Marcus Stead

Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Brooke Bond D – The rise and fall of a British institution

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By MARCUS STEAD

IT HELPED ease the financial hardships of the working classes in the pre and post-war years, evolved into the beverage of choice for an iconic motor racing champion in the 1970s, and morphed into a cool, hip, even middle class brand in the 1980s, but Brooke Bond Dividend, latterly known as Brooke Bond D, died a quiet death at the age of 83 earlier this year, almost entirely unnoticed.

Brooke Bond D Box 1Brooke Bond Dividend Tea launched in 1935 as the company’s value product to compliment the mid-market PG Tips, which it began producing five years earlier from its factory at Trafford Park near Manchester. Each packet contained a picture card and a cut-out stamp, with 60 needed to fill a book that could be redeemed for cash or gifts. For many years, a full book of 60 stamps could be exchanged for 5/- cash or groceries from retailers.

An early billboard campaign featured a drawing of a young married couple with the slogan ‘Spend Wisely, Save Wisely’. The blend of the nation’s favourite beverage and an incentive to save money proved a hit with the working classes.

By 1939, the brand was firmly established, and a series of newspaper adverts appeared with advice from a fictional, caricatured ‘Dr Jollywell’, who espoused the tea’s qualities for helping the digestive system. In one advert, the good doctor told readers: “Take care of your digestion. Drink the digestive tea that gives you FLAVOUR. Brooke Bond Dividend Digestive Tea has a flavour all can enjoy – and it pays a dividend. Brooke Bond Dividend Digestive Tea is blended with expert skill. It gives you your full moneysworth, in favour and digestibility – and the dividend saves you 4d on every 1lb you buy.”

The same year, ‘The Brooke Bond Programmes’ aired on Radio Luxemburg (1293m) and Radio Normandy (274m) six mornings per week.

But storm clouds were gathering for dividend stamp collectors with the outbreak of World War II in September that year, and when rationing was introduced in 1940, the book-filling process was slowed down for millions as tea was restricted to 2oz per adult, per week.

Tea rations gradually increased in the years after the war ended and had reached the pre-war consumption level of 3oz per head some time before restrictions were lifted on 3 October 1952. The same year, Gerald Brooke, son of company founder Arthur, retired as chairman, under whose tenure the company’s tea packet trade had multiplied 20 times, helped in large part by Brooke Bond Dividend’s reputation for striking a balance between affordability while maintaining quality with a blend of 30 teas.

Gerald was succeeded by high-powered, resilient son John, and company turnover exceeded £68 million in 1954, with the majority of sales coming from quarter pound packets of tea, of which one thousand million were sold globally throughout the year, and three years later, the company was probably the largest in the world, with a one third share in both the British and Indian tea markets.

These were the boom times for Brooke Bond. In 1958, the company’s head office moved to Cannon Street, London, and by 1963, the company owned 30,000 acres of tea plantations in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Africa, employing 50,000 people.

The humble tea bag was created by accident in 1908, when New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan began shipping Indian and Chinese tea to his customers in small silk sample packages. Assuming they were supposed to submerge the entire bag into boiling water, his customers unintentionally revolutionised tea drinking for at least the next 100 years, and in the 1920s the fabric was changed to gauze, though it took until 1953 before Tetley, one of Brooke Bond’s biggest rivals, brought the concept to Britain.

To begin with, tea bags were regarded as a gimmick by most in the industry and Brooke Bond resisted the temptation to follow their rivals until well into the 1960s, when it became clear that the concept was here to stay as consumers became used to the convenience. The company went from strength to strength, and in 1968 it merged with Liebig, owners of food brands including Oxo and Fray Bentos.

When Britain ‘went decimal’ in February 1971, a completed card of 60 dividend stamps could be exchanged for 25p in cash or groceries at stores that sold Brooke Bond D. Twelve months later, Brooke Bond’s share of the British tea market had grown to 40%. The midmarket PG Tips was brand leader with 20%, while Dividend held a respectable 12%.

Dividend tea remained popular throughout the 1970s, but Brooke Bond showed signs of evolving the concept, as by the middle of the decade a giant ‘D’ covered most of the packaging, with the word ‘dividend’ reduced to smaller lettering near the top. The brand’s prominence was maintained by regular newspaper and TV adverts, including one featuring Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart and his wife Helen based around the Herbert and Sullivan song ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’.

As the 1970s gave way to the more aggressively capitalist world of the 1980s, the dividend stamp scheme came to an end and the tea was rebranded ‘Brooke Bond D’, though it remained instantly recognisable as the ‘D’ had been prominent on the packaging for some years.

Throughout the 1980s, attempts were made to move the brand’s image away from its downmarket, ‘scrimp and save’ image and give it a cooler edge. Brand loyalty was maintained with incentives such as the ‘Brooke Bond D – Reviving Stuff’ series of cassette tapes featuring classic chart hits, which could be redeemed for coupons on the back of packets, and in the first half of the decade, blocky computer graphics were used in its TV advertising campaign with the strapline ‘The Tea With the 3D Taste’.

Brooke Bond Liebig was subject to a hostile takeover by multinational giants Unilever in 1984, and two years later, Brooke Bond D’s longest-running and best-remembered advertising campaign began with soul singer Madeline Bell providing the vocals to ‘I Could Do with a D’, which had varying lyrics to fit the accompanying pictures, penned by the late Ronnie Bond. A non-PC advert from 1986 featured ‘Only Fools and Horses’ actor John Challis (well, it looks like him – what do you think?) playing the boss of a glamorous young yuppy who uses a typewriter to inflict an injury on him when he touches her knee. An early 1990s version saw actress Jane Cunliffe as an ever-busy ‘mumsy’ figure to a family with young children, with new lyrics to accompany the by-then familiar tune. There was also a ‘How Many Ds in Match of the Day?’ advert that aired around this period.

But the 1990s heralded the beginning of the end for Brooke Bond D. It lived on for another two decades, but its very gradual demise and fade from the public view was underway. The TV adverts came to a permanent end in the middle of the decade, and its presence on supermarket shelves reduced with every year that passed.

The brand was no longer one of Unilever’s priorities, so the licence to produce Brooke Bond D and the upmarket Brooke Bond Choicest Blend was sold to Gold Crown Foods Ltd, who produced rival brand Typhoo in neighbouring rival Merseyside.

Brooke Bond D Box 2

The back of a box of D Tea in 2018, complete with early 1990s pictures

The company (now trading as Typhoo Tea Ltd) removed the words ‘Brooke Bond’ from the packaging, which otherwise remained identical, with a green box and a bright yellow ‘D’ on the front, and a picture of an early 1990s family sat around a kitchen table, complete with tea pot and teenage boy with a ‘mop top’ haircut. The Brooke Bond brand quietly disappeared from the UK, but it lives on in other countries, including Pakistan, where ‘Brooke Bond Supreme’ is the market leader.

During the 2000s and into the 2010s, D Tea, while consistent in taste and familiar in appearance, was increasingly regarded as a ‘budget’ tea, sold mainly in local convenience stores and in pound shops, usually in a ‘50% extra free’ box with 120 bags for the price of 80. Perhaps this was, in a sense, a return to its ‘dividend’ roots and a ‘tea of the people’.

Typhoo ceased production in 2011, but this wasn’t the end of the story, as discount retailers buy huge quantities of staple products years in advance, meaning D Tea remained a regular presence on the shelves, as well as being sold on Typhoo’s own website, and by a number of independent retailers on Amazon.

The death knell finally sounded in August this year with the demise of Poundworld, which was the last major retailer with reserve supplies of D Tea.

We are now a country that drinks twice as much coffee as tea. The humble tea bag won’t be disappearing from the shelves any time soon, but it is forced to compete for space alongside herbal, green and an ever-expanding range of flavoured counterparts.

D Tea was unable to define its purpose on the shelves of 21st century Britain where a no frills cup of tea is no longer the nation’s default drink, and where dividend stamps and collector’s coupons have given way to loyalty cards and online discount codes.

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Written by Marcus Stead

November 10, 2018 at 1:01 am

Censorship?: Troubled Leanne Wood Urges S4C Not To Air Katie Hopkins Interview

with 3 comments

By MARCUS STEAD

PLAID Cymru leader Leanne Wood has been accused of stifling free speech after she put pressure on a broadcaster not to proceed with plans to air an interview with controversial TV personality Katie Hopkins.

Wood, who is set to be ousted as leader on Friday after a string of disappointing election results triggered a bitter leadership contest, urged Welsh language broadcaster S4C not to show the interview: “Giving airtime to someone who attacks our culture and our efforts to promote it is not ‘freedom on [sic] speech’, it is cheap sensationalism that gives oxygen to a dangerous hatemonger” she tweeted on Tuesday.

Leanne Wood Letter 1Leanne Wood Letter 2Two days later, Wood wrote an open letter to Huw Jones, Chair of the S4C Authority and Owen Evans, Chief Executive of S4C, in which she wrote: “Katie Hopkins was interviewed on the basis of her recent comments about the Welsh language calling it ‘a dead language’ and claiming that it was causing low educational standards in Wales. These statements are discriminatory, false and misleading. It is baffling to me that Wales’s national Welsh language broadcaster would want to facilitate the broadcasting of these views and give Katie Hopkins airtime and attention.”

Hopkins, 43, received praise and criticism for her online documentary earlier this month in which she exposed shortcomings in the Welsh education system, where international PISA rankings consistently show the country under-performing in English, Maths and Science, which she claimed was in large part due to the Welsh Government’s policy of increasing use of the Welsh language in the education system, including in parts of the country where it is rarely spoken.

Despite the orchestrated backlash from Welsh language campaigners on Twitter, Hopkins’s programme received more than 2,300 ‘thumbs up’ votes on YouTube, compared to just 185 ‘thumbs down’.

