What we did on our holidays

As a result of writing this blog, we cannot avoid seeing everywhere through a Brockley prism. So, while in France last week, the main thing we wondered as we traipsed through town after town is: why are there so many shops while we in Brockley fret over the viability of a tiny handful of independents on our high streets?

The British economy is the one supposed to be afloat on an ocean of consumer debt, the French barely know which way around to hold a credit card. And the French have embraced the hypermarket with greater relish than us - Carrefour is bigger than Tesco and every French town is surrounded by US-style commercial sprawl. Despite all this, even the most deserted French town seems to be able to support a range of shops that would be the envy of a UK town twice the size. In Paris, high-end furniture shops outnumber high-end furniture buyers by a margin of at least two-to-one.

Due to Brockley Road's ongoing challenges, we spent a disproportionate part of our holiday pondering the question. The only explanation we could come up with was inertia - for a country founded on revolutionary fervour, France is almost immune to change:

Fiddle with the car radio for more than 10 minutes and you can be sure of finding Phil Collins, UB40 or Dire Straits. Johnny Hallyday is always on the cover of Paris Match. Some variant of the Crystal Maze is always on TV. Girls dress the same way now as they did when we were trying to pull them. Lucky Luke is still being used to sell junk food to kids.

The shops are there because they always have been. And no hypermarket, internet retailer or banker is going to tell them it should be any other way. It is a nation of Sounds Arounds.


Anonymous said...

BC crossing into brave new territory there, on the subject of local shops

Brockley Nick said...

Well it was about France really, but woteva.

Still, that makes two whole articles referencing shops on the front page. Tomorrow - parks!

Anonymous said...

Could it be because if you go a Boulangerie (for instance) the prices are dirt cheap? - the hypermarkets may have it all under one roof - but the independents still compete with price. Plus trades like butchers and bakers are seen as artisan trades in France whereas here less so.

Anonymous said...

"woteva", is that how they spell it in the 'hood?

Mark UK said...

Every year, from spring to automn, the stately park of the Versailles Castel hosts the "Grandes Eaux Musicales". Let's come discover and rediscover this delightful show !

Headhunter said...

I think the French are also more particular about their food and have more specific demands. Whereas we in the UK are happy to buy, say, cheese, wine, meat etc from the limited options at the supermarket, the French consumer may prefer to head to a specialist shop where there is likely to be a much larger range, where they are able to taste the produce without having to open a shrink wrapped plastic package and speak to someone knowledgeable in that food stuff.

IME, UK consumers seem more willing to buy processed crap in boxes, packages and plastic, or perhaps it's just that we perceive this is our only choice as that's what the supermarkets stock.

BrockleyBiker said...

"IME, UK consumers seem more willing to buy processed crap in boxes, packages and plastic, or perhaps it's just that we perceive this is our only choice as that's what the supermarkets stock."

To be fair to people in this country, when you live somewhere that was the first place to industrialise its food production you are not going to have the greatest attitudes or education about food. This is a problem that goes way back, and something the French managed to escape by being largely slow on the uptake.

Anonymous said...

Most of these small French towns,are mainly lived in by French people who support the small Independent shop,As I bet villages over here do.Brockley has many different cultures who dont always like what the local delhi sells.

Maybe I'm wrong

Brockley Kate said...

Cheap rents? Combined with more local producers, making stock purchasing and distribution much quicker, easier and less formal?

Tyrwhitt Michael said...

Where's our article about parks?


Headhunter said...

Not sure blaming our food habits on industrialisation which occured 150 years ago is really fair!

Cheap rents - that's a good point applicable to London, but less so outside.

I don't think all villages in the UK all support local shops and delis. My sister has lived in a couple of different villages in Bedfordshire and currently has to shop at a small Co Op supermarket along the lines of the one in Crofton Park, there isn't much else around.

None of them had a shop selling locally sourced delicacies, although admittedly there were a few farmer's shops scattered about the local countryside selling fruit and veg etc.

Anonymous said...

Not many farmer's In Brockley me thinks.

Headhunter said...

That was in response to Anon 11.25's comment about villages

Anonymous said...

The Farmers of France are also highly organised into co-operatives and have a great deal of political influence.

Their little farms are uneconomic but are supported by the State and further, by the EU subsidy.

The French are also rather sniffy about food and restaurants. Ever since the chefs to the Louis XVI saved themselves by bringing the good food of France to the common people, each Frenchman believes he should dine like a King.

A chef is an esteemed professional in France. Not the hobbyist, or maverick chancer TV personality who swears a lot, which seems to be the position this side of the channel. I'd like to see one of that lot top themselves when they lose a Michelin star, as has happened in France.

