Culture… and Chips

Once those shutters go up this place will be rammed.

Mr Price doesn’t have a press office. There’s no large Comms team. He doesn’t do media relations. And – I’m guessing here – I bet he doesn’t have a fish and chip strategy. Not even a draft.

But, twice a day, five times a week, a queue will begin to form once the smell of frying batter wafts down the street.

Like most chippies this one has loyal customers. They tell their mates. There’s a steady stream of new punters. People often just drop in as they are driving by and notice the sign (that tiny red sign on the side of the shop is the only nod to PR the chippy allows.)

And like most chippies it wouldn’t know a diversity policy from a deep-fried Mars Bar. But go and look and listen to the people who wait their turn at the counter. If you can find a more representative and diverse bunch anywhere in Leeds let me know. Mr Price serves them all equally and cheerfully and his shop is loud with local gossip and good humour. Everyone mixes in the chippy.

Fair enough, Mr Price doesn’t know the use of an apostrophe. But that hasn’t stopped him being a major cultural influence, if you agree with the definition of culture proposed in the new draft Leeds Culture Strategy

So, why isn’t Mr Price, or someone like him, involved in the Leeds bid to become European Capital of Culture, 2023?

Look at the team of people listed as the independent steering group; they represent the top people from the loftiest of “high” cultural organisations in the city: Phoenix Dance, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds University, Leeds College of Music… This is culture with a capital “C”, exactly as people normally think of it, distant, exclusive, and, let’s face it, pretty forbidding for most people. It’s doubtful any one of them would know how to order half a hundredweight of best beef dripping.

It’s lovely they are asking Leeds to “dream big”, from “school children and office workers to local residents, artists, investment bankers, hairdressers, taxi drivers, property developers and councillors.”

It’s nice to be asked.

But, well, wouldn’t it have made more sense to involve those hairdressers, taxi drivers and chip shop owners on the steering group? They actually might have a wealth of cultural experience that the purveyors of “high” culture couldn’t even dream of.

Why can’t Leeds be a Capital of Culture. And chips.

One comment

  1. Hi Phil

    I got in touch with Robin Goodlad, social entrepreneur and the environment and cycling correspondent at the Roundhay Irresponsible and asked him to tickle up a few words in respect of your comments above – here’s what he had to say.

    “Of course, decision-making in cultural policy-making is always complex and nuanced, must always support diversity and inclusion and avoid giving offence. Personally, I find that having the right sort of social and political values always helps me to come to the correct decision about what would be in the interests of all our community and enhance the common good.

    This issue of fish and chip shops and their cultural contribution at first had me conflicted but once I started to think about it my ideas became clear by using the concepts of declining and emerging cultures. As a progressive I automatically assume that emerging cultures are good as we are living in a society which is gradually getting better and better and overcoming its social problems in new and innovative ways like compelling people to take more exercise and declining cultures generally deserve their fate because they represent things that sound middle class people like me regard as regressive or no longer for the common good such as driving a car.

    Although when you get down to it I must admit things can be a bit more complicated than this. Such as technology which I am generally in favour of can sometimes go wrong and cultural practices which we thought were vanishing can come back to benefit society such as allotments.

    So, with fish and chip shops we can use these ideas to draw some conclusions as to whether they offer a valuable contribution to our great City of Culture or not. OK so let’s weigh it up.
    Positives: well in many ways fish and chip shops represent all the good things we progressives are in favour of. They are local institutions which reflect the area’s identity and help to bring the community together in the queue. These local outlets have often been a starter business for immigrant communities allowing them to integrate into our society in a spirit of enterprise so necessary for urban renewal. Unless they use beef dripping the food offer is very acceptable in principal to a multi-cultural society. The fact that these businesses have often been passed on inter-generationally mean they can be seen now as a valuable local heritage resource. In fact, in my community one is a listed building.

    Negatives: these are increasingly coming to the fore as society increasingly focusses on issues of the environment, health and the lifecycle of products we consume daily. Here fish and chip shops do not score so well and in fact as their declining numbers suggest that communities are becoming aware of their inherent defects and hazards. Some of these are obvious. To begin with the principal ingredients. Fish, well clearly for vegans, fishing of any sort is murder and with cod stocks declining how can we go on like this? Potatoes are of course renewable but the fact that we consume so many of them has led the creation of undesirable agri-business with exploitative labour practices. Let’s face it they taste better when you grow your own or use an independent sustainable supplier. Even though vegetable oils are better for you than dripping or lard nonetheless frying is never the healthy option and again we must to question what is in this vegetable oil and the food miles involved. Actually, this is a no win because rapeseed is used than again there are issues of the way agri-business has responded to this demand with hideous fields of yellow polluting the visual amenity of our countryside. I won’t mention what happens to all those polystyrene boxes which were such an innovation a few years ago – surely people can learn to bring their own containers like we all do now with supermarket carrier bags.

    The important learning point we all need to take from is that fish and chip shops and fast food outlets are part of society in which we are encouraged to become dependent on the market place rather than doing things for ourselves like cooking, and likewise using machines instead working with our hands to do our washing. I know my wife appreciates the way in which our family has gone back to a more natural way of living.

    Lastly, we must to recognise that fish and chip shops are mostly located in so called “working class” areas and their decline reflects the decline of the “working class” in general. As all us who regard ourselves as progressives recognise this is an inevitable fact of life and the unhelpful tribalism of class should surely be a thing of the past not least because of the backward-looking unhealthy life style choices it seems to involve.

    So, when we move on to consider the members of “The Team” for the Capital of Culture bid we can see in practice what a progressive emerging culture is really all about.

    So, it’s not the top line old elites on the so called “independent” Steering Group we need to consider but rather the way in which the much wider network of supporters, collaborators and consultants is constituted and involved in both designing and operationalising the bid and its programme. Without of course wishing to use the term about ourselves de facto things developing in the way they are we are an emergent elite.

    In fact, while its not surprising, nonetheless it’s really inspiring to see the way in which the City Council recognising that it can no longer shape and direct the future of the city has now reached out to a much wider community of social enterprises and artistic businesses – the movers and shakers of the new creative economy – to really give life to the bid and guarantee that it is truly inclusive both in terms of the programme and the participants. We are the people who are really in touch with the whole community and can ensure the economic benefits of a successful bid will flow back once again to the people who matter and in that way the legacy of 2023 can be ensured to really turn Leeds into the Best City for everyone.



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