Earlier this week, Hopkins returned to the principality to be interviewed by ITV Wales, who produce the S4C current affairs show ‘Y Byd yn ei Le’ about her views on the Welsh language, during which she challenged Wood to sit their Welsh, Maths and English GCSEs together.

S4C was originally due to air the interview during next Tuesday’s edition of the programme, but showed signs of bowing to pressure following a barrage of tweets from Welsh language campaigners to its official account. S4C responded: “Yes, Katie Hopkins has been interviewed by @bydyneilen. The production team will be considering the interview in the coming days.”

Hopkins responded to the claims, saying:  “I was delighted to be asked by ITV Wales to share my view on the failing Welsh school system. It is clear the Welsh government has its priorities all wrong.

“The cost of its obsession with a dead language is paid for by Welsh students – leaving with poor grades and at the bottom of the PISA league tables in the U.K. for English, Maths and Science. Welsh nationalists should be ashamed.”

Guto Harri

Guto Harri

The interview was conducted by the programme’s main presenter, Guto Harri, a  former Chief Political Correspondent of the BBC who went on to work as an adviser to David Cameron and was Boris Johnson’s Communications Director when he was Mayor of London.

In a tweet, Wood asked Harri if it ‘was a spoof’. Harri slammed Wood’s accusations by sending her a tweet that said: “As u know @bydyneile doesn’t “give a platform”. We challenge + expose flaws. Influential commentators can be more dangerous than politicians. Outrageous views need confronting. You missed a thoughtful programme tonight whilst tweeting about another you haven’t seen. Nos da” (‘goodnight’ in Welsh).

Hopkins tweeted a response to Wood and her allies: “Dear Crazy Welsh Nationalists. Guto Harri is a friend. Incidentally, he describes Leanne Wood as incredibly Stupid His team rearranged the schedule for their S4C show ‘Y Byd yn ei Le’ to ensure I could appear Hope this helps to clarify things xx”.

Jacques Protic, a single parent from North Wales who does not believe his children should be forced to learn or speak Welsh, said: “Katie Hopkins made an immense contribution to the Welsh education debate, which up to a few days ago was simply non-existent by articulating the key issue that is behind the failing standards and the abysmal state of the Welsh education – the Welsh language imposition.

“Katie had and used the solid evidence available via the Freedom of Information disclosures from the Welsh Governments education statistics which clearly show that at the KS2 stage, children in the Welsh Medium Education who do not have Welsh at home significantly underperform and, in all subjects, when compared to children undergoing the English Medium Education.

“This is not about being anti-Welsh, but about giving our children the best possible start in primary years education and through the language they speak and understand – In other words the Welsh Government must remove the Welsh language compulsion and allow parents to be the only arbiters when it comes to choosing the educational language for their children.”

Leanne Wood

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood

Wood is likely to be ousted as leader of the Welsh nationalist party by outspoken MP Adam Price on Friday, with former BBC Wales Political Editor Rhun ap Iorweth also in contention for the job.

Plaid Cymru currently has only around 8,000 members, compared to approximately 125,500 in its Scottish sister party, the SNP.

Since Wood becoming leader in 2012, Plaid Cymru’s share of the vote has remained almost stagnant, going from 0.5% in 2010 to 0.6% last year, resulting in an increase from three MPs to four, while at the 2016 National Assembly elections, the party returned 12 AMs, up just one from the heavy losses it suffered in 2011.

Appetite for Welsh independence remains low, with opinion polls consistently putting the figure at around 15%, with most of the support coming from the party’s heartlands in the west and north west of Wales.

Earlier this month, Hopkins received widespread targeted abuse on social media from Welsh language campaigners following her documentary for online broadcaster Rebel Media, in which she explored the reasons why so many Welsh parents choose to home school their children.

Ceredigion in Mid Wales has the second highest home schooling rate in the UK behind the Isle of Wight, which Hopkins claimed is due to parents not wanting their children to be taught in Welsh, along with concerns about the country’s poor examination results, while others said their exceptionally bright children were being held back in a classroom environment.

Towards the end of the documentary, Hopkins carried out a vox pop in Cardiff city centre where young people who attended Welsh language schools claimed they had been punished for speaking English in the playground.

Written by Marcus Stead

September 27, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

An open letter to my cousin, Phil Stead

with 12 comments

I have never met my cousin, Phil Stead, but would very much like to. He took the trouble to write this open letter to me earlier today. Here is my response: 

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful letter. I’d also like to wish you and Mair a happy 20th wedding anniversary.

I shall now address the points you made in the order you made them.

Our family

I can clearly remember when I discovered you and I were related. It would have been 1998-2000, and I signed up to the old Cardiff City FC newsgroup mailing list. I saw some of your posts and found it curious that there was another Stead on there. Soon after my first post, you contacted me to try and establish how we were related, as you were very keen on family tree research at that time.

I wish it had happened a little earlier, because my grandfather, Emlyn, who died in 1998, would almost certainly have been able to answer any question about our family tree you had asked. I asked my late father, Vincent, for his help in the questions you posed, but he couldn’t answer everything. He knew your father when he was a boy, but his memory of it seemed vague and they hadn’t seen each other for decades. He wasn’t able to say very much at all about what sort of a person your father was.

It is somewhat surprising that we have never met in person, because we both write about sport and share a number of interests. I have been asked many times if I am related to you, and we have a number of mutual friends and colleagues. You were supporting the Bluebirds in the ‘bad old days’ and I greatly admired the principled stance you took when the club’s colours were changed from blue to red. I have seen you on television several times and you come across well. Mutual acquaintances speak highly of you, so I have no personal axe to grind.

My experience of the Welsh language

Just like you, the Welsh language barely featured at all in my early education. I attended Holy Family Primary School in Pentrebane, Cardiff, between 1988 and 1995. Until around the time of the Welsh Language Act 1993, I barely heard a word of Welsh at school. Parents who wanted their children to be taught in Welsh could send them to a Welsh language primary school a short walk away. Parents had the freedom to choose the language in which their children were educated, which, in my view, is how it should be.

Things really began to change a few months into the 1994/95 academic year, when once a week, a teacher came in for one hour a week to teach us Welsh. In reality, it didn’t extend much beyond her teaching us to count to ten, the days of the week, colours, and a few children’s songs. Beyond that, a policy was introduced of ‘Welsh being used in a classroom context’. When the register was taken each morning and afternoon, we were no longer told to answer, ‘Yes, Mrs Sullivan’ but ‘Uma, Mrs Sullivan’ (is that even the correct Welsh word to use? I am not sure). Little stickers started appearing above classroom objects saying ‘cyfrifiadur’, ‘teledu’ and ‘bwrdd du’.

I recall on one afternoon, the older classes were taken into the school hall to learn the national anthem. It succeeded (I can sing it word-perfectly), but the way it was taught may not be to your approval. We were taught ways of remembering it that you may consider crude and unsuitable, for example, ‘mae hen’ became ‘my hen’. Even at the age of 11, I could tell that all this was essentially a box-ticking exercise. It wasn’t a meaningful gateway to the Welsh language or Welsh language culture.

From 1995-2000, I attended Corpus Christi High School, where Welsh was a compulsory subject until the end of year 9. For the first year, I ‘got by’, but in year 8, with the same teacher, I really struggled. Then, in year 9, something extraordinary happened, which I still can’t quite understand. I was in a much smaller class of about 12 pupils, with a different teacher. Welsh lessons became fun and a good laugh. I quickly made enormous progress, and it wasn’t long before I was near the top of the class!

At the end of year 9, we had the option of taking Welsh to GCSE level or dropping it. My year group was the last to be able to do so, as after that Welsh to GCSE became compulsory. The said teacher was mildly disappointed that I wasn’t continuing with it to GCSE level. Maybe if I knew for sure that she would be my teacher for the following two years, I’d have continued with it. Instead, I decided to take French and Spanish, which I was also fairly strong at, and both would enable me to communicate with potentially hundreds of millions of people around the world.

And that marked the end of me learning Welsh. You went down a very different path at around the same age, and I am happy for you. I don’t begrudge you a single second of the experiences you describe that clearly meant a lot to you.

Crachach 

There are sadly no Steads left in my particular branch of the family. Those that I knew were mainly Labour voters, and unionists who could take or leave the Royal Family (though my father was definitely a republican). However, I am not connected to any political party, though people tell me I am ‘on the right’ (whatever that means). My values are: National sovereignty (UK), a low-tax economy, strong families, law and order, proper education, free speech, freedom, a ‘small state’ and personal responsibility.  I support the Royal Family as an institution, though I criticise individual members when I want to.

You refer to the singing of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ during the Silver Jubilee of 1977. I have no objection to that. I will happily join in many songs from the UK nations. I don’t see it as an ‘either/or’ choice. I am proud to be Welsh. I am also proud to call England my neighbouring country. I am proud to have links in my bloodline to Devon, Herefordshire (as you remind me), Yorkshire and Italy.

I do question your claim that the ‘Crachach’ closed-shop elite is mythical. I have seen many examples of it in the arts, media, civil service and higher education in Wales. The late Ian Skidmore once wrote a blog article, sadly no longer available, titled ‘Wales is a Limitedd Company’ which detailed his own experiences of this while working at BBC Wales. Paddy French’s ‘Rebecca Television’ website also provides many detailed examples of this. Carolyn Hitt wrote an amusing parody of the Crachach in 2006. I know of journalists and broadcasters who feel ‘frozen out’ because they’re not part of the clique (being a Welsh speaker alone isn’t enough – the right family connections help), but have gone on to have successful careers on the other side of the Severn Bridge and beyond. There is an establishment in Wales that ‘looks after its own’.

