Friday, 29 January 2010

Sweet and sour: where the Quaker cocoa went

If I were going to make a TV documentary about the Cadbury-Kraft affair, I’d certainly want to include footage of Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the English confectioners’ home in Bourneville, just outside Birmingham (that’s Warwickshire, UK, not Alabama, USA).
She went there in April, 1979, at the start of her victorious battle to become UK Prime Minister. This campaign has been described as Britain’s first “television election”, and Mrs T and her advisers understood exactly what was entailed: instead of talking about politics, she travelled to picturesque places and did vigorous, picturesque things in picturesque costumes, simply because this is what television needed her to do.
She wore a white coat and hat. So did the parliamentary sketch writer, Frank Johnson, “and about a hundred television and press photographers and reporters,” as he remembers in his delicious memoir, Best Seat in the House: “the whole effect resembled a lunatic asylum in which the doctors had themselves gone berserk; or possibly a convention of mad surgeons.”
Also in the entourage was Mrs T’s husband, Denis, a man who understood throughout her political career that it was his task to smile, and be supportive, and to say absolutely nothing. On the other hand, when being filmed talking to picturesque staff in picturesque places, Denis had to utter some words. Thus he became a master of the art of having a conversation which was only taking place because TV wanted a conversation to film.
At Cadbury, Johnson recorded these gems of the genre:
“Fascinating. But how do you get the walnut exactly in the middle of the fudge?”
“Do you export much?... Really? Africa as well? ... but surely it would melt?”
There was a political subtext to the visit, of course (besides the surrounding constituency being a marginal). Cadbury represented virtuous private enterprise, and, at that, a particularly British variety of the phenomenon. In recent weeks we’ve heard the tale again as the shadow of Kraft fell over this revered institution – Quaker origins; cocoa created as a healthy, teetotal beverage for the working man and woman; the model village, the social club, the playing fields and the matrimonial gifts of bibles – a paradigm of philanthropy marching in delighted conference with capitalism.
But I’d begin the documentary 27 years after the Thatcher excursion, not in Bourneville, but at another Cadbury factory, Marlbrook, near Leominster in Herefordshire, where in January, 2006, a pipe began to leak bacteria into the process of chocolate manufacture.
The Daily Telegraph (June 26, 2006):
“Cadbury failed to inform food watchdogs about salmonella contamination at one its factories, despite nine cases of the bacterium being identified over a four-month period.
“The confectionery giant admitted to the potential health hazard last Monday, but only, it can be revealed, after pressure from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – and then waited until Friday to announce that it was withdrawing a million bars of chocolate.”

FoodQuality (July 17, 2007):
“A UK court yesterday fined Cadbury-Schweppes £1m (€1.5m) for knowingly allowing salmonella-contaminated chocolates to be sold to the public last year. ...
“The food safety breach has already cost the company about £50m to recall about 1m chocolate bars and on fixing problems at the Herefordshire plant, where the contamination originally occurred.
“The costs do not factor in the loss of customers and damage to the brand from the outbreak. About 40 people fell ill from eating the chocolates containing the crumb manufactured at the plant.”

