MY NEW LIFE AS A SENTIMENTAL, RACIST GLUTTON* September 27, 2011Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
* For punishment?
It’s been a funny old few weeks since I last scribbled, involving a complete change of career – if such I ever really had – which has prompted both astonishment and ridicule in some quarters. Behind this is my enduring affection for my home town of Presteigne and associated dismay at the decline of localism that threatens not just it, but similar locations throughout Britain – a topic I’ve railed about several times here. In the current economic climate the might of the big supermarket chains, the decline of postal services (and consequent small post office-cum-village shop closures) and the collapse of small-scale manufacturing has augured the demise of many local retailers and pubs and the subtle but ultimately deleterious effect this has on local cultures.
Some argue that this an inevitable outcome of economic change in a digital world, where commercial interests are consolidated into a few big players who nonetheless supply what society needs – or is persuaded to think it needs – in a cost-effective if often unregulated manner. And, furthermore, that the social consequences should not be feared or condemned, and perhaps even embraced as stepping stones to some brave new world. In which case I would refer them to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian and now rather prescient novel of the same name.
One or two locals dismiss my verbal hand-wringing over this as mere sentimental twaddle, arguing that our town would be better off with a Tesco or Morrisons feeding its increasingly unemployed and impoverished citizens, if only to save them the cost of driving to towns nearby where they already exist. That this would take money, and possibly even more jobs out of the local economy isn’t something they wish to debate, but even these naysayers had to think twice when a small chain of Indian takeaway restaurants recently offered to buy The Hat Shop.
Owned by three good friends (and good friends of mine), one of whom – the main chef – wished to retire from the hard slog of maintaining The Hat Shop as a local high street institution these past 22 years. The menu is ever-changing, seasonal, globally eclectic and though not cheap, excellent value, and the place has become something of a social hub where we hold our parties, entertain friends and over the years held musical events, themed culinary evenings and regular art exhibitions. Needless to say its atmosphere, due as much to the cheery nature of the women who run it as it is to its cosy décor, is elemental to its popularity and the owners had hoped that it might be bought by someone, possibly a chef and front-of-house couple, who would at least maintain its social value, if not its menu. But when the Indian company made an offer within days of The Hat Shop going on the market, and then upped it again a few hours after it was rejected, the horns of a dilemma arose.
There were those who said that the town could actually use an Indian takeaway, even though we already have a Chinese, a fish’n’chip shop which inevitably does burgers, kebabs and occasionally, curries, and a café selling takeaway pizzas. It would, they vociferously claimed, mean cheaper eating for the mass of folk who didn’t patronise the Hat Shop anyway, and provide a welcome addition to the culinary scene for those that did. No matter that we have Indian outlets in towns a very few miles away, and no matter that Presteigne would then be without any restaurant offering fresh and freshly cooked ingredients, many of them produced locally.
Moreover, a little light research revealed that the prospective buyers’ strategy is to re-heat food cooked in a Birmingham factory and bus in staff from that same burgh, thus removing jobs as well as revenue for local suppliers. To cut a not very long but rather vexatious and, after at least one accusation of culinary racism, occasionally acrimonious story short, I decided quite literally to put my money where my mouth had often been. And my offer to buy the Hat Shop, slightly higher than the Indians’, has since been accepted, and I’ve now embarked on the steep learning curve of a neophyte restaurateur.
As hiring an outsider would’ve been a risk not relished, to my huge relief in this I’m aided by the three chefs who, now not about to be displaced by Brummie factory workers, will be maintaining the traditions if not the exact menu of yore. So after a bit of a re-fit, the Hat Shop will re-open in 2012 with a new lease of life and the vigorous but hopefully appropriate marketing campaign it never really had.
Downsides? Well of course, and particularly in the currently grim economic climate, I might screw it up and lose my shirt, because the money I was saving to buy a house and start a small publishing venture in the new year is now virtually all spoken for. But then again I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find an affordable, ideal home for almost three years and after so many false dawns, who’s to say if yet another of my fanciful schemes to recover my aforementioned career would ever get off the ground.
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