struck me and made me want to ask a question.
At first I asked my friends casually and got the answer that I’d half expected, that I’d pretty much assumed myself – there’s something dodgy going on behind the scenes. What? No one knew. No one had any evidence and no one knew how to ask.
So I used the Twitter account of my blog to ask the question – I even asked some local business owners and associations if they knew anything. I asked residents through social networking sites and estate agents in person. I even asked a school friend who works in the planning department of another city and who lives in an area with a similar question hanging over the feasibility of its retail space. ***
No one knew.
No one knew how it was possible but no one had any evidence of anything improper going on. I spoke to people who know the issues, people who I trust, who trust me and in confidence and I got nothing. My school friend told me that it was highly unlikely that any of the possible scenarios I suggested would happen in a high street place when there are plenty of cheaper places for illegal activity to take place far away from prying eyes.
So this is my conclusion: nothing dodgy is happening in the takeaways on Levenshulme high street.
But, after all of that asking, I was still left with my question. Why, if no one can make any money from them, are all these businesses sprouting up on Levenshulme high street?
So here’s my theory – it comes from my liberal heart and it’s based on all the assumptions above and it could be wrong but if it’s right I think it raises much more important questions about the community that Levensulme is going to become and, having come to it I feel like it would be wrong to ignore it. Tell me I’m wrong, tell me I am a wishy-washy liberal and I need to get over it, tell me it’s the natural consequence of economic change – I just think that the very least a politically conscious community should be doing is asking the following questions:

 What if the people running these chicken shops aren’t making any money? 

What if they are staffed by family members who are paid nothing and at the close of business they have earned far less than minimum wage? 

And what if that is the best available option for that – significant and important – part of our community and the people who run these businesses are prepared to take a massive financial risk in order to do what’s best for their families? 

And what if they have been left with no other options by an impenetrable benefits system and an education system that is not designed for them to get the best out of?

What if they come from other countries because a below the poverty line existence in Levenshulme is far, far better than their existence in their native countries?

What if other businesses move into our high street that can earn more money and force rent up and make the profits for these businesses even lower, maybe even force them to close and lose their livelihoods?

What happens to our fellow Levenshulme residents then?

I don’t know if I’ve leaped ahead with my thinking. I don’t know if I’ve made too many assumptions in getting there to make my questions even plausible. I certainly don’t want to preach – for the record I don’t like having a high street full of takeaways – I don’t think it looks good physically and I’d much rather have a cool high street with craft shops, grocers and delis but my hypothesis is that if we push that into happening (and, yes, I know that the question of if we even can do that is a whole other megablogpost) we could potentially be undermining the lives of a significant proportion of our community and creating (or deepening, depending on your perspective) a “them and us” culture that goes against one of the main reasons I love Levenshulme.
A little adendum about comments:
I have published some comments below but stupidly forgot to turn off anonymous comments before I posted this. This lead to a few comments that I strongly suspect the commenter would not want to be published under their own name and, similarly, I cannot publish them on a blog which is own and clearly associated with me - I don't know the law on these things but I'm not willing to risk publishing potentially libellous comments about the place where I live. I know many local traders and value their co-operation with my stupid questions. So if your comment is not published that is why - please understand I am not trying to silence anyone, just attempting to stop my own voice from being compromised. I will try and respond to the comments I have published in the fullness of time but for now I must get back to my actual job!

*that’s why there are asterixes (asteri? SEE?!) like this – a real journalist has no need of such things and can properly construct a sentence too.
**There is a well-populated Facebook group for Levenshulme where matters political as well as trivial are discussed sensitively and intelligently. Sometimes there have been issues which I have been made aware of which need to reach outside the confines of Facebook or need a bit of longer form writing that can be linked into the group.
*** I didn’t – you should note with a wry and judgemental eyebrow – ask any of the owners of the takeaways. For all my questions and the worrying conclusion I meet at the end of this piece I am fully aware that I am as much of the problem as anyone else. Possibly more, you might say, since in writing this I put myself in the position of passively levelling accusations of a growing “them and us” culture when I am already subscribing to it.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Turning 32 and My Relationship with Food

