If you happen to be reading this on Friday evening, I invite you to picture me making merry at the Michaelmas Feast of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, which is about to celebrate its 650th anniversary and of which I am a rather junior member. Our founders — mercers trading in cloth with the Low Countries and the Baltic ports — were the drivers and networkers of York’s mediaeval economy, and its first exponents of globalisation. But our merriment this week will be dampened by the latest impact of that phenomenon on the city. Nestlé, owner of the confectionery factory that is still universally referred to as Rowntrees, has just announced the shedding of 645 jobs in a reorganisation that involves moving production of Smarties to Hamburg and of Black Magic to the Czech Republic.
This follows the closure of Terry’s (the Chocolate Orange was last seen somewhere in Slovakia) and the loss of 450 Norwich Union jobs to call centres in India. British Sugar will close its beet-processing plant next year. York’s other major industry, railway carriage-making, is already extinct; its only legacy is a huge brownfield site blighted by interminable planning arguments. Some of the jobs have been replaced by work in the tourism sector, and you could be forgiven for thinking that York’s last remaining economic advantage is its mediaeval heritage — the Merchant Adventurers’ hall being a prime attraction. Worse still, Gordon Brown has made York dependent on his own largesse: the number of public sector jobs has grown by 42 per cent since 1996, and Defra is now one of the city’s biggest employers.
But there is a chink of light. A co-operation between the university and the city council under the label of Science City York has helped create a cluster of pioneering high-tech businesses — the likes of Cizzle Biotechnology, in the field of lung cancer treatment — which might one day make York as famous in bioscience as it once was in chocolate. The number of jobs created under the Science City umbrella since 1998 roughly equals those lost at the railway carriage works. In his 2005 Budget, Gordon Brown belatedly got in on the act by naming York as one of six Science Cities across Britain (‘I think he borrowed the whole idea from us,’ a city official told me) but the real credit, I gather, should go to Sir Ron Cooke, the former vice-chancellor of the university, and Professor Tony Robards, an expert in electron microscopy. Both, as it happens, are prominent Merchant Adventurers: 650 years on, the Company still plays its part.
Beer’s new order
The death of John Young, long-serving chairman of Young & Co’s brewery in Wandsworth, south London, made me contemplate the benefits of market forces in the beer trade. Forty years ago Young was determined to remain independent and carry on making traditional cask ales at a time when many other family breweries were being absorbed into the ‘big six’ — conglomerates whose strategy was to dominate the market with mass-produced keg beer. But wherever they had a choice, drinkers preferred the traditional stuff, and once the ‘real ale’ campaign took off, surviving independent brewers for whom Young had provided a role model flourished again.
The nation’s drinking habits evolved, but big brewers continued to make a fat living selling inferior branded beers through tied pubs — until Margaret Thatcher fixed them in her sights. The 1989 Beer Orders forced them to choose between letting their pubs offer a choice of beers from other sources, or getting out of brewing altogether. The likes of Whitbread and Bass (now the Six Continents hotel group) eventually chose the latter course. The effect of all this has been to encourage most pubs to improve and diversify their offering beyond recognition, while allowing others, to the satisfaction of their regulars, to remain exactly as they were. You want fancy imported bottled beer, gastro cuisine, karaoke, children’s games or a quiet old-fashioned pint — you’ve got it. And a sign of market health is that it is even possible to start your own brewery these days. I spoke to Gordon Wetzel-Stewart of West Brewing Co. in Glasgow, who hopes to sell one and a half million litres of German-style, additive-free beers this year. In the big-brewery era, he says, Glaswegians drank ‘horrendous’ beer in vast quantities. Now they are increasingly discerning and demanding in their tastes. The free play of market forces has improved not only the beer and the pubs, but also the customers’ palettes.
‘The fight against global warming’ is going to cost us all dear. Richard Branson’s offer of a notional $3 billion of future profits from his air and rail businesses to be invested in alternative fuel research will no doubt launch a competitive bandwagon of corporate and personal giving, while governments and oppositions throughout the industrialised world will compete to dream up carbon taxes to which — unlike traditional taxes — guilt-ridden citizens will feel they cannot object. The only sensible response at this stage is to start thinking of ways to make money out of climate change in order to pay all those extra taxes and donations, and The Spectator’s thoroughbred stable of investment columnists will apply their minds to this question in weeks to come.
Perhaps one of them will tell us how to make a killing in carbon credits in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, but I think I’ve spotted a more wholesome opportunity: plums. This summer’s mixture of sun and rain has brought an incredible profusion, not only on market stalls but on untended trees in gardens and suburban streets. From little yellow French ones called mirabelles to big, dark English ones called presidents, they’re everywhere — and day after day I find myself boiling them with a little wine, sugar and fresh ginger, bottling them in Kilner jars, and imagining a premium Any Other Business brand based entirely on freak crops and mutant produce. Then an Aim flotation, swiftly followed by a bid from Nestlé or some other guilt-ridden corporation; and an offer from me, to international applause, to devote the proceeds (well, some of them) to the fight against global warming. Dream on. In the meantime, my plum compote is delicious with vanilla ice cream.