Love Island 

It is of course wrong that the local community in Cefn Mably were sneering at your wife’s accent, but it sounds to me as though your heart was set on a move to North Wales in any case. I have had people mocking my accent during periods when I’ve lived and worked in England, and it’s just one of those things you learn to laugh off, or find a witty rebuke.

However, I strongly disagree with you when you say that Welsh speakers never speak Welsh to exclude strangers. I’ve seen it myself in Welsh media circles and I’ve spoken to many English visitors to our country who have had similar experiences. It is basic good manners to communicate with people in a language they understand, if possible, when in their presence.

I am glad you and your wife have found happiness in North Wales. You had the freedom to make that choice and things seem to have worked out very well for you.

A reality check 

At no point have I said that I am anti-Welsh language. But I am pro-choice. I believe in freedom of choice in religion, sexuality, and for people to live their lives in the way they wish as long as it does not negatively impact on others. For that reason, I believe parents should have the choice as to whether their children are educated in English or Welsh.

There is no getting away from the fact that English is by far the main language of Wales. 80% of the population of Wales speaks little or no Welsh.

The story of the last 40 years in Wales is one of a group of small, but vocal Welsh language campaigners demanding more and more, and being given exactly what they want, regardless of cost or benefit to wider society. It began with road signs in English-speaking parts of Wales being produced in both English and Welsh after a stupid and dangerous campaign by Welsh language campaigners of painting over English-only road signs. This was followed by Gwynfor Evans threatening to starve himself to death unless S4C was created in 1982. This was followed by the Welsh Language Act of 1993, which led to a massive increase in the use of Welsh in the public sector, regardless of demand. This was followed by the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, which fewer than one in four of the people of Wales actually voted for. This was followed by another Welsh Language Act in 2011. In that same year, the Assembly’s powers were increased, which fewer than one in five of the people of Wales actually voted for.

To bring the story up to date, there is now a policy of ‘Welsh first’ road signs being gradually rolled out, regardless of the fact that in many cases these are in an area where only a tiny minority actually speak Welsh. Ever more provisions for the Welsh language are being made by the Welsh Language Commissioner, regardless of demand.

Value for Money? 

There appears to be a real reluctance among Welsh language campaigners I’ve encountered as to whether all this investment in the Welsh language provides value for money. A few examples:

1. S4C receives an annual subsidy of £80 million from the licence fee pot. That’s well over £1.4 million per week. Yet aside from Pobwl y Cwm, live sport and the news, very little programming on S4C gets more than 30,000 viewers per week. Why can’t we have a debate as to whether throwing money at S4C when demand for it is so low (even among Welsh speakers, evidently) is a good use of public money? It has seldom been successful. Some years ago, a well-known Welsh radio broadcaster from the 1980s (now retired and no longer living in Wales) told me that in the 1980s, he and a colleague at BBC Wales worked out that for certain S4C programmes, it would be cheaper to send out a VHS video to anyone who wanted to watch them than to broadcast them over the airwaves – and that was in an era of four channel TV before the audience fragmentation of today.

2. The number of Welsh speakers fell in the decade to 2012, despite huge investment in the language in education and the public sector. So maybe money isn’t the issue? Why can’t we debate this?

3. All local council correspondence is sent in English and Welsh. The Welsh language version ends up going straight in the bin in many households. Why can’t councils send a questionnaire to all households asking whether they’d like future correspondence in English or Welsh, and then just send it out in their chosen language? People get criticised for even suggesting that.

Some Welsh language campaigners struggle to accept the reality that most people in Wales do not share their agenda. Demand for Welsh independence is only around 15%. Plaid Cymru is tearing itself apart, and is not taken very seriously by a lot of people. Of those 80% of the people of Wales who speak little or no Welsh, few have any intention of learning.

Their vision of Wales is not a vision of Wales shared by others. Some of us think of Welsh culture in different ways – our industrial and mining heritage, music – from classical to Tom Jones to the Manic Street Preachers, various sporting achievements, Brains beer, Welsh cakes, a night on the town, our spectacular coast and countryside. That’s what Wales and being Welsh means to me, and to many, many others. I am proud to be Welsh, I am proud to be British, and I am proud of the various components that make up my ancestry.

As I have repeatedly said, I am all in favour of children learning Welsh at school if that is the will of their parents. But others would prefer their children to learn other languages instead. As the 21st Century progresses, the world will become an increasingly small place. The jobs market is effectively becoming global. Today’s children will be competing for jobs with alongside those from Asia, South America and many other emerging markets.

Therefore, many parents would prefer their children learnt Spanish, French, Mandarin or any language that will enable them to communicate with hundreds of millions of people across the world. By contrast, Welsh is spoken by 20% of the people of Wales, in Patagonia, and hardly anywhere else.

A frequent argument I hear is that it’s not ‘either/or’ and they can learn both or several of these languages. Indeed they can, but there are only so many hours in a school day. I took French, Spanish, History and Geography as my GCSE options. I’d have needed to have dropped one of those to accommodate Welsh lessons.

To clarify my point – I acknowledge that the Welsh language is important to SOME families in SOME areas of Wales. But to many others it is not. I can understand some Welsh language campaigners finding it a hard pill to swallow. I ask them to please try and lose this mentality of ‘WE are Wales – the non-Welsh speakers just live here.’ Wales is a small country with a small population. We cannot afford to drive out our best and brightest graduates because they feel shut out of the jobs market on the basis they cannot speak Welsh. We need the best available people in the best jobs.

We also need to be honest about how Wales is under-performing economically. Why isn’t the Welsh tourist industry doing better at a time when the pound is weak? Other areas of the UK are benefitting. Why is Wales lagging behind? When I posed this question on Twitter, and suggested POSSIBLE reasons why, I received a barrage of abuse, but not one sensible suggestion as to why it might be happening.

Just ONE of the FTSE top 100 companies is Welsh, and even that has American management. Why isn’t Wales more entrepreneurial? As the (actually rather likeable) Welsh establishment figure Geraint Talfan-Davies said on TV a few years ago, if Wales had a nickname, it would be ‘Grant’. We are heavily reliant on subsidies from the English taxpayer to maintain our standard of living. I don’t like that fact, but it’s a fact nonetheless. A disproportionate number of my friends and associates in Cardiff either work in the public sector or in retail. There isn’t anywhere near enough by way of small and medium-sized business activity.

The Eisteddfod 

Some people seem rather offended by one tweet in particular about the Eisteddfod with the ‘speaking Welsh or very drunk’ remark. I actually borrowed that joke from the Welsh language comedian, Daniel Glyn, who made exactly the same joke on a feature for a BBC Wales feature about Glantaf School that you posted a link to on your Facebook wall several years ago. Incidentally, Daniel made a remark in that same feature along the lines of, ‘some people feared that Glantaf opening would lead to the creation of a middle class Welsh speaking elite who’d end up getting all the best jobs…..and they were right!’ I’ve had professional dealings with Daniel a number of times and we seemed to get along, but surely this remark is an admission by him that the Crachach is very real? And as for his/my joke – why didn’t he receive a similar backlash for saying the same thing I did?

My reasons for not being a fan of the Eisteddfod are many – a ‘Mind Matters’ column in Wales Online in 2006 summed it up, slightly more crudely than I would, with the words: “It’s a mind-achingly banal cross between a Women’s Institute convention, a Morris Dancing championship and the annual Conservative Club summer fete. Harp-playing, dancing with brooms and tedious speech choirs may have their place in our national tradition but are they really going to keep the youth of tomorrow thronging to get in?”

Eisteddfod 1I tried very hard to watch a few hours of this afternoon’s Eisteddfod coverage on S4C and, despite 12 years having passed since that article was written, I’m afraid I found it difficult to argue with that definition. The site is just a short walk away from Butetown, one of the oldest and most racially-diverse communities anywhere in the UK, yet I didn’t see a single non-white face in the Wales Millennium Centre main hall or in the surrounding area outside throughout. This screenshot demonstrates that there were empty seats and a disproportionate number of those in attendance were elderly.

It doesn’t feel like a festival that celebrates all that is good about Wales – English speakers, Welsh speakers, different racial backgrounds, many faiths and so on. It felt very much like the Welsh ‘establishment’ speaking to itself at the expense of others, and, yes, I was bored watching it.

I don’t want to spoil anybody else’s enjoyment, but if there is to be a festival so narrow in scope, I don’t see why the public purse should be expected to subsidise it? I do not demand that the taxpayer subsidises my tastes in entertainment.

Conclusion 

There’s an old saying – ‘you are judged by the company you keep’, but I don’t agree with that. For instance, I don’t judge people by how unpleasant I find other members of their family. I also grasp that in politics, especially international politics, you sometimes have to be diplomatic with unpleasant characters for the greater good.

For that reason, I am glad that you are keen to distance yourself from those who have been harassing me in recent days, which extends well beyond Twitter, incidentally. Some of it, which I won’t describe on here, is now in the hands of the police, so I won’t comment any further, other than to say their behaviour has been utterly despicable and a disgrace to the cause they claim to represent.

I work on the assumption that if people are being foul-mouthed and abusive, they have lost the argument, and they have certainly lost the right to communicate with me, since my policy is to block and ignore all such people. It implies inadequate vocabulary and insecurity on their part.

But there is a wider question that needs to be asked as to why such a substantial number of Welsh language campaigners are so unpleasant and aggressive? I think what this boils down to is that over the course of the last 40 years, Welsh language campaigners have been asking for more and more, and have usually been given whatever they want. They’re not used to people challenging them or questioning whether every aspect of it is an appropriate use of public money. Unused to being challenged, they resort to insults, threats, and ever-more menacing behaviour. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their agenda is ‘fair game’ to be abused, threatened, or shouted down.