I’d also want to include in my doc a couple of sequences from a video I made for Cadbury-Schweppes, as it then was, in 1995.
Not, maybe, the episode in Mexico City where the glamorous youth of the company gathered at a café terrasse to drink a soda called Penafiel with such enthusiasm that you might have supposed it contained an ingredient upon which the original Mr Cadbury would have frowned.
(I shot that twice, because it was only as we were packing up to leave that I realised every umbrella in the café had stitched on it the logo and name of Coca Cola – a moment which, recalled, still makes me shudder).
But I would want to take in the sequences from China and New England.
In Beijing a lonely Australian showed me a little stall in a big department store where a tiny selection of Cadbury products were being sold by a single assistant. He then drove me miles outside the city to a campus where a huge factory was being built.
“Gosh,” I said. “You’re expecting the Chinese to start eating a hell of a lot more chocolate.”
“Well, not just that,” he said. And I’d learned another lesson, this time about globalisation. Meanwhile, Cadbury has a plant in Somerset which is, according to the Bath Chronicle, slated to close later this year, putting 400 people out of work, the business being transferred to another new factory, this time in Poland.
Now, although the company was specific about the locations where I should film, apart from big names at head office in Berkeley Square, London W1J, there was only one person whom it was mandatory for me to interview, and that was the leading man at an HQ in upstate New York, Mr Todd Stitzer.
I think I can fairly remark of Mr Stitzer that he’s no Willy Wonka. He didn’t say to me, “caramel, Frank, flows in my veins. I go to sleep at night dreaming of nougat, and wake yearning for a hazelnut cluster. Look, here’s a photograph of my two children, Milk and Tray.”
What he did do was outline strategies for “organic growth and acquisitions” in an MBA-speak which I found – my fault – largely impenetrable, and of which only three words now swim into my memory: “licensed leveraged buyouts.”
What were these, exactly? He explained. I didn’t quite grasp. He explained again, and with some injustice, a passage from White Fang swam into my over-literary mind, in which the bulldog gets its victim by the neck and, never slackening its jaws, waits patiently for pauses in the struggle when it can sink its teeth a little further and deeper.
And if Mr Stitzer has heard (as he surely will have) of Kant’s categorical imperatives, and allowed to linger in his mind the one stating that no mortal should ever use another mortal solely as a means to an end, I don’t think he would wholeheartedly agree.
Because I think I was a means to an end, in that interview, and fair enough, that’s what I was being paid for. The means being, that I was a physical and electronic courier who would transport his words and image back to London, where he could then address the AGM, where my production would be played, and be part of the big picture on the screen above the head of the CEO of the time, whom he would succeed into office in May 2003, eight years later, that being the end.
At around one-third and two-thirds of the way through the video, I placed thirty-second interludes designed to relax and entertain: from China, Beijing OAP’s ballroom dancing at dawn in a temple garden; from Mexico, a montage reflecting the exquisite, anachronistic elegance of parts of that city, where waiters still wore starched aprons, with pressed white napkins over their sleeves, the whole effect as if it were a set designed for Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential.
It’s a testament to the good nature of my Cadbury-Schweppes (as was) commissioners, that they fought hard to cut these sequences out, but surrendered when I fought harder to keep them in. “You can’t just bombard an audience with 20 constant minutes of hard facts and figures,” I protested. “They must have some leisure to reflect.”
When I got to the AGM and saw the audience of several hundred shareholders sitting with their notebooks and pocket calculators, and observed them watch my video, I knew that my commissioners were right and I was wrong.
What these people wanted was to be bombarded with 20 constant minutes of facts and figures.
No dancing Beijing OAP’s. Nor Mexican elegancies.
Nor, perhaps, any Quaker-ish recollections. Which is why the proposed Kraft marriage represents, more than we UK sentimentalists might like to admit, another logical stage in the process of “organic growth and acquisition.”
Postcript: shortly after the Kraft takeover was complete, Mr Stitzer left the company with £30,000,000. And the 400 Cadbury workers in Somerset were told that they would, after all, lose their jobs. Although somehow, during the negotiations, they'd got the impression - as did the media - that Kraft had promised to keep their factory open.
Capitalism, eh?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The most extraordinary blog you’ll ever read

We live in an age of ludicrous hyperbole. I just pushed a supermarket trolley with a banner on it for an instant coffee which didn’t say “good coffee”, but, in gold letters, “GLOWING WITH POLYPHENOL ANTIOXIDANTS.”
As trolley, banner and I moved along a gently-sloping travelator outside the store, loudspeakers shouted warnings at us which would have been apt had we been roped on the Old Man of Hoy.
(I just googled Old Man of Hoy to make sure he wasn’t Hoye and got a sponsored link offering to “Find the Best Results for Pictures Of Old Men!” - What?)
You too will have encountered the assistant who stares at you with weary indifference or borderline hostility beneath a sign assuring you that he or she is “passionate about customer service.”
My journeys on the C2 bus in London NW1 and NW5 were recently enlivened by signs urging me to “Love Your Local High Street!”
Now, Kentish Town Road has a certain, time-warped idiosyncrasy and charm: the Owl Bookshop, sticking two literate fingers up at Waterstone’s; Bluston’s Ladies’ Coats and Gowns, a portal to a world pre-WWII, and the Oxford pub, previously called Jolene Celeste, and before that, The Vulture’s Perch.
But I find it difficult to love, and even if I could love it, how would I explain that love to those I do love? For example, my daughter Mollie, my son Max, and their mother, Juliet (that’s Max and Jools in the picture above, in Africa, with the hippos, Gordon, Sarah and Ed).
Last night on Channel Five, at 8 o’clock, there was a programme called Jaws of the Hippo: Austin Stevens’ Adventures. I quote:
“The adventurer travels to Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, where he tries to get the perfect photograph of one of Africa’s deadliest mammals – the hippopotamus.”
Hey, Austin – get a life. And a telephoto lens.
Meanwhile Masterchef, a programme which could roast chickens in the heat of its shouting, regularly, breathlessly warns us that a contestant “faces his toughest-ever test” as he prepares to crack an egg, only to repeat the same assertion fifteen minutes later as, nail-bitingly, he prepares to crack two.
What all these varieties of hyperbole have in common is this: an assumption that the audience is stupid (unless, of course, they’re all ironic, and I’m missing the gag and am stupid?). But, as Lynn Barber once wrote memorably, gnomically, “readers [also, therefore, viewers, listeners] aren’t stupid. I firmly believe that even stupid readers aren’t stupid.”
I guess we’ve caught this virus of extremes and extravagance from the USA, where even the meals are hyperbolic (I was served fifteen pancakes for breakfast, last time I was there).
Only America could think it a virtuous idea to set a member of staff a target, and then sack him or her for failing to exceed it.
Zigong asked: “Who is more worthy, Zizhang or Zixia?”
The Master replied: “Zizhang overshoots the mark, while Zixia falls short of it.”
Zigong: “Then we can say that Zizhang is better?”
The Master: “Overshooting the mark is just as bad as falling short of it.”

