YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Sid ViciousDecimalisation was the default setting in the 1970s blame-game. As the country seemed to slide deeper towards economic oblivion with each passing year, decimalisation could always be relied upon as a regular excuse as to why the UK had been labelled the Sick Man of Europe. Five years after D-Day, when Chancellor Denis Healey endured the humbling and humiliating comedown of crawling cap-in-hand to the IMF, ‘Things have never been the same since decimalisation’ remained a common gripe as the latest crisis reared its ugly head. The Common Market, Ulster, Punk Rock, the Three Day Week, the Winter of Discontent, industrial disputes, immigration, the England football team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup – whatever the problem, it seemed as though all could somehow be traced back to the moment when Albion’s ancient currency was replaced by a suspiciously Continental model in 1971.

However, rising prices – an issue that directly affected the pound in your pocket – tended to be the main factor for which the switch from £sd to decimal was inexorably blamed. Despite the public being bombarded with detailed information and charts that translated old money into new, they remained convinced shopkeepers and innkeepers were rounding up their prices and ripping them off; and Fleet Street stoked this conviction by dreaming up epithets such as ‘decimal diddlers’. Of course, prices had always risen – usually in line with the cost of living; but the pace of prices rising seemed to accelerate from the early 70s onwards, gradually overtaking wages so that by around 1974 many were struggling to budget. TV news footage of shoppers visiting a newfangled supermarket around the time of the Three Day Week features interviews with families comparing the price of foodstuffs to the same month the year before and admitting they’ve had to cut down on their groceries because they simply can’t afford everything on their shopping list from twelve months earlier.

As a child at the time, the best yardstick available to measure where my pocket-money was going came via the increase in the cost of weekly comics. From 1973 to 1979, I witnessed the average cover price of comics go from 5p to 12p, more than doubling in the space of six years; and was it merely coincidence that the traditional practice whereby the price of chocolate bars was printed on the wrapper ceased by the late 70s – presumably because Messrs. Cadbury, Rowntree and Nestlé were embarrassed about how much they’d gone up? Inflation was the 70s curse that Thatcher and Blair had supposedly tackled and then extinguished in the 80s and 90s; and now, like the worst fashion disaster of the past, it’s back with a vengeance.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed the cost of certain essentials rise far quicker than is the norm. For example, the butter I buy has gone up from £1.49 to around £1.65, and my preferred milk from £1.80 to £1.95; in fact, dairy products appear to be suffering the highest price increases. Eggs in particular are suddenly more expensive, though an item I caught a snatch of on ‘You and Yours’ the other week suggested most farmers make practically zero profit from eggs; a bout of bird flu requiring them to keep their hens permanently indoors, coupled with a shortage of chicken-feed (a consequence of current events in Eastern Europe, by all accounts) have both contributed towards this state of affairs, and the consumer is feeling the effects as those dependent on agriculture for an income are faced with little option but to charge more.

The Office for National Statistics claims inflation rose from 6.2% in February to 7% in the year to March, reaching the highest point since 1992; food inflation alone stands at 5.8%, with bread experiencing a rise of 5.2%, milk 7.4%, and margarine leading the way with a staggering 34.8% increase in the past year. The same source states that, whilst regular weekly wages have risen by 4% from December last year to February this, adjusting stats for inflation reveals a real terms pay cut of 1% during the same period. When one takes into account the swift increase in the cost of fuel and the astronomical hike in prices on the part of the energy suppliers, food inflation is the latest kick in the teeth for those struggling to make ends meet. A 30-year high in inflation will be especially traumatising to the ill-equipped generations who weren’t around back in the days when inflation and unemployment were the twin economic evils that seemed a permanent obstacle to any attempts at revitalising the nation’s fortunes – evils that the public were schooled in dealing with after several decades of being plagued by them.

To be honest, this turn of events shouldn’t really come as a big surprise; anyone with a clear head could have foreseen it two years ago, when the Government abruptly took it upon itself to shut down industry overnight and confine workers to quarters, paying them pretend wages from a magic money tree that many suspected amounted to little more than an expensive loan. I guess this is payback time for pandemic policies that were destined to return to haunt us before too long – and a vaccine isn’t much insulation against an economic downturn. ‘One in eight adults say they have already gone without heating, water or electricity in the last three months,’ says Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust. ‘With energy, food and fuel prices showing no signs of easing, and national insurance increases hitting pay packets for the first time this month, there is no respite in sight. Urgent action is needed to prevent more people facing impossible choices trying to meet basic needs, and at risk of an increasing burden of debt.’

Other expert voices are adding to the chorus of doom ‘n’ gloom – Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, says ‘Food and drink manufacturers are doing all they can…but businesses must also remain viable and the reality of current inflation means that some price increases are having to be passed on.’ Meanwhile, yet another Chief Executive in a long line of them, Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium, says ‘Retailers are trying to help consumers by expanding their value ranges and doing all they can to keep the price of essentials down.’ Jenny Tilwart, Chief Executive of the British Cannibal Association, added ‘We may have reached a time when the rising cost of food coupled with that of paying for the care of the elderly may finally push the hardest hit within society into choosing which grandparent would provide the most nutritional and economically-satisfying meal for a family of four.’ Yeah, okay, I made that last one up; but nothing really feels too far-fetched anymore.