Dissent is not tolerated. A ‘live and let live’ attitude is out of the question. Injecting a bit of humour into the debate is a definite ‘no, no’. Anyone who doesn’t share their ideology needs to be bullied, abused and driven out of Wales. I should also point out that this ‘win at all costs’ mentality can be found in wider political discourse in the UK nowadays, and it is by no means confined to this issue.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I think it’s time we met up, don’t you? Anywhere that serves Brains SA or Felinfoel Double Dragon will do!

Written by Marcus Stead

August 8, 2018 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Why Doctor Doesn’t Always Know Best

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By MARCUS STEAD

How often do you question the advice your GP gives you? Are you aware of the intense lobbying that takes place between pharmaceutical giants and local GPs? Do you know how many more prescriptions are issued in the UK compared to just a decade ago?

My story, about how a prescription I did not need left me with serious health issues, should act as a warning for everybody. Here is the story of what happened to me, and the alarming evidence I discovered about why GPs prescribe so many unnecessary and sometimes harmful drugs:

During the summer of 2017, the toenails on my right foot became discoloured and brittle. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I was in no pain whatsoever and didn’t feel the need to bother my GP with it.

Around late October or early November, I visited my GP about an unrelated medical issue that has since been resolved, and I showed him my toenails in case the two problems were connected. He said that he thought it very likely I had a fungal nail infection and that I’d have to go on a ‘tough’ course of tablets if that turned out to be the case. But first, he wanted me to provide a toenail sample so they could attempt to grow fungus on them in the laboratory to determine whether they were infected.

A few days later I dropped off my toenail sample at the surgery in the small container provided, and was told I would receive a letter in the post in due course. A number of weeks passed and I heard nothing. At no point was I in any pain, and the fresh nail near the bed was showing signs of becoming healthier and more ‘normal’ looking. Whatever the problem was, my body appeared to be finding its own way of treating it.

Shortly before Christmas, I received a letter asking me to make an appointment with my GP to discuss the results, but the letter stated this was no cause for alarm and that it was routine procedure. The Christmas holiday period meant there was a delay in getting a non-urgent appointment, so I did not see the GP until early January.

Terbinafine PictureOn this occasion, I saw a different GP, one I had never met before. She told me that the results showed I had a fungal nail infection (as expected). She took a quick look at my feet, and said that she would be prescribing me Terbinafine (sometimes sold under the brand name Lamisil, though not in my case). I was to begin with a 28 day course, which was to be followed by another 28 day course on repeat prescription, with a view to me taking the tablets for around six months.

But first, I would need a blood test to check my liver function was normal. Upon hearing this, I was immediately suspicious as to whether these drugs were really necessary. After all, I was never in any pain, I wasn’t feeling any ill effects, and by this stage a substantial part of the nail bed was looking healthy, as more fresh nail gradually appeared.

However, I went ahead and had the blood test about a week later. A further week passed and I phoned the surgery for the test results. I was informed that my liver function was ‘normal’, and that my prescription would be ready for me to collect within a few days.

By the time I collected my prescription, it was around the third week of January. I was very wary about taking the tablets. It struck me as a huge overreaction to a problem with a mild infection that was gradually clearing up by itself. At the absolute most, I should have been prescribed Terbinafine in cream form. The instructions stated I was to take one per day. Against my better judgement, I took my first Terbinafine tablet the following morning.

Within an hour, I sensed something wasn’t right when I went to the toilet and my urine gave off a copper-like odour. By the following evening, I was beginning to experience serious side effects.

First of all, my sense of taste was much diminished. I managed to eat a meal that evening, but I didn’t enjoy it. By the following day, I was suffering from an upset stomach, mild diarrhoea, a fuzzy headache, and a dry mouth.

Within a few days, eating a full meal became difficult. I had no interest in snacking between meals or eating desserts, and my portion sizes were much reduced. All food tasted like cardboard and my stomach had a ‘full’ feeling, even if I had eaten virtually nothing.

By the end of my first week of taking Terbinafine, the side effects became more serious. I was unable to sleep for more than about four hours at a time, and I began to suffer from very low moods for no apparent reason. I have suffered from tinnitus my whole life, but the ringing in my ears became louder and more intense than before. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything for long periods, which is very unlike me.

The days dragged by and the situation did not improve. Eating was a chore, I was permanently tired, I found it hard to focus due to continual ‘brain fog’ (not easy when I make my living through writing and broadcasting), my mouth was dry, the mild diarrhoea continued, and it was badly affecting my quality of life. I drank very little alcohol during this period, partly because of my lack of appetite, and partly because I dreaded to think what this Terbinafine was doing to my liver.

After three weeks of taking one Terbinafine tablet per day, I had lost a stone in weight, a dangerous amount to lose in such a short space of time. I looked noticeably thinner and my general wellbeing was suffering considerably as the symptoms intensified. A friend, who is no stranger to tough and gruelling medicine as a long-term cancer survivor suggested that a chat with my pharmacist would be a good idea, so I did exactly that.

I am quite a big fan of pharmacists. I find them more open-minded and less ‘preachy’ than GPs on the whole, and I strongly recommend them as a first port of call when suffering from mild health problems.

I took my packet of Terbinafine and the accompanying leaflet with me to my local Boots store and the pharmacist showed me to the private consultation room. I explained the situation to her and she read the leaflet, which listed the possible side effects. I had experienced most, if not all of them by this stage.

When I told her about the drastic weight loss and deterioration in quality of life, she without hesitation advised me to stop taking them. What happened next struck me as extraordinary.

The pharmacist, a bright woman in her late 20s or early 30s, told me that she, too, suffered from a fungal nail infection some time ago, and had refused to take the tablets upon reading the side effects and discovering that a blood test would be needed prior to starting the course.

Instead, she did her own research (how many GPs do that?) and discovered a far less severe course of action. She bought a bottle of white vinegar from a supermarket and a packet of cotton wool sticks.

For the next six months, twice per day, she would wash her feet, dip a cotton wool stick in the white vinegar, and wipe it under and on the bed of the infected nails. It required a lot of discipline, her boyfriend said she smelt like a chip shop, but over time the infection cleared up.

She advised me to do the same thing, and to ‘do a bit of Googling’ to discover alternative ways of treating it. I bought a bottle of white vinegar on my way home from Boots, but I didn’t feel the urge to ‘treat’ my nails in any way as by this stage a substantial part of my lower nails were clear and healthy-looking. But I have a plan of action if the situation changes.

Needless to say, I stopped taking the Terbinafine immediately. I had a little rant on my Facebook wall about the experience that same evening, and a hospital doctor wrote a comment below my post saying that prescribing Terbinafine was a massive overreaction and there was no way she would take it.

My health began to improve somewhat within 48 hours. I was able to eat and digest a full meal, but was not enjoying it particularly, and I still had no interest in desserts or snacking. The ‘brain fog’ gradually began to clear within a week.

That said, more than a month later, I am still far from fully ‘back to normal’. I still have a number of symptoms including a dry mouth, a skin rash on my hands and difficulty sleeping for more than a few hours at a time. My sense of taste is still much-diminished, and I have lost a further half a stone in weight. I am eating food, but I’m not enjoying it.

In other words, I was given drugs I don’t need, for a problem I don’t have, and whose effects I am still suffering from more than a month after I stopped taking them.

So why did this happen? We have an overly-deferential relationship with GPs in this country and with the NHS in general. Yes, they do a lot of good, but there are fundamental flaws in the system and they are far from always right.

The term GP stands for ‘General Practitioner’. As the name suggests, they aren’t really ‘experts’ in anything, but have a basic understanding of most areas of medicine. That is not to say all GPs are bad, or that everything the GP tells us is wrong, but we DO need to question what we’re told far more often. Yes, GPs have gone through medical college and passed numerous exams. But what they are told becomes dated very quickly, as new drugs become available and medical understanding increases.

To keep their medical understanding up-to-date, GPs frequently attend seminars, tutorials and networking days put on by major pharmaceutical companies, complete with hospitality (nice lunches etc). The drug companies provide the food and a pleasant setting (a conference centre or hotel) and in return they get the opportunity to ‘talk up’ their latest products. This strikes me as dangerously close to bribery. At its kindest, it can be described as ‘lobbying’. What these representatives are NOT going to do is give totally unbiased, independent advice about their products to the GPs in attendance.

These companies are often huge multi-billion dollar organisations who have a vested financial interest in getting people to take these drugs. They do not put on these events for GPs and provide hospitality for fun. They have huge pockets and a deep focus, and they know that such events influence the way GPs prescribe drugs. Even on a day-to-day basis, the average GP surgery is full of stationary, equipment and gadgets containing the branding of these companies, subtly and subconsciously reinforcing the message that prescribing their drugs is automatically a good thing.

This very obvious conflict of interest is not given anywhere near enough publicity. The number of prescriptions issued in the UK has increased 50% in 14 years, and GP surgeries spend half of the NHS’s drugs budget. Prescriptions for painkillers have increased 50% in 10 years. In Blackpool, one in five adults takes so-called ‘antidepressants’. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of young people prescribed so-called ‘antidepressants’ increased by 54%. In Jersey, the number of people being prescribed ‘antidepressants’ increased by 48.5% in the six years between 2010 and 2016. The average person in the UK receives FIFTEEN prescriptions per year.

Re-read that last paragraph. Those statistics are extraordinary. And when we consider how heavily lobbied GPs are by the pharmaceutical industry, these figures begin to make sense. Over the last few years, the drugs industry has paid $13 BILLION in fines in the USA alone for a range of unethical activities, including bribing doctors to prescribe their drugs.

GPs are, for the most part, ‘repeaters’ rather than ‘thinkers’. How many GPs seriously question what they’re being told, firstly at medical school but especially in seminars put on by pharmaceutical giants, or give anywhere near enough thought to the fact it’s in the interest of these huge companies to get as many people as possible to take these drugs? And how many GPs are courageous enough to send substantial numbers of patients away from their surgeries WITHOUT the prescription drugs they were expecting?