Yesterday I turned 32 and made a resolution. This is nothing new – in fact, as long as I have had a concept of my body as something that can be either good or bad (mercifully late, actually – my first diet started when I was about 18), I have been resolving and then working towards goals to change it. My birthday is usually a tide mark - as is Christmas and “the summer” – used to both work towards and, on failure, use to be better from. For the last 15 years I have been running an alternate calendar along side the calendar months which starts at Christmas or New Year with a resolution to be thin by Easter or Summer, usually fails and begins again with a resolution to be thin by my birthday or Christmas or New Year.

And in truth, I am not fat. I never have been. I am 6’1” which means I can carry a lot of extra weight - quite possibly more than is good for my heart*- without seeming to most eyes to be anyone’s concept of “fat”. Naked, I have cellulite and I have folds of fat that I don’t like and a proportionally large bum but my boyfriend finds all of that very attractive and is a big fan of the associated benefits in the breast department. And, in all honesty, I am not disgusted by my own naked body – I can see how it could be much much better and I know it is not like the bodies you see in magazines but I am generally on a larger scale that most women anyway and, of all the things to hate myself about, my body seems an odd choice.

All of which begs the question, why do I diet? And why doesn’t it ever satisfy me? The first answer to that is clearly that those diets never work. I have been “on a diet” in one form or another for 15 years. I have never reached the goals I set myself and I have never been less than my recommended BMI, but at the same time I have also never got fat. A few years ago my weight had crept up several stone and just pushed past the point at which I could use my height to get away with it – it was visible to those who knew me that I’d gained weight, but I still think most people would struggle to call me fat. I lost that weight in a very intense period of gym going (doing at least an hour up to 7 days a week) and eating one meal a day of steamed fish and courgette and “treating myself” to up to 5 small chocolate bars in bed late at night. It was unhealthy, and I knew it at the time but I stopped at about the point where I had got back to a weight where I felt comfortable (but not ideal, so I was still “on a diet” to get the rest off) and tried not to think about the damage I had done to my metabolism. I weighed myself every day while I was doing this routine, kept meticulous records of every fluctuation and obsessively ran an internal debate on how much I was likely to weigh the next day and, until a month or so ago, I kept this habit.

Boringly predictably the weight has started to creep back on and I am now not far off where I started. The pattern exactly mirrors my first ever “purge” diet, just after I graduated from University, although prior to that, from the age of 18 I had always been on some sort of vague, low-level “diet” that took this pattern on a smaller scale (starve, break, binge) which ultimately mean me eating either less or more than 3 meals a day and, in the long term, I gained weight.

The upshot of all this, what I have come to realise over the last few months, is that my weight and my body are not the problem. My relationship with food and dieting is the problem.

I love food, I am a good cook, who was raised by a good cook and my favourite foods are recipes that takes the very best ingredients and prepares and combines them in the simplest way possible so that they can sing. But for nearly half my life I have either denied myself the pleasure of enjoying it or gorged on it with a self-disgust so bitter it’s been less than worth eating at all. I have used food to satisfy or punish myself and it’s no surprise that’s made it hard to enjoy. I don’t want to carry on like this – it’s exhausting and it’s depressing  using what is supposed to be one of life’s greatest pleasures as a stick to beat myself with, especially when doing that doesn’t actually achieve anything to make changes I’m not really sure I even want. I’m also aware that within the next few years my boyfriend and I are thinking about having children and, just as I want to be a role model for them as a working woman who sees her career as a priority, I think it’s important that they understand that food is something to enjoy and that doing properly that shouldn’t mean compromising your health.

I’m not going to go into the arguments about magazines and celebrity body culture, because this is not that kind of post and I don’t know enough about the debate to add anything to it. I’m sure it has a role to play but I am also keenly aware that that doesn’t absolve me of my personal responsibility and yesterday I resolved to take ownership of my relationship with food and make it better.