(Confucius, Analects, XI:XVI)
Last week, writing about nostalgia and absurdity, I quoted Albert Camus, and having fetched the book (The Myth of Sisyphus) down to check the words, found myself, as one does, reading the whole of it again.
He writes:
“Greek thought always took refuge behind the conception of limits. It never carried anything to extremes.”
And again:
“That is, indeed, genius: the intelligence that knows its frontiers.”

Friday, 15 January 2010

Unnatural signs and wonders?

The redwings swept in from distant countryside, birds I hadn’t seen since I lived on the edge of Dartmoor, twenty or so years ago. They swarmed onto a chestnut tree behind my back wall before stripping a nearby hollybush of all its berries, and moving on.
(Driving across the moor at Christmastime we had every species of weather in an hour: December sunshine, clear and bright as brass, a snowstorm, sleet, rain, and a giddy ascent into the clouds near Vixen Tor. Lapwings, yes, but I never saw a redwing, although at that moment I’d forgotten I remembered them, if you see what I mean.)
Now I briefly got one of those Shakespearean fits: what did it portend, this surge of country birds into the middle of London? The fall of the House of Windsor? The return of Edgar Allan Poe? The re-election of Gordon Brown?
It was the freeze that brought them, of course, a matter of survival. But, as I watched through binoculars, their presence connected me to half-forgotten bits and pieces of my past: a change of schools that brought me to the moor, a particular book, a romance that flared and faded in a terraced house with an open fire, a walk from the village and a ring round the moon, one Christmas night, while owls called.
I had lunch this week with an old friend who’s made his business out of the virtuous cause of climate change.
“Does it matter to the earth whether there are ten thousand varieties of trees, or birds, or butterflies, or ten? Does it matter to the universe whether the earth is a blue pearl or a black cinder spinning in the void?
“That the earth will be extinguished sometime, that the earth will die, is inevitable. So are we trying not to save the planet, but to postpone its execution – to transfer the fatal reckoning down as many generations as we can?”

And we talked about energy consumption, carbon footprints, and the class of ’66, ate and drank quite abstemiously, then wrapped up and said our goodbyes in a savage east wind with slush underfoot.
Inevitably, the not atypical intrusion of an icy spell into a British winter has emboldened those who believe that the theory of global warming is hooey to pump up the volume. As The Guardian noted, they seem to have an irrational difficulty in distinguishing between local weather and the world’s climate.
And yet, walking home through the snow it occurred to me that since the preferred epithet for the sceptic among passionate scientists is “climate change-denier,” scepticism is indeed a modern heresy , and climate science in its own way a leap to a new religion which tries (as religions, of course, have always done) to evade or explain the absurdities of existence and answer the immemorial hunger for “meaning.”
Albert Camus reminds us: “the absurd is born of a confrontation between human needs and the unreasonable silence of the world....
“The irrational, human nostalgia, and the absurd which is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama...”
And the world, inscrutably, is dying around us, because of us and in spite of us, and we despair, and having no-one left to pray to, turn on each other.

January, 2010

Three clips projected in a waking skull:
An old wall with just a trace,
On pitted bricks, of a clock face;
Two man-sized, dog-tooth
Chessmen, back to back;
A climbing street, once loved,
Where doorways fade to black –

(Grasp these unintelligibles, which show
How much there is you know
You do not know).