We need to be much more aware of the dangers of overprescribing antibiotics and the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance. One of the major challenges GPs face is distinguishing between viral and bacterial infections. Viral infections do not require antibiotics, but if a person has a bacterial infection and is not prescribed antibiotics, patients can die and doctors can get sued. Therefore, to avoid taking a chance, GPs resort to prescribing antibiotics for all infections, even though this presents far bigger risks in the long run.

A solution to this problem would be for GP surgeries to buy the machinery that instantly tells us whether the patient has a viral or bacterial infection via a blood sample. The problem is that the machinery costs £700-£800 and each test costs £4.50. But he NHS would recoup these sums when we consider that viral infections would no longer be treated with a prescription of antibiotics, and that the cost of the tests would be when offset against the cost of ‘free’ prescriptions, available to all patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with a substantial number of less well-off people in England.

We take the ability of antibiotics to fight off infections for granted, but their effectiveness is declining as viruses evolve to resist them. It is no exaggeration to say that without antibiotics, life on earth as we know it would end.

Without antibiotics, many medical procedures simply wouldn’t be possible. It’s not just the case that doctors would not be able to treat your infected finger. They wouldn’t be able to do any more bone surgery. They wouldn’t be able to treat cancer. They wouldn’t be able to run intensive care units in hospitals. These are harsh realities, but they are also facts.

Drug companies aim to prescribe as many pills as possible to maximise profits, but it is certainly not in the interests of the human race to see antibiotics lose their effectiveness . 97% of patients in the UK who ask their GP for antibiotics are prescribed them. Younger people reading this may live long enough to see this doomsday scenario unfold unless swift changes are made in our attitude towards antibiotics. It is estimated that superbugs resistant to antibiotics will kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined within 30 years.

The culture of GP surgeries does not lend itself to a thoughtful, flexible course of treatment, with appointments generally lasting ten minutes or less, so a dogmatic ‘prescription cure’ is seen as the easiest and quickest way of resolving any issue, often without addressing the root cause, or assessing the side effects and long-term impact of the drugs they prescribe.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is how GPs treat people with depression. There is a conventional wisdom among drug companies that ‘depression’ is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, known as ‘the Serotonin theory’. The scientific evidence backing this up is underwhelming to say the least. The drugs companies even kept the finding of their own research secret until compelled to release them by Freedom of Information requests.

There is likely to be a far more pragmatic explanation – people become ‘depressed’ because bad thing have happened to them, and the way our society operates is largely to blame. Why are so many people so unhappy in modern Britain? Families are not as close as they were 50 years ago, and are often spread out around the country or even across the world. There is no sense of ‘community’ in many areas. All too often, people do not have a ‘support network’ in their lives. They may have lots of superficial relationships with work colleagues and others, but in many cases they won’t feel ‘close’ to many people living locally.

A child who has grown up in an unstable household with an alcoholic parent, an absent father, or a single mother with a series of ‘boyfriends’ coming and going (who may well dislike the child), will very likely carry large emotional scars well into adulthood. The child who was bullied at school will not forget it as an adult.

A lot of people who claim to be ‘depressed’ are actually alcoholics. Alcohol is a depressant and those who use it to attempt to temporarily numb the pain of experiences they are having in their lives are doing themselves no favours whatsoever. They are using alcohol as an excuse not to address the problem at its core, and when the affects wear off, they feel more depressed than they did before, and so the vicious circle continues.

But how many GPs who see a patient who claims to be suffering from ‘depression’ will seek to address its root cause, or send them for appropriate therapy, when they can prescribe so-called ‘antidepressants’ and get them out of the room within the 10 minute appointment slot? Very often, GPs diagnose depression using the ‘PHQ-9 depression questionnaire’, which is loaded with negative questions and does its best to force you to think about how miserable your life is and how unhappy you are. It does not contain questions to balance it up such as ‘how often do you feel positive and optimistic about life?’

Unsurprisingly, the PHQ-9 questionnaire was devised by a drugs company that makes ‘antidepressant’ pills. This is not a coincidence.

Nic Barrow

Nic Barrow

Nic Barrow, a therapist, and a friend of some years, shares my deep suspicion of ‘antidepressants’, partly because of his own experiences when he was younger. He says that he gives people who come to him claiming to be depressed five pieces of advice: 1. Cut sugar out of your diet. 2. Work like mad. 3. Surround yourself with three to four positive people. 4. Exercise rigorously two to three times per week. 5. Develop a purpose for living that is greater than yourself.

Most of us spend far too much time staring into hypnotic gadgets, or sitting at desks, or slouching on the sofa, or taking our cars for journeys of less than a mile. A brisk, half-hour walk each day is a good remedy for a lot of psychological problems people think they have. It also reduces the risk of obesity and cancer. It’s a win-win deal. If a more drastic remedy is needed, cold water swimming helps anxiety and depression. Our bodies respond to cold water in a similar way to an anxiety attack. As the skin cools down rapidly, the body enters a state of shock, flooding the blood with stress hormones. Once the initial shock wears off, the chemical surge leaves swimmers feeling euphoric, as the ‘skin stimulation’ releases adrenaline.

Exercise, diet, friendships and a job that makes you feel fulfilled are usually the keys to resolving issues relating to ‘depression’. Even if the solutions described here don’t work for absolutely everybody, it is surely advisable for them to get to the root cause of the problem with the help of therapy rather than to rely on pills.

To paraphrase Dr Robert Lefever, I want my moods to change. I want to feel happy when I achieve something worthwhile, or when a sports team I support wins. I want to feel sad when somebody I know dies, or I see an injustice while watching the news. This is all part of the human experience. So-called ‘antidepressants’ prevent people from fully experiencing life’s highs as well as the lows. Furthermore, the evidence they actually work in helping people suffering from depression when compared to placebos is also shaky to say the least. But even if they do offer some relief, it’s a treatment of the symptoms rather than the root cause.

And it gets more serious, still. There is a growing body of evidence that so-called ‘antidepressants’ have dangerous and unpredictable side effects. I have personally witnessed how somebody I know underwent a deeply unpleasant personality change after taking them. More than 40 million prescriptions for SSRI antidepressants were handed out by doctors in the UK last year. In a small number of cases, evidence suggests the devastating side effects can lead to psychosis, violence, and possibly even murder.

In July 2017, the BBC broadcast a Panorama documentary about this very subject. They focussed on the case of 20-year-old James Holmes, who had no track record of violence or gun ownership, but at the 2012 midnight premiere of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, he murdered 12 and injured 70 people. The programme showed there was substantial evidence that the drugs he was taking may well have played their part, and this was by no means an isolated example.

Further analysis of this can be found by reading ‘Cracked’ by James Davies. I can also recommend two clearly-written and straightforward articles on the subject by Dr Marcia Angell, a distinguished American doctor, and certainly no crank, which can be read here and here.

But the scandal surrounding prescription drugs goes way beyond so-called ‘antidepressants’. There is no evidence that opioid painkillers work beyond the first four to six weeks, and cause serious side-effects beyond that. In the long term, they may well make the pain worse, not better, and the withdrawal symptoms can be deeply unpleasant.

Raised blood pressure, raised levels of cholesterol and type two diabetes are not ‘diseases’. To a large extent, the risks they present can be remedied by exercise and moderating their diet. Giving patients supportive programmes for exercise would be more effective than medication, such as encouraging them to join walking groups.

Instead, there has been an intense campaign by the pharmaceutical giants to get more and more older people to take Statins (though the age at which people are encouraged to take them is getting younger and younger due to lobbying), and, as usual, GPs have followed this advice. Indeed, in recent weeks, a number of newspaper articles have appeared that have stated that ‘half or Britons’ will be offered ‘high blood pressure tablets’, while curiously the word ‘Statins’ failed to appear in any of them, which struck me as extremely odd. Most newspapers who covered the story did so sympathetically. It was as though they were relying on a press release from a pharmaceutical giant for their story, or maybe it was a press release from the NHS, who in turn had been lobbied by a pharmaceutical giant. If it carried the ‘NHS’ tag, it would make the press release appear more trustworthy.

Statins have a considerable number of common side effects, including a sore throat, nosebleeds, headaches, constipation, and muscle and joint pain. I have two stories from older people I know personally, who have had negative experiences with Statins.

One friend of mine, a man in his mid-70s, had been suffering from joint pain and mobility issues for some months. Upon reading an article in the Times about the side effects of Statins, he decided to stop taking them, and within days, he phoned me to tell me of an astonishing improvement in his mobility and overall health.

The other story comes from a man in his 60s who works as a writer, and he complained of a ‘brain fog’ soon after beginning to take Statins, though it cleared up fairly quickly soon after he stopped taking them. This is merely anecdotal, but it does appear to me as though a lot of people who take Statins become much more ‘doddery’ and unclear in their thinking, though it does appear the effects are reversed when they stop taking them.

Indeed, there is now growing evidence that Statins and even hayfever pills could be driving antibiotic resistance by changing the growth of bacteria in the human gut. Surely we should at the very least pause the mass prescription of Statins with this in mind?

The information in this article may appear shocking and outrageous, but we need to consider how medical advice has changed within the last 50 years. The Thalidomide scandal was a particularly prominent example of ‘bad medicine’. But those of you old enough to remember the 1970s (I am not!) will recall how after donating blood, you would sternly be told to take iron tablets. This is now considered completely unnecessary, possibly even harmful.

Furthermore, in the 1970s, burns were treated using greasy creams, which is now considered one of the worst things you can do. It was around the same time that X-ray machines disappeared from shoe shops, and today, we are told that X-rays should be kept to the absolute minimum.

Even in the last 15 years, the piles of old magazines have disappeared from my GP surgery waiting room, as they are considered a means of spreading viruses.