So that means eating three meals a day – healthy meals of a portion that seems in keeping with my level of hunger. It means noticing when I am hungry and when I’m not and what will satisfy my hunger and what will not. It means tasting my food and indulging only in the satisfaction of food, not the sensation of fullness. It means exercising to make my body strong and to notice the changes it makes to my sense of wellbeing and strength. It means not weighing myself more than once a month and using that measurement to adjust my routine only as a guide to how well my routine is nourishing me.

Perhaps I will lose weight, perhaps I will gain weight but I am excited that, for the first time since I have been eligible to vote, I am not on a diet and I will not waste any more wonderful food.

Sunday, 10 October 2010


BTW, this blog now mostly lives at www.voicefromthebelow.com. Read it there, it will make life simpler for me! :)


On the 20th October last year I fell apart. There’s no need for detail here but I was devastated by something of my own making and quickly I unfurled, lowest ebb after lowest ebb, rock bottom constantly redefining.

On the 20th October this year I will be at the Manchester Blog Awards, short listed for the blog I write about the place where I live.

It’s too easy to say there’s synchronicity to this. After all I didn’t plan for the dates to be the same, nor did I plan to fall apart (although, trust me, it was a long time owing), but there is something there…something I need to acknowledge about what the last year has given me.

Like I say the mental fallout was long overdue. Again, no need for details but I was profoundly unhappy and mentally self-medicating in ways that were destroying things that I held very dear. Coming apart at the seams was ugly, brutal and exhausting but it also presented me with an opportunity, albeit one that I’ve only started to see with the last few months’ hindsight. In living my life the wrong way for so long, being taken to the point of no return and spat out unceremoniously on the kerb-side it was clear that something had to change. Therapy did that. Or at least it helped. A lot. I could go on for ages about how therapy is right for some people and not for others and I know enough practicing psychologists to realise how entirely un-fallible they really are but for me it works. It undid the unbelievable mess of knots in my mind and allowed me to finally start dealing with what lay underneath.

But I digress. Opportunities. Potential.

Trust me, I didn’t always see it this way. The things I lost were mourned at great and undignified length but somehow, eventually, they became…of the past. I miss them, but only in so much in as I miss the ignorance of how damaging they were to me. I sometimes miss a person but I no longer believe I need that person. At the heart of it all, over time, came the realisation that I needed to start living this life, not just hoping for it to happen if only “someone” would "make" me "happy". Reading that back, I am astounded by how closely the literal interpretation of that matches what happened next. Clearly I needed to start loving where I lived figuratively – my own mental health issues, the things I had lost, the things I had left – and then one day an opportunity presented itself for me to do that in actuality.

LoveLevenshulme is a community grassroots project started a few years ago by Matt Clements, a resident who wanted to encourage the people of Levenshulme to see the beauty around them. Matt and his family were up and leaving Levy for the West Midlands and he put a shout out for someone to take over. Without much of a backwards glance I signed up. I don’t know why. All of the above would indicate a deeply perceptive sense of kismet but, frankly, I’m not that clever, nor was I “ready” at the time. I just did it.

And here I am. Three months later LoveLevenshulme has opened up so many doors for me. My fellow LoveLev-er Tim Simmonds and I went on the radio last week to talk about the project and I was asked what my favourite thing about Levenshulme was. I shamefacedly gave the predictable “the people” response, but it’s true – working on the blog has brought me into contact with so many good, good people who are using their creativity and enthusiasm to brighten their corner of the world. I’ve discovered a community spirit I didn’t know existed in an urban, economically disparate landscape and, quite simply, in telling people why they should love the place where they live, I’ve learned to love it myself.

Now I’m not saying that means we deserve to win any awards. After all, it’s a pretty selfish reason to be emotionally tied to blog which is supposed to be about community and I really don’t think the whole “this blog saved my life” angle is a dignified one for the author to be working. That’s why this goes here and not on LoveLevenshulme. The blog in itself is good I think, I’m proud of it and I enjoy working with Tim on it. I think we serve our central aim well and, although I don’t make any grand claims*, I like to think that it is contributing in a small way to some of the changes that are happening around Levenshulme. If those are compelling enough reasons for us to win then so be it, if not then it will continue to serve its purpose for the people of Levenshulme and that’s plenty to be pleased about.

