Hugh Pennington

  • Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman
    Fourth Estate, 368 pp, £12.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 00 715803 3
  • Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence
    Penguin, 272 pp, £7.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 14 101566 7
  • Food Policy Old and New edited by Simon Maxwell and Rachel Slater
    Blackwell, 184 pp, £19.99, March 2004, ISBN 1 4051 2602 7

Joanna Blythman does not like supermarkets. The bigger they are, the greater her hatred. She says they are responsible for the slow death of community life. They take the skill out of shopping. They subvert home cooking. They have done away with seasonal variety. Their buyers are bullied by their superiors to bully their suppliers. Supermarkets have an obsession with hygiene at the expense of food quality. They sell squidgy bread. And they call their staff ‘colleagues’.

Felicity Lawrence’s dislike of contemporary food production methods and systems is equally strong. She disapproves of broiler chickens. The use of migrant seasonal labour and gangmasters affronts her. Ready meals are a bad thing. Just-in-time delivery to local supermarkets from central warehouses and the transport of food by air contribute to global warming. Supermarkets are too powerful. And the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and globalisation work against our interests.

Blythman and Lawrence’s views are shared by many influential journalists and broadcasters, leaders of lobby groups and writers. Their books are well written and well informed. They raise important issues. But they will not give you a balanced view or a dispassionate analysis of food production and retailing. Their emotional fervour and polemical tendencies place them firmly in the category of 20th-century works addressing the impact of industry and science on living things best exemplified by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But they also belong to a much older tradition. Ruskin eloquently attacked the impact of industrialisation, in particular the dehumanisation of factory workers. We can be pretty certain that he would disapprove of the monotony and lack of skill inherent in checkout technology as much as he did the mindless machine-attending in Victorian textile mills.

For Ruskin, the villain of the piece was steam. Blythman despises supermarkets: he vituperated railways. The similarities are striking. There were oligopolies in the 19th-century railway, and many of those enjoyed local monopolies, too. The popular press campaigned against their apparent disregard for their customers. Governments were pressed to increase regulation – but nearly always declined. Many railway stations were public buildings of an unprecedented size, bigger than cathedrals. Supermarkets today sometimes cut deals with local councils, promising to build amenities in return for planning permission. In 1863, Glasgow University sold for demolition its mid-17th-century double-quadrangled college and a range of 18th-century buildings to the Glasgow Union Railway for £100,000, so it could move to a less smelly and smoky part of town. Although trains were – and still are – the safest mode of transport ever devised, the horror of crashes, however rare, attracted enough publicity to provide the main reason for regulation. Similarly, the laws governing food retailers have their origins in food-poisoning outbreaks. Just as corner shops have been affected by supermarkets, small local firms lost out to the railways – stagecoach operators went out of business in droves. The suburbs, meanwhile, grew and grew.

Another thing that Ruskin, Blythman and Lawrence have in common is a low opinion of the public. Blythman and Lawrence imply that we have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into spending huge sums on dodgy chickens in supermarkets. Ruskin had a similar view of railway passengers:

You enterprised a railroad through the valley – you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the Gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half an hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange – you fools everywhere.

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