As times change, medical advice changes with it. The heavy lobbying by multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical giants is causing numerous drugs to be accepted and prescribed without sufficient scrutiny. 50 years from now, we will look back on this as a major scandal.

In the meantime, we ought to be far more questioning about what we are told by our GPs and be wary of the multi-billion dollar forces that influence them.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 21, 2018 at 1:46 am

Free Speech versus the New Repression, a Small Victory for Liberty, and Righting a Wrong from Long Ago

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By MARCUS STEAD

I read with interest an article on Peter Hitchens’s blog in which he details a recent visit to Liverpool to debate what he rightly describes as a non-existent ‘war on drugs’.

Peter Hitchens.jpg

Peter Hitchens

Mr Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist and a skilled, passionate debater, was invited to the University of Liverpool by Tom Willett of the Politics Society, but in accepting the invitation he would have been obliged to agree to the provisions in the university’s policy and code of practice regarding freedom of speech, and the Guild of Students’ (just a pretentious name for the students’ union) equality and diversity policy, which, evidently, put significant constraints on freedom of speech and stand in the way of rigorous, robust debate.

Undeterred, Willett, to his credit, risked his own money by hiring a private hall which was not part of the university. But when the caretaker failed to turn up, Willett and Hitchens decided to hold the meeting outdoors on an open hilltop area in Hope St, which links the city’s Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals. As the article suggests, it turned out to be a positive experience, with a more alert audience and sharper questioning than had the debate taken place in a stuffy room.

This brought back vivid memories of a time, nearly 15 years ago, when I tried, and regrettably failed, to get Mr Hitchens to debate a different issue at the same university, but was blocked on similar grounds to those Willett experienced.

It is important to put the story I am about to tell into some kind of context. The world has changed considerably in the 15 years since it happened. You are about to be taken back to a world where Anthony Blair was still at the height of his popularity, and almost all university lecturers and most students were still more-or-less in love with him (though NOT me). The Iraq War had not yet happened. Anyone seriously proposing that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry would have been considered eccentric.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not exist. Mobile phones were used only for calls and texts, which were expensive. Phone calls to family and friends back home were strictly rationed and conversations abrupt and to-the-point. Keeping in touch with friends from your home town, or even with those who had moved to different halls, required a degree of effort on both sides.

WhatsApp and Facetime were still many years away. The main means of free, instant communication was MSN Instant Messenger, and even that was blocked on university computers. The internet was far less developed. Broadband was still unavailable in many parts of the country, and even if you did have access to it, ONE Mb was the standard speed.

DVDs were increasingly common, though many people, myself included, still preferred to use videotape. Most people still listened to music via CDs or cassettes. Radio was listened to on FM, MW and LW (I am aware many teenagers will not even be familiar with these terms). I was considered quite ‘cutting edge’ when I bought a Freeview box for the TV in my bedroom, pretty soon after it launched at the end of October 2002.

Coffee culture did not exist. Gassy lagers and alcopops were the drinks of choice for students. The majority smoked cigarettes, a packet of which cost around half their price in 2017, and it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in pubs, bars and cafes.

At the University of Liverpool, the Sydney Jones Library (the main library for arts and humanities) was outdated, dingy and badly in need of investment. Most of the lecture halls and seminar rooms hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Some students did not pay tuition fees at all. None paid more than £3,000 per year. University itself was cheaper, and student expectations were lower than today. Some lecturers and tutors barely hid their view that teaching was an irritating but necessary distraction from the research work they’d rather be doing.

The students union (rather pretentiously called the Guild of Students), was easily the least impressive of any students’ union building I’ve ever been in. The meeting rooms all had paint peeling from the walls. The smell of damp was everywhere. It was stuck in a 1970s time warp, large sections of it lay semi-abandoned, the food was nothing to write home about, and the cloths on the pool tables were bald. The main hall was turned into a night club on Saturday and Monday nights. There were occasional nights of comedy, drama and concerts, but it was often a rather quiet building during the daytime, with two small bars, a tiny cafe, a shop selling newspapers and snacks, and not much else to see. There was never much sense of ‘community’ about the place.

Liverpool itself was also a very different place. It was still suffering a sort of hangover from the Derek Hatton years of the 1980s and the decline of the docks. The city was packed with remarkable and beautiful architecture, but it was dirty and unloved, with many splendid buildings boarded up and abandoned.

The legendary Cream nightclub had closed for good a few months before my arrival. The bars of Concert Square and a shabby club called ‘The Krazyhouse’ seemed to be the venues of choice for students. I noticed a very gradual revival in the city’s fortunes in the months leading up to my departure in the summer of 2005, but the main regeneration came about around the time of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, which saw the construction of Liverpool One shopping precinct, a large concert arena and a major revamping of the area around the Albert Dock.

Hope Street Liverpool.jpg

Hope St, Liverpool

I cannot say I can relate to Mr Hitchens’s experience of Hope St. In my three years there, it contained two theatres, the Philharmonic (where my graduation ceremony took place in 2005) and the more ‘alternative’ Everyman, which was looking outdated but contained a rather good underground bar.

There was a bar containing big screens showing sports which appealed to students, but there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of places to eat and drink around there, aside from the takeaway outlets on the adjacent streets leading towards the city centre. From memory, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms didn’t have the impressive façade of today, and it operated primarily as a hotel. It never occurred to me to go in there, but having seen pictures of the spectacular interior, I very much hope to enjoy a meal and a few beers in there some day.

The street lighting gave off a dim, orange glow and it was advisable to keep your wits about you if walking around there at night, particularly as you got closer to the Catholic cathedral and the area around Brownlow Hill, which had a reputation for prostitution and drug dealing.

I agree with Mr Hitchens that there is some interesting Georgian and Edwardian architecture in and around Hope St, especially at the end nearest to the Anglican cathedral, but a quick look on Google Maps proves beyond doubt that he would’ve been able to eat and drink far better than if my proposed debate had taken place 15 years ago, and I can’t say that holding a debate on drugs in the open air around the ‘Case History’ sculpture would’ve been particularly feasible or safe back then. There were probably worse places to be a student, but I strongly suspect those attending the university today have a far greater variety of things to see and do.

This context is important because, although 15 years may not feel like a long time in the grand scheme of things, for the students of today, the world would have felt like a very different place. In the story below, I cite several examples of people taking days, if not longer, to reply to emails. Back then, this was not unusual. It was not possible to access emails via your mobile phone. You required a computer with a wired internet connection to do so, and it was therefore quite normal for many days to pass between people checking their email accounts.

The story began on the morning of Monday 9 December 2002, when I, as a first year student of Politics and Communication Studies, having recently turned 19, attended a politics seminar under the tutelage of Chris Lenton, now a city councillor, and a prominent member of the Liberal Party, a small party founded in 1989 by members of the original Liberal Party opposed to its merger with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. The reformed Liberal Party, which is Eurosceptic, has never had much success nationally but has maintained a significant presence at local council level in Liverpool.

The seminar discussion somehow came around to Alan Duncan, who had ‘come out’ as homosexual some months earlier, and had made remarks about homosexuality being increasingly acceptable in the Conservative Party. In the previous day’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Hitchens had written an article with the headline, “I’m sorry Mr Duncan, if you’re gay you’re not a Tory.”

At that time, Mr Hitchens was still a supporter of the Conservative Party, albeit not a very enthusiastic one, and held the view that a person could not be a conservative if they were openly gay, and that comprehensive education had played its part in brainwashing a generation into accepting Mr Duncan’s standpoint. Hitchens’s view was that while he believed homosexuality should be legal, it was not moral, and that if Mr Duncan had kept his sexuality private, it would have been his own business, but by making it public, he could not legitimately call himself a conservative.

In the seminar, Lenton remarked that he did not think Mr Hitchens truly believed the things he wrote, and a number of the dozen-or-so students present nodded in agreement. I kept quiet – I had had a small number of dealings with Mr Hitchens via email in the previous few years, and did not doubt for one second that he absolutely believed the things he wrote.

As soon as the seminar ended, I headed straight for the IT room so I could email Mr Hitchens to tell him what happened. Two days later, he generously replied that he would be willing to come up to the university and debate the issues raised, under a fair chairman. His only requests were for somewhere clean and quiet to stay, and for his expenses to be paid.

Unlike Tom Willett, I did not have the backing of the Politics Society, of which I was not a member (I saw enough politics in my course and in my non-university related activities), so I was very much a ‘lone wolf’ in this venture.

I wasted no time in contacting Lenton, who responded by saying it would be a great idea to bring Mr Hitchens to the university, and suggested Cllr Steve Radford as an opponent, who is today the leader of the Liberal Party. I was delighted and proceeded to get the wheels in motion. However, the university was by now winding down for the Christmas break. Most of January would be taken up with examinations and ‘student life’ would not really resume its normal pace until late January or early February.

At some point soon after ‘student life’ resumed in 2003, I sussed that to make the debate happen, it would be a good idea to get support from the homosexual community at the university. The LGBT society (just the four letters in those days, or maybe even three – my records show it was called the ‘GLB’ society, though that may be an error on my part), had a small office in the Guild of Students.

I knocked on the LGBT office door with a copy of the newspaper article in my hand, and passed it over to one of the small number of people present, and can clearly remember saying, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “Are you as angry as I want you to be?” The young man replied ‘yes’, and all those present said they would support me in my bid to get Mr Hitchens to come to the university.

My email records show that the next significant activity came on 14 March, when Anne Fuell, the General Secretary of the Guild of Students agreed to help publicise the debate. I then emailed Mr Hitchens to see when he was available in late March or early April, with a view to holding it before the Easter holiday.