Perhaps more than ever, it pays to keep an eye on the ‘reduced’ section of the supermarket, where marked-down goods poised to pass their sell-by dates can offer a genuine and affordable bargain for even the most penny-pinched of households; equally, vegetables remain amongst the cheapest of foodstuffs, and provide the prospect of a hearty and healthy dinner for those who can actually be arsed cooking it. Considering the plethora of reading material and TV programmes produced by professional chefs out there, one would like to think the nation has rejected the easy option of the microwavable meal or the frozen filler and has reverted back to the traditional method of feeding the family; but one suspects such hand-me-down lessons haven’t been handed down for at least a couple of generations – if the expanding waistlines brought about by the fast-food revolution are anything to go by, anyway. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware that some supermarket shelves are rather threadbare at the moment, and whichever hot topic you prefer to hold responsible – Brexit, the pandemic, Ukraine – the situation seems set to continue for the immediate future; speaking personally, I believe things have never been the same since decimalisation.

© The Editor

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9 thoughts on “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

  1. Supermarkets were by no means new-fangled in the seventies. I never knew a time without supermarkets and I was born on the fifties. Names like Caters and Pricerite have long gone but they were there from the fifties. Sainsbury was already over sixty years old. And Express Dairy shops were a passable version of a 7/11 twenty years earlier. But that was south London, perhaps your part of the world had some catching up to do.

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    1. I use the term purely in relation to the supermarket in the clip I mentioned, which is one of those early 70s-erected, large Asda-type stores built on sites distanced from the traditional high street. As far as I’m aware, the first recognisable supermarket was a Sainsbury’s in Croydon, opened around 1950.

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  2. Fred’s right (above) – the rest of the country lagged somewhat behind both culturally and in supermarkets. The earliest one I recall in the uncultured North was ‘Liptons’ from the early 60s, when walking around serving yourself with a wire-basket was such a novelty – no trolleys then, but no-one had cars to carry that large load home, so daily baskets was the only way.

    Economists will tell you that modest inflation is a good thing – the reverse, deflation, where products become cheaper, is a bad thing because people delay purchases which then suppresses jobs, output, revenues, growth etc. ‘Modest’ seems to be accepted as around 2%.

    Having lived and worked through the mega-inflation of the 70s, up to 25% annually, it was a mixed experience. Whilst wages always struggled to keep pace, the key benefit was that debt is magically reduced as the capital value of the initial debt diminishes so quickly, as those fortunate to have large mortgages quietly discovered (they never complain about that bit). Of course that means that the lowest rungs of the economic ladder suffer all the downsides, but miss out on that upside. Life never was fair.

    The current ‘spike’ results from sources which no one agency can control, least of all any one national government, but government still has a responsibility at least to try to defend the hardest hit. Whether ours or other governments will succeed in that remains to be seen, their options are limited, especially in a short electoral cycle, as well as by dogma.

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  3. Food really is fuel now.
    Governments mandate that vehicle fuel should contain alcohol, made from plants, and palm oil, used in lots of goods – margarine. So as price of fuel goes up so does the price of these fuel substitutes.
    The other sneaky inflation is reducing the size/weight of what you get.
    I first noticed this with Mr Kipling’s fruit pies. They were originally square and completely filled the square cardboard box. Then suddenly they were circular. So Mr Kipling saved on all that pie that used to fill the corners.
    I suspect that Weetabix is now rounding the corners of their biscuits.
    Then Pringles. They used to fill that cylinder all round the circuference. Clever process meant an oval crisp was curved so it neatly fitted a circular cylinder. Now it is just a circular crisp not so cleverly curved so as to rattle around in same sized cylinder as of old.
    My biggest disappointment was Wagonwheels which used to be huge. And tasted wonderful.
    Now it is the size of a common or garden chocolate biscuit . Taste? So so.
    How many boxes and containers do you open only to find the contents come two thirds of way up.

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    1. I know a few have posted images online comparing the diminishing size of a Mars Bar, but I myself mainly noticed it with a box of Alpen that shrank a couple of years back; this was simply because I still hadn’t finished the previous box and was able to stand Big Ted and Little Ted side-by-side. The price was unchanged, naturally. I have noticed on the rare occasions I buy an ordinary packet of crisps that what I get for my money is half-a-packet of crisps and half-a-packet of air; that seems to have happened only in the past decade.

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    2. As a kid, I remember Wagonwheels as being huge in relation to my small kiddie mouth. Maybe your mouth just got bigger too?

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    1. Yes, wonderful series and a great episode with Brian Blessed a little more subdued than he is these days. I bought the box-set after you pointed me in its direction and have enjoyed it ever since. One of the best recommendations I’ve ever received re vintage TV, so many thanks for that.

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