Books Which Could Change Your LifeWednesday, 13 September 2006
The first in a series of articles which will review and recommend a couple of books which have had a positive impact on our lives, causing us to change the way we think, believe and act. Not necessarily recommended for peddlers of certainty or blue pill munchers…..
In each review there is a link allowing you to buy the book from Amazon. In the interests of transparency, we’re letting you know that if you do so, TTRP will get a small commission. Probably like you, however, we’d always cheer on a David against a Goliath (or an Amazon), so we’d recommend that you try sourcing the book of your choice from an independent bookstore before resorting to Amazon. We’d also appreciate readers’ suggestions for alternative book suppliers.
Often when discussing issues with friends, I have been asked for the source of some information which I’ve contributed to the debate. Most of the time the answer is from a book which I’ve read, but why is this source any more reliable than the likes of newspapers, magazines, TV or radio?
Firstly the mainstream media is dependent on the support of corporate advertisers and, despite denials, there is plenty of evidence that stories have been pulled or softened in tone because of some form of pressure from an interested party. For example, newspapers rely heavily on advertising revenue from motor manufacturers, so is it reasonable to expect hard-hitting and unbiased articles about these same companies and the effect of their products?
Secondly, the BBC, although it is meant to be independent (and TTRP strongly supports a truly independent national media source), can be pressured by the government (which has the power to legislate about the BBC’s regulation) into action which favours the government at the expense of independence. Not convinced? Greg Dyke, former BBC director general, and Andrew Gilligan, a BBC reporter, both lost their jobs at the BBC (under intense pressure from Mr Blair’s director of communications Alastair Campbell) for supporting Dr David Kelly’s assertions that the government was guilty of “sexing up” a report on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). How can employees of an allegedly independent national media source lose their jobs for agreeing that the government exaggerated about WMD which were then never found?!
Since starting this article, Mark Lynas in the New Statesman has drawn my attention to a more recent example of the BBC representing the views of the establishment but not the independent opposition. Following last week’s protests at the Drax power station in Yorkshire (which produces 7% of the UK’s electricity “needs” and 21 million tonnes of carbon pollution each year), Radio 4’s Today programme interviewed the deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire Police AND the chief executive of Drax, but failed to speak to anyone from Camp for Climate Action. Ten minutes after the Drax interview, the BBC’s environment correspondent was on the programme discussing global warming but at no point was the obvious link made between the problem and the previous news story. As Lynas rightly says, a martian visiting our (slowly dying) planet might wonder why the police were arresting the protesters rather than those helping to kill the planet. At the very least the BBC could have provided a forum for both sides to put their point of view.
Thirdly, lots of the facts, opinions and discussions found in books (and independent internet-based sites) simply do not appear in the mainstream media which often reports verbatim the words of authority (a government spokesman, a military commander, a senior police officer etc.).
There are, of course, occasional and wonderful exceptions when true investigative journalists are allowed to contribute to the mainstream debate or tell a relatively non-controversial story, but check out some of these recommended books, still with a questioning mind, and decide for yourself. Let the literary journey begin…….
First published in 2004, Joanna Blythman’s book was at the forefront of a growing movement which began to challenge the dominance of the supermarkets in the grocery sector and start to question some of the multi-million pound sales spin emanating from the companies involved. Having spent 3 years living in France, a country which has supermarkets but doesn’t depend on them for grocery shopping, Ms Blythman is a self-confessed opponent of supermarkets. Her book, however, is far from an emotive rant against the likes of Tesco, but carefully sets out the other side of the story for us, the consumers.
The book is divided into six main sections which look in turn and in considerable detail at the issues of the supermarkets’ impact on: land; food; employees; suppliers; the world; and our culture.
Space – between 1950 and 1990, the supermarkets grew their share of the grocery market from 20% to 80%, resulting in the closure of local stores and the desertion of local high streets. Many towns have become supermarket towns (I once worked near Swanley, known locally as Asdaville) and now supermarkets are hitting the remaining market segment with the likes of Tesco Metro and Sainsbury’s Local. Our current planning laws allow the supermarkets to bully local authorities and outmuscle them financially (eg big business funds v council tax payers’ money for legal fees). John Sweeney, leader of North Norfolk District Council, says, “They are too big and powerful for us. If we try and deny them they will appeal, and we cannot afford to fight a planning appeal and lose. If they got costs it could bankrupt us.” In addition, the companies will often offer ‘sweeteners’ such as building a community centre in return for a favourable response.