I am relying on email archives from that time to piece together the exact order in which events unfolded after this, so minor details in chronology may be incorrect. Incidentally, I find it interesting how little the process of composing and sending an email has changed in the last 20 years. The main innovation being that higher upload and download speeds mean it is far easier to send and open attachments than it was even 10 years ago.

We appear to have hit some sort of snag in late March with regards to whether Mr Hitchens’s views were compatible with the Guild of Students’s ‘no platform’ policy. On 4 April 2003, I received an email from Deborah Lowe, the Guild’s Welfare Officer, which read:

Hi Marcus
because this is such a controversial issue, I need to consult my executive
before i can say whther it goes aheda. i think it is a great oppurtunity
and personally feel it can only fuel LGb awareness and the camapign to
accept it rather than fuel Peter Hitchens views as they should have gone
out with the dark ages. i will get back to you as soon as I ahev spoken to
relevant people but I assure you you ahve my backing and I will do my
utmost to get everybody elses.
Debbie.

Five days later, I received another email from her, which read:

Hi Marcus
I took this issue to the executive of the guild on Monday and it was a much
debated topic. The decision of the executive was that we did not think it
was appropriate to give a man with such homophobic views a platform within
our building, that prides itself on equality. I hope that you understand
the position that we are in on this matter. Please keep us informed of
whether you are still planning to have him speak in Liverpool as we would
like the chance to attend and challenge his homophobic views.
Thanks for your time and for trying to orgainse this event, I hope you
understand why we cannot host the event.
Debbie.

I emailed Mr Hitchens immediately. This had become a matter of principle for both of us. The following day, he replied, suggesting that I take the matter to the student newspaper. I did so, pretty much straight away, though the university’s Easter holiday was now imminent and we would return towards the end of April for a few more weeks of teaching, followed by a period of examinations, after which the university would shut down until late September.

On 21 May 2003, I emailed Mr Hitchens to tell him that I had not yet received a reply from the paper’s editor after all these weeks. They could be excused for not replying during the Easter vacation, though this had ended a week or two earlier so they had ample time to respond. Mr Hitchens suggested I pay a personal visit to the editor, as an email can be easily ignored, and nobody would know whether it was indolence or rudeness.

I then came up against another obstacle when the student newspaper abruptly closed down. The publication was a joint effort between the city’s three universities – The University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University. The latter two lost confidence in the newspaper, causing it to collapse and its offices to close. The University of Liverpool announced plans to launch a new paper at the start of the new academic year in September 2003, but until then, there was little I could do.

The long summer break followed, and on 6 October 2003, I emailed the editor of the newly-launched student newspaper, who happened to be the very same Anne Fuell who was General Secretary of the Guild of Students in the previous academic year. I had a hunch that her appointment would not be good news for my quest to expose the actions of the student council. She responded by asking for my phone number so she could call me for more details. I provided my number but the phone call never came.

I went to visit her office in person some days later. Fuell claimed that she was coincidentally about to phone me when I visited, so we had the conversation about the story there and then. She seemed mildly embarrassed by my presence, but asked for some time to think as to how to proceed. On 27 October 2003, I received the following email from her:

 

HI Marcus,

Hope you had a fine weekend. Sorry to not get back to you sooner but as
i’m sure you can imagine it gets very hectic here in the newspaper
office.  Thank you for your correspondence.  After careful
consideration  i have decided to not follow up your lead for a story as
i feel it may negatively affect a number of our readers.

Regards,

Anne Fuell

Editor
Liverpool Student Newspaper

A few days later, I emailed Mr Hitchens for what would be the last time on this matter, to tell him of this development. He sent me a short reply, in which he said he did not know what else to do, before signing off by saying that this bodes ill for the future of British newspapers.

And that is pretty much the end of the story.

Fortunately for us all, Anne Fuell did not pursue a career in journalism. Her LinkedIn profile she now works in ‘business marketing’ for London and Partners, the Mayor of London’s official promotions company for the capital.

Deborah Lowe went on to work for the BBC in ‘development’, and is now head of development for Wild Blue Media.

What conclusions can we reach, and what historic can we learn from this story? First of all, that this is an early example of ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses. But who were the student council, and indeed the student newspaper trying to protect, and from what? The LGBT society was ready to welcome Mr Hitchens to the university to debate the issue. They did not stand in the way of the debate taking place. Others felt the need to protect them on their behalf. And did those running the student newspaper not understand that it was their duty to inform their readers of the stance the student council had taken?

I admit to being shocked at the time by this curtailment of free speech on campus. My Eurosceptic views were firmly established by the time of my arrival at university, and I was undoubtedly in a minority among the students in my belief that Britain should leave the European Union. But at no time did any professor or tutor try to prevent me from saying so or stop arguing my case.

Many students seemed to regard my anti-EU views as an eccentric curiosity. A tiny number chose not to mix with me outside classrooms and lecture theatres, but none tried to stop me from openly and freely expressing my opinions. That said, I do think there were occasions where I was marked down in essays and examinations for not conforming to the prevailing pro-EU, pro-Blair mindset of the university.

But not once did any student feel the need to escape to a ‘safe space’ because of anything I said, nor did any burst into tears and claim I had hurt their feelings. I wonder whether the same could be said if I was a Eurosceptic undergraduate student 15 years later?

If Mr Hitchens had called for homosexuals to be killed, or persecuted, then there would have been a case for him to be banned from speaking at the university. But these were not his views. He believed that homosexual acts were immoral, and that by openly declaring yourself as a homosexual, you could not be a Tory.

I should point out that I am certain Mr Hitchens would not offer to come and debate the issue today. He says he now regrets ever getting involved in the debate around gay ‘marriage’ and the rights and wrongs of homosexuality, now regarding it as a very small and largely irrelevant sideshow in the story of Britain’s decline. Within just a few years, he had withdrawn his support for the Conservative Party, rightly believing it to have been captured by Blairites and broadly accepting vast swathes of New Labour policies.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

I warmly congratulate Tom Willett on succeeding where I failed. I am glad Mr Hitchens enjoyed his visit to Liverpool, and yes, I share his view that it’s a pity more people do not go there. All too often, British people go to great lengths to see far away splendours such as the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt, while neglecting to spend a few hours on a train to visit the equally magnificent Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool or Lincoln Cathedral.

Had I been just a year or two older, I would have had the self-confidence, experience and tenacity to keep fighting. Faced with such a situation today, I am in no doubt that I would have done whatever it took to make the debate take place.

Within a year or two, I became aware of speakers being refused a platform at universities up and down the country for daring to believe that Britain should not be a member of the European Union, or that radical Islam was a major threat to our Judeo-Christian culture. In students unions, certain opinions are compulsory, and others are impossible to express. The sphere of acceptable opinion becomes more and more narrow with every year that passes, with unpleasant and inaccurate labels like ‘racist’, ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’ placed on dissenters.

Fifteen years on from my experience, we appear to have bred a generation of university students who all too often believe they have a right to be protected on campus, not just from violence and danger, but from opinions they personally don’t agree with. What will they be like when they enter the workplace, or worse still, the House of Commons? This should be of major concern for all those who cherish and value freedom of speech, thought and conscience.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2017 at 5:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Novice Rowers are All Star Champions!

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By MARCUS STEAD

A TEAM of novice rowers defied the odds to become All Star champions at the annual Llandaff Rowing Club Regatta, which raises money for Velindre Cancer Care and Keep Wales Tidy.

Rowing 2017

The Love Dem Oars winning team (L-R): Richard Phipps, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary and Robert Gordon.

Last year, Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards and Stephen Cleary, now all aged 33, formed a team called ‘Love Dem Oars’ and, after just four weeks of training, they were joined by established rower Richard Phipps for the Splash and Dash Men’s Regatta, where they saw off competitors in three races, which included a comfortable victory against a more experienced group of firefighters in the final.

The team’s victory made them ineligible to enter the Splash and Dash this year, but they were invited to enter the All Star category where they were pitted against a team of previous winners, and won the best-of-three race series 2-0.

As with last year, they were trained by accomplished rowing instructor Arthur Williams, 70, but they only began their preparations five weeks before the regatta. Robert said: “I entered this event a few years ago with other people, and last year I formed a team with my old school friends Stephen and Daniel, because it raises money for good causes and there’s a decent party afterwards at the club.

“We entered as a bit of fun last year and went on to win it. This year, we knew we’d face a tough challenge against a team of previous winners, and again we upset the form book to become All Star champions. It’s incredible, really!”

Velindre is a specialist cancer treatment centre located on the perimeter of Cardiff that provides services to more than 1.5 million people across South East Wales and beyond.

Each year, the centre treat more than 5,000 new referrals and around 50,000 new outpatients.

While the treatment itself is paid for from general taxation, charitable donations allow the centre to provide valuable extra facilities to patients and their families. For example:

* £10 could provide a family with a children’s story book to help adults explain their cancer journey to young family members.

* £25 could provide a memory box to help children keep memories of their loved ones.

* £50 could provide an hour’s complimentary therapy to help patient’s well-being (acupuncture, reiki etc).

* £300 could provide a tablet computer for patients to use whilst in hospital.

* £10,000 could provide a scalp cooler to help prevent hair loss in patients who receive chemotherapy.

 

Keep Wales Tidy is a charity working across Wales to protect the environment now and for the future. It also provides environmental education, training, business services and environmental solutions across Wales.

Robert, Daniel, Stephen, Richard and Arthur would welcome further donations to these two excellent charities. You can donate by clicking here.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

September 27, 2017 at 5:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Can Wimpy Have a Future to Match its Glorious Past?

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By MARCUS STEAD

MOST PEOPLE over the age of 40 will have vaguely nostalgic memories of a time, long before global giants McDonald’s and Burger King arrived, when Wimpy was the one and only place to go for fast food.

Yet for the majority of today’s under 30s, Wimpy may not mean anything at all. What was once a mainstay of every town centre in the country has been shrunk to a rump of around 70 smaller restaurants in provincial and coastal towns, mostly in southern England, with Essex a particular hotbed.