In the UK the farmers are in the pocket of the supermarkets and we get what we are given by the food processing factories and supermarkets who have strangled the independent competition and created a profitable cartel.

The only glimmer in this sad state of affairs is that without a strong indigenous cusiene we are somewhat more opem minded. We drink wine from anywhere and lots of ethnic restaurants thrive in the UK. The French are not know for being open minded in this respect, they have a superiority complex. They are hoist by their own petard.

Whenever I have French visitors they always want to go to an Indian restaurant, which they regard as the height of exotic culinary adventure. Sometimes they wonder at my supercilious grin as I ponder that this is a nation is sometimes more gnome than gastronome.

fred vest said...

"Not sure blaming our food habits on industrialisation which occured 150 years ago is really fair!"

I think it was a good point that brockley biker made about this and tend to agree with him/her about the lasting effects of it - and the revolution in agricultural production (i.e. producing more output with less people) in england began a lot earlier than 150 years ago - 16th/17th century time really and so much so that by the beginning of the 19th century the non-agricultural population of france made up 14% of the population whilst in england it made up 41%.

The point behind this is that in france at that time you had 86% of the population still engaged in food production to feed the country compared to only 59% in england, yet that smaller proportion in england produced far more food than that produced in france - obviously this was done through a much bigger focus in england on mass production, increased productivity & efficiency, new methods and dispensing with more traditional approaches to the production of food, the downside to this approach is self evident in terms of quality of the resultant food output

that process that unfolded back then continues to leave an imprint in the here and now and explains quite a lot of the huge gulf between attitudes to food between the UK and the rest of europe. I also agree with Nick's more general point about France and the above is one example of the roots of this. overall there does seem to be a common view that France is a more modern forward looking revolutionary republic whilst england is stuck in the past with anarchonistic ways etc.., but if you scratch the surface and look at the changes over the last 3 or 4 hundred years to the social/economic/political/legal structures the reality is that France can be viewed as 'old wine in new bottles' whilst england as 'new wine in old bottles' - i.e. there is a surface veneer of modernism in France and one of ancient regime in england, but that's just surface appearance, the essence & relaity of it is actually the reverse of this - the most revolutionary force of all time, capitalism itself, was born in the english countryside afterall

Tyrwhitt Michael said...

There has been a big change in food production post WWII with much more intensive methods used. This was initially to prevent the shortages suffered during the war reoccuring.

I think this concentration on quantity has had an adverse effect on the quality of the food we eat.

That and the supermarkets.


Anonymous said...

Small shops will thrive again as more people return to smallholding and growing bits and bobs.

Beyond the allotment crowd, people are getting into a whole heap of things from chickens to beekeeping to goats to quails to aquaponics.

Aquaponics is the next big thing. Some fish and shedloads of hydroponic veggies. Best of all, no smell/noise or pissing off your neighbours and the fish eat all organic waste.

Brockley Nick said...

I think it's interesting that the conversation has focused on food shops - you're right that the French have a very different relationship with food. But actually, what's interesting is that it's not only food shops, but pharmacies, clothes shops and every other kind of shop. And these are shops with seemingly very few customers - Kate's probably right that rental costs must be lower - maybe rates too?

fred vest said...

"people are getting into a whole heap of things from chickens to beekeeping to goats to quails to aquaponics"

i think I saw hugh getting into a goat the other day actually

Brockley Nick said...

@Fred - re: new wine / old wine. Nicely put.

Brockley Kate said...

There's a disturbing tone of harmony and lack of class conflict on this thread. Sort it out, people.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because the middle classes in the UK all want cushy office jobs and the lower classes all want to be drug dealers, so there's nobody in between to want to run small scale shops?

Anonymous said...

Basic geography is also a factor. This island of ours is about half the size of France and has a good deal less agriculturally productive land. It is difficult for the country to feed itself if it cannot import food from overseas.

It was therefore a strategic policy to encourage farmers to pursue food production at the cost of quality. We got factory farming and huge amalgamated farms on the praries of East Anglia. This did little for the nations palate, but nonetheless filled bellies.

This priority was gradually replaced with a great debates within the EU over agricultural subsidies. Hopefully making better use of the agricultural resources across the EU rather than each country pursuing its own national policy.

UK farmers are now paid to look after land that is less agriculturally useful instead forcing it to be productive with pesticides and fertilizer.

I think the current policy encourages them to grow organic crops. Whether British or French farmers will be any less grumpy is another matter entirely.

Anonymous said...

I'Ve noticed In recent years If the French farmers have a grievance about government policy,they stick together block the ports etc,And next thing you know they have got there way,Anybody know why ? ?

Anonymous said...

Big Moustaches....

Scares the politicians witless.

I'm growing one at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Nick: I don't suppose this thread title was in any way referencing the Fairport Convention album of the same name, was it?

