I am sitting at my kitchen table. It is full of stuff I’ve just bought on an impromptu tramp around the shoppier parts of where I live: Birkenhead, on the Wirral. The weather is good today, really good, too warm and bright for the coat I’ve been wearing all autumn and winter. I’m wondering if it needs to be put on a coat hanger until late October.
Before I left home earlier I heard snippets on Radio 4 of Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond’s spring statement. He is not someone I would ever listen to for advice on the economy. (Who would any of us listen to for advice on the economy?) The Guardian thinks he is upbeat – Hammond made a point of this, actually, so I don’t think the world’s leading liberal voice is applauding him. ‘[He] claimed the government was taking a balanced approach that was working’, said the World at One. We then heard Hammond: ‘That is how responsible people budget. First you work out what you can afford, then you decide what your priorities are, and then you allocate between them.’ Leaving aside political allegiances, I think some people – even some Tories, surely they’re not all dead-eyed free market zombies – would disagree with this: often priorities are decided before we are able to work out how much we can afford. For many there isn’t even the freedom to work things out, and for all in society some priorities are decided for us, such as council tax, utilities, and rent. You can be as sensible as you like with budgeting but economic circumstances can restrict how sensible you would like to be. There are just some essential things in life that we cannot afford to do without even if we cannot afford to do almost anything.
A vital strain of the power enjoyed by Hammond and the Tories is prioritising no matter the country’s priorities. Even when it becomes apparent that money seems to have been available all along (last minute injections of cash into the NHS, for example, or the money tree from which has been plucked the billion pounds in extra funding for the DUP), we realise a priority doesn’t become one until pressure mounts to levels the government’s speechwriters cannot stem. The NHS, we realise, is not a priority for this government, in spite of what they say to the contrary. We know politicians lie (it’s a boring cliche, there’s no getting away from it), but a Chancellor from a party wedded to austerity at any cost will seek to sound like a purveyor of budgetary common sense at the same time as conniving to shield the population from the truth of another agenda.
Before climbing the stairs to my flat in order to write this I spoke to a neighbour. In all the time I’ve known him he’s held down a number of retail jobs, all of which have been low paid with poor conditions. This job he’s in now is possibly the worst yet: early morning shifts working for a homewares store, less than part-time hours with shittier pay than usual. Other places he’s worked in gave him more hours and better pay but was riddled with poor management and low staff morale, which mounted to such a degree that he felt forced out.
Work can be thankless but if the pay is decent (humane enough), there is at least that pay-off. Being paid monthly as in his current job adds to the thanklessness; there’s something demoralising about monthly pay. The turnaround of life makes a month too long time to wait for most things, let alone remuneration for one’s labour. All the more reason then for hope to be on the wane as too much time passes by without incentive. With the second coming-like advent of Universal Credit, monthly payments now afflict the welfare system, which is forcing new claimants (meaning eventually all claimants) to wait even longer than a month for their first payment even if they’re able to offer people an up-front loan to tide them over.
I feel for my neighbour. He seems compassionate and sensitive, and obviously hard-working. He said he’d take a 50 hour contract tomorrow; he said he’d work twelve hour shifts every day if the pay and conditions were good; ‘I’d rather work for my money than be on the dole’. He sends his CV endlessly to employers but receives not even an automated message; only stone-cold radio silence.
Wirral Borough Council is looking to sell off its assets in order to bridge the gap in central government funding caused by the Tory-led ideology of austerity. As ever with local councils, who think they’re being active by granting contracts to firms to assist them in the work they can’t be arsed doing themselves, a quango has been invented to execute its vision of a bright future: Wirral Growth Company. There is so much wrong with this name it’s hardly worth going into. Doesn’t it just say it all? How is my neighbour, for example, meant to get exercised by the thought of the Wirral Growth Company – still less consider himself its eventual beneficiary – when the companies whose investment they are attracting to the area will almost certainly offer the same old shitty pay and conditions?
A new Lidl opened close to central Birkenhead recently. If there is anything less symbolic of a bright future it is the opening of a branch of Lidl. Wirral Council granted permission for the store to open in a relatively deprived corner of Birkenhead in which small independent businesses have signalled small shoots of positivity over the years.
Three international food shops can be found in a sort-of quarter around two busy roads leading out from central Birkenhead to the suburb of Oxton. Added to that is a thriving fruit and veg shop whose colourful and diverse wares spill onto the pavement. It has been a bulwark against the total decline of central Birkenhead, a town centre (I hate the municipal language, but even so) that blighted my childhood through its unremitting ugliness. Central Birkenhead is a dystopian vision in irredeemable concrete; a mega-bunker of one crap shop after the other, where even the market manages to drain the lifeblood, forcing you to abandon the place altogether and stay on the Liverpool bus all the way across (or, rather, under) the Mersey. Today, however, we decided to take ourselves on a grand tour of the international food stores of Birkenhead.
The fruit and veg shop is on Oxton Road. Locally speaking, ‘Oxton Road’ is a psychogeographic flag, indicating rising gentrification from the post-apocalyptic precincts of Birkenhead’s centre to affluent suburbs beyond. When I visited this afternoon, classical music was being played on a little radio above the onions. For once I felt I wanted to stay in a shop rather than get out as quickly as possible because of some whining X factor wannabe or techno beat that has the psychological effect of a dentist’s drill. I recognised the piece on the radio: Haydn, I’m sure, or was it Mozart? The bright, breezy sound world of the first Viennese School suits the colour and shapes on display in the fruit and veg shop. Something about general health is implied: calm, harmony, order, humanity…
The three other places, as I say, are international food stores, full of canned beans, pulses, tomatoes, and fruit; spices, seasonings; oils, vinegars; sauces and ketchups. They too offer fruit and veg, but I thought it was only reasonable to purchase fresh food from the shop dedicated to selling only them.