Wimpy - Mr Wimpy

Mr Wimpy, the company’s mascot, who had a computer game named in his honour in 1984.

Those youngsters that know the name will never have seen its TV commercial or been to a children’s party where a staff member dressed as Mr Wimpy was the star attraction. Instead, they are more likely to think of it as a modest cafe along the seafront, in between the amusement arcade and the souvenir shop.

The original ‘Wimpy Grills’ was created in the USA by Edward Gold in 1934, and in 1954 he sold a licence to J. Lyons and Co to use the name in the United Kingdom. The first ‘Wimpy Bar’ in Britain was opened in 1954 at Lyons Corner House in Coventry St, London. It was originally a special fast food section within the more traditional Corner House chain of restaurants, but its rapid success quickly led to the establishment of separate ‘Wimpy Bar’ outlets serving only what we now call ‘fast food’ meals, blending American-style eating with a distinctly British image.

Three years later, Gold’s Chicago-based company formed a joint venture with Lyons called Wimpy International Inc, to operate the brand in the rest of the world. The company eventually grew to 1,500 locations worldwide, and Gold later sold his share to Lyons prior to his death in 1977, which formalised Wimpy as a British company.

Growth was rapid, and by 1970, Wimpy had 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries. In July 1977, the UK business was acquired by United Biscuits and Bakers SA bought the South African division of the company, splitting the empire up, for now.

One of United Biscuits’ first actions was to open ‘counter service’ restaurants in response to the arrival of McDonald’s in the country three years earlier, but Wimpy remained far more prominent than its slicker American rival on British high streets. Even in 1983, there were only 100 McDonald’s ‘restaurants’ in the whole UK.

The turning point may have come in 1986, which was a pivotal year in the rise of McDonald’s in the UK, for it was then that the first franchise-run McDonald’s opened in Middlesex. The same year brought the Happy Meal, and the first ‘drive-thru’ opened in Fallowfield, Manchester, which was quickly followed before the end of the year by others in Dudley, Neasden and Coventry. Wimpy was beginning to lose ground, and was no longer the obvious choice for people seeking a fast food fix.

At 33, I belong to the in-between generation. I can just about remember the days of the large town centre Wimpy competing alongside their more brash American rivals, until the sad, gradual process of their disappearance from the high street in the early 1990s.

The most significant development came about in 1989, when United Biscuits decided to divest its restaurant division, and sold Wimpy, and its other brands (Pizzaland and Perfect Pizza) to multinational giants Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo). At that time, there were 381 Wimpy restaurants in the UK.

Grand Metropolitan had acquired Burger King the previous year, which was already a major brand overseas, but only had 30 UK outlets at that time. It saw the purchase of Wimpy as an opportunity to aggressively expand the global giant’s presence in the UK, and soon began to convert the ‘counter service’ to Burger King.

In February 1990, the remaining 216 ‘table service’ Wimpy restaurants were purchased by a management buyout, in addition to 140 franchised locations outside the UK. These ‘table service’ restaurants in the UK were in locations considered less desirable by Grand Metropolitan and were often franchises, licensed to their managers.

The events of 1989 and 1990 may have been a major blow to the prominence of the Wimpy brand, but it was not a fatal one. Pushed out of the big cities, but not from the sea front, Wimpy stubbornly stuck to its format of fast food with a British twist, with menu offerings including the innuendo-inducing ‘Big Bender’ and the quaint toasted teacake. Ash trays remained present on tables years after smoking had been prohibited in most fast food outlets, right up until it was outlawed in enclosed public spaces in the late 2000s.

I recall one smaller table service Wimpy that lived on for a few years in the centre of Cardiff into the 1990s. My parents seemed to like taking me there during shopping trips, possibly as a sort of compromise between allowing me to eat fast food, while still being expected to use a knife and fork.

Wimpy - Horrible Logo

The misguided logo which took Wimpy away from its roots.

Some ill-devised attempts at ‘modernisation’ were made during the 1990s and early 2000s. The iconic ‘red and white burger’ logo was replaced by a red-on-yellow emblem with the ‘w’ in lower case. There was a gradual retreat from many of its locations as franchisees closed their restaurants, but Wimpy was far from finished and small, takeaway ‘Express Units’ became a growth area in theme parks, leisure venues and food courts.

A second management buy-out took place in 2002, and by the mid-2000s, the nearest Wimpy to my home was a small restaurant on the narrow high street of Caerphilly, a town best known for its world-famous cheeses and the home of Tommy Cooper. I ate there on a small number of occasions, and while the food was still of excellent value for money, the misguided attempts at ‘modernisation’ via the tacky rebrand meant lacked the magic of the Wimpy of old.

Wimpy Logo

Back to the future with the revival of the classic Wimpy logo.

In February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the South African franchise, acquired Wimpy UK, reuniting the empire that had been split up in 1977. They adopted a ‘new’ logo, which was actually a return to the red-and-white ‘classic’ frontage of the 1970s and 80s. Famous Brands very gradually began to upgrade the remaining 170 locations in the UK to resemble American-style diners, though crucially, they retained the elements of the menu that made it characteristically British. Wimpy began to feel like Wimpy again.

The same year, I visited a Wimpy for what was to be the last time in nearly a decade. That September, I began my formal journalism training at Highbury College, Portsmouth, and on my ‘patch’, in Cosham High St, I discovered a Wimpy franchise, managed by Alex Lardidis. It had all the classic elements of a Wimpy, decent fast food at an affordable price, and yes, ashtrays on every table. It was reassuringly old-fashioned. It made for an interesting college newspaper piece, and I can clearly recall Alex telling me he was optimistic for Wimpy’s future under their new South African owners.

Sadly, the Cosham Wimpy didn’t last much longer for reasons I do not know. A ‘Wok ‘N’ Walk’ fresh noodle bar now trades where the Caerphilly Wimpy once stood. Yes, you read that correctly. The Wimpy restaurant in Caerphilly was so small that it’s just the right size for a takeaway.

A year after the Famous Brands takeover, just 16 Wimpy branches had been upgraded to the new, ‘retro’ look. Perhaps they were too slow in playing catchup during those years when coffee shop culture and a vast array of chains offering fast food from across the world were expanding rapidly.

By 2014, there were just 93 Wimpy restaurants left in the whole UK. Three years later, that figure is down to 70. To provide some perspective, McDonald’s and Burger King both have around 1,300 branches each.

In July this year, I visited a Wimpy just two months short of the tenth anniversary of my last visit. On this occasion, during a work/pleasure visit to London, I called in to one of the capital’s few remaining outlets on Streatham High Road, slotted between a Vodafone shop and a New Look clothes store.

Both the sign on the outside and the décor of the restaurant felt reassuringly familiar. The revamp which the South African owners began in 2008 had long since been implemented, helping to give it the ambiance of Wimpy’s golden age.

The Streatham franchise is owned by Kemal, an affable Turkish-Cypriot who moved to the UK from Paphos, Cyprus in 1975 to escape the tensions that had heightened following Turkey’s invasion of the island the previous year.

Kemal initially went into business with his older brother, who had bought the Streatham franchise from Wimpy International several years earlier, but he soon took sole control and replaced existing staff with family and friends.

When I arrived in the early evening, I was the only customer in the restaurant, but this turned out to be a mere lull between the afternoon and evening rushes. It remains open until 10pm every night because the demand is there.

This is a restaurant in rude health, situated in a diverse and close-knit area. It, and indeed Kemal, are very much a part of the community. The police hold a drop-in session there once a month, and local MP Chukka Umunna is a regular customer.

Kemal knows 80% of his customers by name. The loyalty is a two-way street. McDonald’s opened a branch on the same road in 1979, but it closed around 2002, a fact that brings a wry smile to Kemal’s face.

Wimpy Menu

The Wimpy menu I ordered from during my visit to their restaurant on Streatham High Road.

A TV broadcasting Sky News hung from the wall, and I scanned the menu, which, though enhanced since my childhood, still contains all the old favourites. I decided to order cod, chips (NOT fries) and peas, priced at a very reasonable £6.35, and a glass of Pepsi.

Within 10 minutes, Kemal returned with my meal, which more than lived up to its billing. Wimpy’s current strapline is ‘Enjoy Every Moment’, which is apt. I have eaten cod and chips in modern, fashionable restaurants and paid far more for the privilege, but I am not exaggerating when I say that the generously-sized and perfectly-cooked meal I ate at Kemal’s Wimpy that day was far superior to most of them. You’ll certainly struggle to find better value for money in London.

What sort of a future does Wimpy have in the UK? Famous Brands have done their bit, by both returning Wimpy to its roots and dragging it into the 21st century.

It appears that most, if not all of the 70 remaining Wimpy restaurants are franchises, meaning the onus is on the manager to ensure the food is cooked to the right standards, and that high levels of hygiene and maintenance are upheld.

Online reviews suggest there is a real inconsistency in the levels of customer satisfaction from one branch to another, with complaints ranging from dirty tables to meat turning up on a plate when a vegetarian dish had been ordered. On the other hand, reviews of some restaurants suggest most customers are as happy with their experience as I was in Streatham.

The sad fact is that in 2017, most of the population don’t live anywhere near a Wimpy. There are just four left in Scotland, three in northern England, and one in the whole of Wales (in Porthcawl).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who knows of an empty, suitably-sized outlet on any high street and has a spare £220,000 to spend on the franchise and set-up fee can open a Wimpy in their area. Kemal’s restaurant should be considered the blueprint as to how to make a Wimpy franchise a success, with his enthusiasm, attention to detail and engagement with the local community. With more people like him, Wimpy can, and deserves to have, a future every bit as glorious as its past.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 9, 2017 at 6:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized