The bottle lies discarded at the side of our lane, tossed out of a car window. You have to admit it makes a change from crisp packets, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and McDonald’s wrappers and drinks cartons. But then there’s a lot of it about. I went up to Scotland to see my daughter. Junction 36 of the M6 was ‘experiencing difficulties’ so, forewarned, I decided I’d cut through the Lake District and join the M6 at Penrith. After all I left home at 9am, so traffic shouldn’t be so bad. It might not be bad but I got stuck behind a Porsche. It was one of the ones that looks a bit like a Range Rover from behind, and it did thirty miles an hour from Newby Bridge to beyond Bowness. The driver just dawdled. Finally when we got to the roundabout with the A591 and he turned north towards Ambleside (the way I had intended to go) I just went straight ahead and over Kirkstone Pass. Anything had to be faster than following him.
But there, at the top of Kirkstone Pass, a mile past the Inn, in the middle of wild and desolate beauty, a discarded face mask lay in the middle of the road.
People fascinate me. It’s as if they cannot cope with more than one big idea at a time. David Attenborough produces a TV programme about plastic in the sea and suddenly everybody is demanding we ban single-use plastics because they’re destroying the environment. Government puts a tax on plastic bags, there’s a stream of documentaries about recycling and the dangers of this plastic or that plastic, and everybody promises faithfully that they’re going to eliminate single-use plastics. Coffee shops stop using plastic straws or start encouraging customers to use metal, or even pasta straws.
Then we have a ‘pandemic’, government is attacked from all sides because it wasn’t producing and stockpiling massive amounts of single-issue plastic (but now it’s ‘good’ single-use plastic, it’s PPE and it’s going to save the universe and rescue us all from imminent death.) and people are cheerfully discarding facemasks all over the place. We’re going to have oceans full of them.
One problem is people seem to focus on one issue at a time. Farmers and landowners see it regularly as governments are swayed by yet another single-issue pressure group. We stand well back from the riverbank as the canoeists and the fishermen fight over access. It’s going to get even more interesting when the ones who want to release beavers get caught up in that fight.
Then we have those who want a pleasant countryside where they can take a short walk. At the same time they’d like to look at the ancient parish church, browse a few local handicrafts and have a brew in an agreeable local tea room. Try doing that if the enthusiasts for rewilding the Lake District get their way.
It’s much the same way with food production. Farmers are blamed for selling food that makes people unhealthy. (I mean, the way farmers stand over their customers with a whip making them drink another quart of raw milk is frankly shocking.)
Then we’re told people want cheap food, (and plenty of it with infinite choice) and at the same time other groups will encourage us to go Organic.
Now we have other pressures creeping up on us. With the current medical unpleasantness still raging in its full administrative glory, it’s pretty well guaranteed that a lot of people are going to end up unemployed. I don’t know whether we’ll get a second wave of virus, but we are going to see a lot of people kicked onto the scrapheap because their jobs no longer exist. For example, at what point are people going to stop pretending that the airlines and travel industries are just going to be like they were? Indeed in some cases the companies that employed people dumped on the dole may no longer exist either. At this point in the blog I’d like to ask you to remember to support your local foodbank. For an increasing number of people, it could well be ‘the shopping destination of choice’ this winter.
I suspect this will change the pressures on agriculture. When things are tight, people forget about luxuries such as organic or artisan produce and want something cheap and ideally wholesome. But with the emphasis on cheap.
The graph below shows the Organic food and drink sales revenue in the United Kingdom 1999-2018
As you can see, the crash of 2008 lead to a decline in organic sales. (I can remember organic milk producers abandoning organic production because they couldn’t get the premium they needed for it to be economically viable.) It took almost a decade for sales to get back to where they had been. My gut feeling is this time is going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to be far too stretched to fritter money away on luxuries when they have necessities to buy.
So what does the food producer do? Over the years I’ve sold beef, lamb and pork direct to the consumer and have undercut the supermarkets but still had a better margin than just selling it to the slaughter trade. Yes, my customers needed freezer space and had to be able to fit in a whole lamb, half a pig, or an eighth of a bullock (they weigh about the same). They also needed to be able to afford to pay over a lump sum, but they showed the savings over the next three months. It’s not a mass market, but it’s surprising who can be part of it. One of my customers asked me to deliver on the day she and her friends all got their benefit cheques. I delivered it to her and she paid me on the nail.
Somebody then phoned me to say my customer was making money by selling some of it to her friends, who were also on benefits but who didn’t have freezers. That’s why she’d chosen the day she had, everybody was briefly flush with cash. Much to the chagrin of my informant I refused to be shocked, pointing out that I’d got the price I asked, and if she had the initiative and drive to organise something like this, I’d happily sell her another one next month. Just because somebody is an unmarried mother with a fine selection of studs and tattoos doesn’t mean they lack acumen.
Over the last few years a lot of farmers have moved into more ‘artisan’ food, producing some really nice stuff. When the first lockdown was imposed, a lot of them were badly hit because their customers couldn’t drive out to visit their shop, and of course really good quality goods often end up in the restaurant sector because good chefs appreciate good food. Some of them saw their sales drop to pretty much nothing. There are a lot of stories emerging of how they frantically set up websites, facebook pages, home delivery boxes and similar.
Looking over the next few years, I do wonder if there might be more options for farmers to do this sort of thing. Not for a ‘premium’ market, but just dealing with people who in happier times would try to buy premium produce but now are willing to settle for decent stuff that is about the same price as the supermarket. I think if people can keep their nerve, who knows what we could see.
There again, what do I know. I diversified into writing, fleeing one loss making industry for another.
In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.
As a reviewer commented, “
Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.
Five big shiny stars.”