The snowdrops and aconites are bright jelly tots against the grey packaging of our garden. This splash of colour, and the lighter evenings and mornings, should help lift that weighed-down-winter-feeling.
But it’s not just the weather and lack of light that’s been lowering this year. The news also seems particularly grey. The horsemeat saga highlights a sense that morals and ethics have gone out of the window in favour of the pursuit of ever-larger profit margins – and that great faceless catchall, ‘shareholder value’. The upside is that the episode has been good for our marvellous high street butchers – my butcher tells me that he’s had a shopper who’s never been in a butcher’s before. NEVER BEEN IN A BUTCHER’S SHOP!
Marvellous John Skelly at work in the high street.
Back in the news, there are uncomfortable reports on quality of care – in hospitals, homes for the elderly and those with learning disabilities. Abuse of power is commonplace. The sense of having paid for, or simply having a human right to honest, thoughtful and appropriate care, service or products seems to have evaporated. Part of the reason for this must be the increasing need to justify and quantify everything in financial terms – whether it be healthcare, education, or the supply chain.
The fact is that if financial criteria are the key markers of success you’re always going to fall short. There are always more savings to be made. Always more money to be scrabbled after. Hence, things that were free or cheap now cost more, and higher-end goods are often compromised. For example, chicken was a real treat when I was little. Now you can choose from a row of identically plump water- and hormone-injected breasts at bargain prices. Accountability becomes a paper exercise.
On the day I’m writing, a supermarket chain announced it will source all its meat from UK suppliers. It’s to ‘reassure’ because people have ‘lost faith’. Let’s face it, all the huge food suppliers are on the back foot looking to salvage the most customers they can from a murky business. Once the dust settles, bad practice will slip seamlessly back into play.
But maybe that guy who’d never been in a butcher’s shop is a timely reminder that lots of us have forgotten how to shop for essentials, if not daily, then more than once a week. That we’ve wandered away from the high street – the greengrocer, the baker, the deli, the small supplier. And while our backs were turned, well, the high street has all but disappeared and we’ve been lumbered with big, bigger and biggest.
So, what to do?
Well, I say, three cheers for the local community. Working together to hang on to what we’ve got – like our high street (The Green Shop, The Market Shop, Retro, Danish Design, Berrydin Books, Grieves Stationers and many more), like our maternity unit and hospital, like decent train timetabling, like our heritage and open spaces. The more we use these resources and fight to keep them, the more they’ll succeed and, hopefully, the more enterprises and services will join them.
One of the reasons Berwick is such an exciting place to live – and why, like us or loathe us, it attracts incomers like me – is the amazing amount of goodwill within the town, a palpable sense that change for the greater good is not only desirable: it’s doable.
So I am looking forward to seeing how the Portas money is spent to benefit our town. £200,000 may be a drop in the ocean. But it’s drops that cause waves. I am delighted by the Berwick’s Park Project and intrigued to see what comes of Arch’s scheme for renewal and regeneration.
Because I still believe that a local community that works, shops, plans and parties together can find ways to buck the news trends, shrug off the winter greys, and put a spring twinkle into its own steps.
A version of this article appeared in The Berwick Advertiser on 7 March 2013