So why am I writing this? Because I’m proud, I guess. Because there I people I hope will read it as a thank you. Because I think there’s a strange kind of beauty in what’s happened and for the first time in my life I can see it. Because I am happy.

*When I first moved to Levenshulme around 8 years ago I was told it was “the new Chorlton”. I have been told this many times since (mostly by estate agents). It is not true, in case you were wondering. We’re cooler.

Friday, 17 September 2010

I...Don't Like Cupcakes. There. I said it.

A disclaimer, first of all. People I know and like very much have made cupcakes which I have eaten and enjoyed. They are fun food; sweet and silly snacks - the effort that goes into making them for friends is a gesture, for me at least, more touching than the food produced. The objections I outline below are more about the elevation of the cupcake to (faux) cuisine and its incumbent - to my mind, false - symbolism of a food-loving culture. To those of you who make cupcakes for fun times, please don't be hurt, this isn't about you. You all exude Nigella Lawson-esque sexpottyness without having to try one iota.

Well of course I don’t hate cupcakes. They are, after all, cake. The delicate combination of a wodge of carbohydrate and a dollop of fat melts on my tongue the same way as it does for any human being. It tastes nice. It tastes good, even, but - and here’s the key - it rarely tastes interesting.

I like food. I don’t count myself as a trailblazer in any way (my offal curiosity blanches somewhat at anything that handles bodily waste), or even a particularly engaged foody but I do prefer the food I put in my mouth to taste of food. Fresh vegetables, juicy fruit, rich meat, creamy dairy; they’re all flavours that can be combined to the limits of your creativity to engender sensations that teeter at the edge of your imagination but still surprise and delight in actuality. And what is the cupcake? Well it’s sponge. Plain sponge. It is sweet and carby and fatty but it’s not exciting. And buttercream. Buttercream is sugar and fat. Our cave-man brains like sugar and fat and so our taste buds like them too, but is there any complexity or depth of flavour in refined sugar? Does a glug of vegetable oil burst on your tongue like a just-picked raspberry? No.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that many cup-cake bakers go to great lengths to source good quality ingredients and make interesting additions to their cupcakes but the formula is there and so rarely diverted from that cupcakes essentially come in three forms:
If you’re lucky you might get all three but underneath the window dressing (the equivalent of making your dog wear a tutu and tiara) you’ll still be left with the same basic sponge and butter cream that couldn’t hold a candle to a strawberry and dark chocolate torte or a pistachio and apricot roulade.

Then there is the culture of the cupcake. The wave of sprinkles and red velvet (an elaborately evocative name for what is essentially sponge with red food colouring) that has swept through the UK has left a wake of press releases citing “Emily’s love of baking” and “Susie’s passion for all things sweet”. Have you been to a launch or opening recently? The canapes have let themselves go and bloated to tooth-achingly sweet concoctions of infinite colour and self-proclaimed grandeur but only one flavour. Sweet.

I’m blogging about this mainly because I’m shocked to find myself one of only a very few dissenting voices, and the only woman I know of. It seems that cupcakes are universally liked, and the love of cupcakes has become as much a by-word for “I’m a girl, me” as the near-compulsory shoes’n’bags obsession. Somehow “i love cupcakes” appears to have become shorthand for “i love food, no really i do” as if by loving something so safe, so anodyne as an unexceptional bit of flavourless cake imbues you with the same sexual gluttony as Nigella Lawson fellating a cream-covered whisk. It doesn’t. As a woman, saying you love food and using cupcakes as proof is like saying you love film and citing the Sex and The City movies as your touchstone influence. Maybe that’s true, maybe it is, but if that’s you, really, I beg of you, watch Magnolia and revel in a full-blooded taste sensation.

It’s about that cupcake shop in New York. Honest.