Food – perhaps the most interesting section for any reader as it involves what may go into your mouth. The book unmasks the spin that supermarkets are just giving us what we want (eg instead of dropping a declining frozen food sector, the stores simply re-branded the lines with new graphics and straplines like “frozen for freshness”). We’re led on an entertaining but worrying trip through the supermarkets’ tricks and shortcomings. There are some classic answers to consumer questions from unskilled staff on specialist counters (in answer to a question about the best way to cook smoked haddock, a Waitrose employee answered, “I don’t usually cook fish. My mum does and she microwaves it.”). A delve into pre-packed chilled sandwiches (bread shouldn’t be chilled), some very unfresh fish (far from the fishmonger’s goal of “from the sea to the pan as fast as we can”), the ‘coincidental’ huge drop in vegetable consumption since the 1960s, shiny red meat (looking good, tasting poor), the murder of decent cheeses and the destruction of seasonal foods. Despite the plethora of cooking programmes on TV, the whole supermarket ethos appears to encourage convenience and good-looking products at the expense of taste and quality, even occasionally portraying those with time to cook properly as ‘losers’. Classic supermarket trick? Re-packaging the humble apple, the original fast food, as ‘Fully Prepared Apple Bites’ (from Sainsbury’s – apple slices dipped in a vitamin C solution and then placed in a ‘pillow pack’ filled with modified air to stop them going brown). The reason? There’s only so much you can charge for an apple.
Employees – in the cause of true investigative journalism, Ms Blythman becomes an Asda ‘colleague’, enduring the cheesy induction training course (bordering on the brainwashing), working on a till and discovering the tricks that supermarkets may play to get more work for less money (at the time, Tesco began trialing a scheme to stop paying sick pay to its employees for the first three days to discourage absenteeism). I would commend to you the section’s final words. “Always, but always, be nice to checkout operators. And if they don’t beam back at you, please don’t judge them harshly”.
Suppliers – for a while now, I’ve thought that supermarkets should have a few extra Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in their annual reports (or on store walls) apart from turnover and profit. How about number of small local suppliers put out of business or number of farmers bankrupted or driven to suicide? Supermarkets achieve this so why shouldn’t they take the credit?! Another disturbing section about the giants’ grip on the food supply chain and its almost unimpeded power to bully, dictate and underpay hard-working suppliers. I’ve had experience of this even when working for very large companies producing goods which they wanted to stock in supermarkets. There is little or no room for negotiation, everyone knows who holds the power.
World – dealing with the supermarkets’ dictation of product specifications (size, colour etc.), the vast reduction in choice (variety is expensive), Tesco’s commercial imperialism (there's an example from the Czech Republic) and Asda’s hopes of world domination. Find out what “every little helps” means in Czech and what smiley Wal-mart are up to worldwide.
Culture – loyalty cards, birthday and anniversary announcements over supermarket tannoys, community services being offered in-store, schemes for advertising to kids, promoting cheap as always good (if the chief executive, shareholders and consumers are getting a good deal, who’s getting done? - the employees and the suppliers), fake local produce and lots more to make you cry if you couldn’t do something about it.
The book also includes supermarket responses to complaints and criticisms.
Reading “Shopped” will probably make you think – if you haven’t already done so – of changing the way you shop. It did for our family and for many of our friends. This may seem a small step to changing the world, but we all have to start somewhere. Local stores, organic box deliveries, farmers’ markets – there are alternatives.
Shopped by Joanna Blythman is published by Harper Perennial at £7.99.
A LIFE STRIPPED BARE
Guardian journalist Leo Hickman’s book (originally sub-titled “tiptoeing through the ethical minefield”) manages to mix serious questions with some gentle humour, making it easy to read while still challenging our everyday life choices. It started as a plea on the paper’s website for other people’s thoughts and experiences, progressed to a web diary and then a year-long series of articles for the Guardian before finally arriving in book form in 2005.
Into his home – which he shares with his partner Jane and their young daughter Esme – Leo bravely invites “the ethical auditors”. The team comprises Hannah Berry from Ethical Consumer magazine, Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s UK campaigns director, and Renee Elliott, a Soil Association council member.
The adventure starts with a semi-polite lunch, followed by the auditors’ first tour of the entire Hickman household. Nothing is sacred or exempt from criticism, including Jane’s beauty products, despite her insistence that, “if they think I’m giving up my Clarins then they can think again.” We get an expert opinion on just about every aspect of life.
There’s a disastrous first ethical shopping trip (they forget to take old plastic bags with them and end up feeling stressed and guilty), the wormery experiment and an eye-opening, nose-closing visit to a landfill site. The start of a vegetable garden and trials on organic box schemes. Cleaning the bath with lemon juice. The painful conversion to washable nappies (topped off by Leo’s suggestion that Jane might consider washable tampons -unsurprisingly ruled out of the question). A healthier angle on medicines and a tour of the Hickman fridge. The choice of heart-rending sacrifice or safe compromise over local travel and overseas holiday options? New clothes v second-hand or homemade. This summary only scratches the surface.
The whole adventure is interspersed with useful and amazing facts, letters from well-wishers and ‘Job’s comforters’, and an almost complete lack of any self-righteousness on the writer’s behalf. Read this book if you’re up for the challenge and ready to make a bit of sacrifice for a fairer and more sustainable planet.
A Life Stripped Bare by Leo Hickman is published by Eden Project Books at £7.99.