Footnote: I’m in two minds about this blog, but decided to publish it anyway, as a testament to what fifteen days of sobriety can do to the psyche.
Footnote 2 (January 17:If you'd like to read the Sunday Times report exploding the story that Himalaya's glaciers will have melted to nothing by 2035 - referred to in the comments below - it's here.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Cardboard guns and a babble of bias

As we UK citizens surfaced through the ice into 2010, British politicians began wheeling out and firing their heavy artillery. Actually, that’s how they want to make it seem, but isn’t really the case. What’s happening is, the politicians wheel out big, gun-shaped tubes of cardboard and the media take turns to shout “bang!” Then you get a long shrapnel crackle of voters jabbering on the radio phone-in shows.
Can we stand four months (or more) of this? Of Punch Brown and Judy Cameron stertorously and inanely claiming and counter-claiming, maligning and counter-maligning, with intermittent yaps from Toby Clegg? Four months (or more) in which the media collude and pretend that all this meaningless vapour is real smoke and ordnance in a textbook case of what Jay Rosen memorably described as the “lame formula” of “he said, she said journalism” – as opposed to reporters and commentators saying “look, the economy is prone and blue, so it doesn’t matter who says what or who wins, because whatever the outcome of this election, all that lies ahead is a long, long spell of pain and destitution”?
It’s now 36 years since John Birt and Peter Jay wrote a thesis arguing that there was a “bias against understanding” in the media – that journalists hastening for the biggest headlines under the cosh of tight deadlines put honest analysis to one side to “go with the story” via exaggeration, simplification and the conflation of often artificial and misleading conflicts.
You might have thought that the vast proliferation of media in the subsequent decades would have found a means to correct the bias, somewhere, somehow, but it seems instead that the bias has gotten even more entrenched – that almost every area of public discourse, in Britain, at least, has been infected by the bias and has become a game that’s orchestrated by what might be called White City, Canary Wharf or Wapping rules.
Could it be possible that if you take away the bias, the journalism can’t function?
Example one: on October 22 last year Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right British National Party, appeared on BBC Question Time, an event which occasioned fulminations and demonstrations from professional fulminators and semi-professional demonstrators. And the actual appearance? As soon as the man opened his mouth you thought, ah, that’s what happened to the Fat Owl of the Remove; infuriated years before by the wit and charm of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur, humiliated by the ease and rank of Harry Wharton and Bob Cherry, poor old Billy Bunter turned into a middle-aged bigot, intellectually shallow and hopelessly out of his depth. Griffin hadn’t concluded a single sentence before you knew there was no possibility that he could ever arrive within distant sight of any public office in the UK. End of programme. Except, we had to plough on for another dreary forty minutes or so of spurious “controversy.” I doubt if John Birt as director general of the BBC would have tolerated this weird and nonsensical jamboree.
Example two: this week a man called Anjem Choudary announced that radical Muslims would be staging a protest by carrying empty coffins through Wootton Bassett, the town that regularly memorialises the return of British soldiers slain overseas. Cue outrage, banner headlines, phone-ins, protests.
Mr Choudray is described as UK leader of an organisation called Islam4UK which apparently plans to make Britain an Islamic state, introduce sharia law, convert Buckingham Place into a mosque, and ban alcohol and publicly flog people who get drunk. Pigs might also fly, if they weren’t proscribed as well.
Virtually drowned out in the media pandemonium were the voices of British Muslim citizens telling Mr Choudray to go boil his head. The Times, however, did note that Islam4UK “has a history of announcing inflammatory events and then cancelling them” – in other words, this was a stunt, cleverly confected to whet media appetites.
A FOOTNOTE about honest analysis... on New Year’s Eve Cardinal Cahal Daly, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, died aged 92. An apostle of peace in Northern Ireland, he once famously asked (I paraphrase slightly) who in their sane senses thought they could bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland. Only rarely in contemporary journalism do we see the same unanswerable reasoning adapted and applied to, say, Western policies in the Middle East or Afghanistan.
Freya Gräfin von Moltke died the next day, aged 98. Herself a dissenter within Hitler’s Germany, she was the widow of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Christian and pacifist, whom Hitler executed in January 1945. Ben Macintyre’s piece about Moltke in The Times was superb. Perhaps it is only outside – well outside – the theatres of news and news comment that bias subsides and honest, perceptive journalism survives.
Update, January 12: As you might have predicted from The Times report, yesterday Islam4UK cancelled its proposed march through Wootton Bassett.