I was greeted warmly with the genuine offer of help if needed.
Bulging bags of onions stacked by entrances was a recurrent design feature.
In one of these stores, situated on a long residential street with retail premises mixed in, there was an uneasy atmosphere that sadly put me in mind of delicate race politics needling away in predominantly white, mono-cultural places like Birkenhead. Still, the owner of that gaff couldn’t have been friendlier, even if his regulars looked bemused if not surprised by my presence. I wondered if many local (white) residents shopped there. For me, the sight of an international food store on such a street mixes things up; something beyond a fag and booze peddler makes life worth living that little bit more. Every little difference helps. Even the possibility of onions being displayed in a different way opens up your imagination, sets you free from the hypnosis of consumer capitalism. You don’t have to buy that can of Bird’s rice pudding that is three years out of date, but you can if you really want to, and nobody will stop you. Buy them all!
Clearly we swerved Lidl, casting a contemptuous look at its clinical facelessness. I am not contemptuous of the people who work there, or of their need for work and even – I hope so, anyway – what pleasure they can yield from working there (the odd good-humoured banter with customers, camaraderie with fellow workers). But development of places like Birkenhead cannot come at any cost: look at the small independent businesses I’ve profiled – my hope is that they will thrive rather than die because of Lidl. Something tells me it will be the regulars of these shops that keep it going as ever before, while the mainstay of Birkenhead’s populace will embrace the very thing that sounds their death knell, every hour on the hour. Sadly, for most people living in the area, certainly the ones not resorting to food banks, Lidl is a godsend for tight household budgets.
Under the auspices of The Wirral Growth Company, corporate power will metastasise like cancer. Call it self-fulfilling irony. It’s a familiar story: you have only to replace the name and the place, but the similarities carry over wherever you are. Where small independent businesses truly invest in places, big companies do so cynically, for the benefit of their shareholders. Wirral Borough Council has missed a trick (mis-read the soul of the place it is meant to look after). Lidl is nobody’s saviour. Likewise the companies and brands set to flood central Birkenhead in the development proposed by the quango that in all likeliness will literally run it aground. The municipal powers that be seem to have turned their back on (or pushed their nose up at) the small independent businesses that have kept Birkenhead’s outlying streets alive with the same passionate dedication that they have awarded their precious contracts. Build a future around real people rather than aiding and abetting the stock market, making citizens vulnerable yet again to the lionising power of finance capital. What future for the fruit and veg shop on Oxton Road? And the thanks it gets for brightening the place up and encouraging healthy eating? The spectre of capital looming over it a few yards up the hill courtesy of the authority to which it pays its business rates.
Further up the hill can be found an historic conservation area. It’s a different world entirely from the retail-residential mash-up of central Birkenhead. Oxton, or ‘Oxton Village’, looks smart and acts smart, and probably thinks itself smarter than it is. In Oxton the cars get bigger and the lips bigger still. BotOxton? Still, the place affords quiet walks with generous opportunities for the have nots to peer at the property-owning haves. Oxton is exactly the kind of area that stokes the so-called ‘dream’ of property ownership, that curiously British phenomenon by which the nature of one’s building assets determine the extent of one’s human worth. Oxton is a place eternally ripe for gentrification, which has been happening apace in the past few years. Perhaps uniquely, it is comprised almost totally of independent businesses. The last place my companion and I visited on our Birkenhead tramp is an upmarket grocer’s that it would be churlish to dismiss as yet another overpriced outlet where people gain status from paying over the odds for regular stuff. Seeing as the upmarket grocer actively supports other independent traders locally and regionally, it would be wrong to dismiss them in this way. After all, isn’t what they do called community (or at least some version)?
As in my other examples, a genuinely warm and welcoming atmosphere awaited me. All of these traders know what they’re doing and know when their customers are likely to need help and advice. In these spaces it can feel like going back in time, when all our food shopping was done in cramped premises crammed from floor to ceiling with all the things required for life. In Oxton, the fruit and veg adorns the entrance like a garland. It is a highly stylised affair, not an international food shop exactly, even if much of its product range is comprised of ingredients from around the world. Here internationalism is more a lifestyle marker than a way of life, although the shop’s encouragement of international cooking seems genuine. Still, you expect a modern Arkwright to step out in a buff-coloured grocer’s coat, except Oxton is more bourgeois-bohemian than ironic hipsterdom. The latter would likely approve of the decor, however, with its blend of vintage green and sans-serif typography.
My companion and I sat on a bench opposite the grocer’s. I drank my soda slowly under a resplendent sun reaching its zenith. We had come to the end of our grand tour of Birkenhead’s international food stores. Kids in boater hats from posh prep schools were being conveyed in 4x4s through Oxton’s curvy lanes back to the family compound. I tried to prevent the jarring juxtaposition in the fortunes of Birkenhead’s citizens from spoiling my moment of peace in the sun. But the class war between them up the hill and them down the hill got to me. Life-worlds of difference. This wasn’t London, but it may as well have been.
My shoulder was aching under the strain of the bag with all our purchases; my companion offered to carry the butternut squash for the remainder of the journey, but I was enjoying the weight almost masochistically, proving to myself that it is better to work for your provisions than to guzzle more of the world’s resources like the carbon-greedy parents of Oxton. Refusing all the trappings of modern life as we had done, walking to the shop and back and denying corporatism a penny of our money into the bargain, we felt free. In claiming your independents, it is possible to find yourself, and sometimes each other.