Anonymous said...

I want more brand name shops in the area. I long for the day we get a starbucks, M&S simply food and maybe a Tony and Guy.
I cant stand all this local, home grown is best holier than thou attitude.

Bring on the multi nationals, and drive out the horrors that we currently have to live with.

Brockley Nick said...

@anon - yes, although I have to admit, I couldn't remember which 70s legend recorded it - good job it wasn't gary glitter i suppose

Bob said...

Good luck with the multinationals Anonymous. Perhaps consider moving to Kingston upon Thames? And good riddance...

Tamsin said...

You don't get small shops in villages in the UK - you don't get any shops at all! The closure of such local amenities is a big issue in the countryside as those with cars drive up to five miles to the local out of town supermarket and those without cars are stuck with a struggling Costcutter if they are lucky or more likely nothing at all (and rural buses are a once-a-day feature).

It's possible that this is beginning to turn around - I haven't been in touch with my rural roots lately - and at least people are aware of the problem.

It may be that the closest the UK comes to France's strings of independent shops is in affluent market towns like Cirencester.

Fascinating thread this some fundamental differences between UK and the continent and their root causes - indeed food for thought.

brockley mutha said...

The French rant and rail against their system as much as we complain about ours. And my understanding is that the closure of small village shops is as much an issue in france as in england.
Certainly in herault - which I visit a lot. The neighbouring village to the one I holiday in lost their little shop and boulangerie a couple of years ago.

Aside from the tendency for many people to produce their own fruit and veg on allotments, for large numbers the bulk of the remainder of the shopping is done at lidl and SuperU in the nearest town.

Also in france the rights of certan industries are protected by legislation. For example take the issue of pharmacies which Nick mentioned - they are the only shops allowed - by law - to sell medicine - you'll notice you don't see aspirin, calpol, or various other over the counter meds in supermarkets.

All of this protectionism is what Sarkozy is trying to change of course.

Headhunter said...

Re chemists, didn't it used to be the same in the UK? I think supermarkets selling medicines is only a relatively recent thing...

mg said...

Brockley Mutha, the Hérault must be Brockley-in-the-sun, I visit a lot too. And last year I sat behind a man on the plane from Béziers, was a few steps behind him down to the train, changed at London Bridge, he got off in front of me at Brockley! I was a bit worried he'd think I was stalking him.

patrick1971 said...

Headhunter, supermarkets in the UK still have to have pharmacies and pharmacists before they can sell any non-OTC medication, just the same as Boots.

I think what Brockley Mutha was saying was that in France, you can't even buy OTC stuff like aspirin at the supermarket.

Anonymous said...

The French do like a good 'set to' with the government from time to time when they think they have a grievance.

I believe this comes from the patriachal nature of politics in France. The President and government tends to act in a rather patronising manner. For all its Republican revolution, they do not seem to be able to shake off the Louis IV notion that the head of state IS the state. French Presidents tend an behave with a haughty grandeur. Sarkozy, I think, comes in for cricism because he is not enough like this. He does not embody the dignity of the French state. He is a bit too 'vulgar'. He is also a moderniser, which is never a popular postion in France. They know they need reform, but they don't like the medicine they would have to take.

In contrast, the ordinary people reserve the right to manifest their grievances as they see fit. Behaving very like stroppy teenagers ranting against their parents authority. The mob and uprisings have played a big role in political change in France. The French are often revolting.

The main grievence is that in order to reform the ecomomy, it has to be made flexible. As it is, it is riven by protectionism as different groups of workers try to protect their privelges.

This is a very like the industrial strife we had in the 70's and 80's. Where the labour unions and the government were at loggerheads.

We know what happened here and the pain that went with it....well it did not happen in France. So they live with a very distorted economy.

If you have a job in France, you have a lot of protection and a nice pension and lots of holidays.

However, if you don't, you are stuffed. If you are from an immigrant background isolated in one of the big council estates around the major cities, you are even more stuffed.

France has a bigger welfare state cushion that we have here in the UK, with this recession that is likely to be cut. The government simply does not get in the same money in taxes.

The same thing is going to happen here. So hold onto your hats for tax rises and spending cuts.

The UK and France are almost the same size in terms of population and have very different ways of governing and handling the economy.

They are very sniffy about our Anglo-Saxon market led political solutions but their 'statist' approach also has serious weaknesses.

It is interesting to learn that France also has the curse of the supermarket denuding high streets of variety and forcing everyone into cars.

Maybe that is one market that they did not manage to buck.

That is such a shame.

Ian said...

Nunhead's pretty good for useful independent shops: it's got at least one butcher, two bakers, a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a hardware store and several other shops.

It's like how lots of little high streets used to be. I only hope it lasts.

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