Monday, 14 June 2010

The People’s Supermarket: a new approach to food shopping

Do you dream of an antidote to Tescos? Don't we all?! Well, a group of gourmets have done more than just dream, they've set up the ultimate food coop in Holborn.

A new era in food shopping could have dawned a few weeks ago as The People’s Supermarket in Holborn opened its doors for the very first time.

It’s ultimate aim? To bring an end to the big supermarket chains one potato at a time of course! At least that’s what team ‘People’s Supermarket’ believe; chef, Arthur Potts Dawson — already known for his Acorn House restaurant in King’s Cross and London’s first eco-restaurant, the Waterhouse Restaurant in Hackney; retail consultant, Kate Wickes-Bull; and self proclaimed social entrepreneur, David Barrie.

So what’s so special about The People’s Supermarket (TPS)? Well, modeled largely on the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, established in 1974, it will work as a totally nonprofit venture. Run fully by teams of volunteers, all profits will be invested back into stocking the shop with great food at minimal prices and TPS hopes to help families and low income groups in the community along the way by providing work experience, training, and low cost shopping. A sign outside listed the number of members as 124 on my trip but I can imagine this will soon start to rise, and anyway Potts Dawson reckons they need at least 300 members for the shop to actually become a sustainable business. Anyone can shop at TPS but the team hopes that as customers visit this unique project and see the quality of produce and with the added incentive of getting great discounts they might become a member — pledging to work at the shop for a few hours every month and paying a £25 annual membership fee. The website promises, in Marxist-like terms, a supermarket that is “run by the people for the people, selling the best food at the lowest possible prices.”

Located on Lambs Conduit Street near Russell Square tube, TPS doesn’t stand out as exactly being a glamorous shop, nor has it in anyway been made to look trendy as I was half-expecting — seeing that this is the natural habitat of posh delis, coffee shops and boutiques. Instead TPS doesn’t appear to look much different to the private local supermarket that went before it, and originally belonged to the enemy — Tesco. Now the place has been spruced up by an army of helpers — all volunteers of course, but the main decoration is the addition of posters to the walls – which, although sadly lacking images of Lord Kitchener, famous for appearing in YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU posters – appeal to customer’s philanthropic side, stating in block capitals, “The people’s supermarket needs you, join today”. All this does go to show, however, that TPS is serious about saving money. Instead of investing in funky counters and arty light fittings, TPS has clearly poured all available funds back into stocking the shop with the best produce.

The fruit and vegetables, which are laid out on old second-hand tables like in a market or old-fashioned green grocers, are sourced from some of the best farmer’s markets around. There are also selections of handmade breads and cakes as well as most of the usual foodstuffs you would expect to find in a small local supermarket. But if it turns out that there is something that isn’t available customers can simply scribble a note of it up on the blackboard for the managers to see — grapefruit juice, curry powder, lentils and ghee were among the omissions when I visited on Saturday 5 June.

Todd was store manager when I made a trip to TPS on Saturday. Delighted at how quickly word of the store was spreading Todd said they had been really busy since the shop opened on Tuesday 1 June, so he was quick to make an appeal for more staff — then he could have a decent lunch break, he told me jokingly. Todd was also happy about TPS’s reception in the local area too, saying that he really felt the whole community was getting behind the project.

Which is good because the setup will make the greatest difference to those who live or work near the shop who will be able to use it fairly often and make the most of the discounts, after paying the £25 membership fee of course. There might be another reason why people will volunteer to work for free at TPS though — an added bonus for some maybe? The running of the shop is to become the subject of a new prime time Channel 4 documentary, which I’m sure will put a shine on the prospect of volunteering for any self-promoting types out there. There are also plans for a cookbook, packed full of recipes for dishes made with ingredients from the shop. I guess lentil curry is out for the time being then!

Perhaps the best thing about TPS though, is the whole ‘niceness’ of it all. There has been a wealth of comments on the twittersphere about the enthusiastic staff, the smiling customers, and the general buzz in the air that something new and exciting is happening. Certainly while at university I used to pop along to a small fruit and veg cooperative each week and I remember the more grass roots approach to buying and selling food being an enjoyable experience. And it seems the tweeters were right — the same pleasant atmosphere is already in full swing in Holborn. Katie, a student from the nearby University College London, spotted me taking some pictures outside, “It’s great isn’t it?” she said, “I think it’s the atmosphere which is nicest, I came in on opening day and people were chatting to each other. Chatting to complete strangers — I mean that doesn’t happen in London very often does it?”

Chatting to strangers, volunteering in a supermarket and reaping the benefits and all while being filmed for Channel 4 — I don’t think that happens anywhere very often.

Published over at the divine Amelia's Magazine, here.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Live review - The Strokes, Dingwalls, 09.06.10

The Strokes’ first gig in four years saw Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond, Jr., Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti make a truly triumphant return with an epic gig that literally was awe-some.

The buzz of excitement was palpable outside Dingwalls, on Wednesday 9 June, everyone knew that this venue was about to host one of the most epic comebacks in recent years and The Strokes certainly did not disappoint. Hundreds of fans descended on the central stableyard in Camden Market, of course, all 500 tickets had sold out within minutes the night before, but that didn’t stop plenty more fans from turning up, touting “Will sell kidneys for a ticket” signs, or simply hanging about in the hope of catching a glimpse of Casablancas et al.

The gig, their first since October 2006, was probably one of the worst kept secrets in recent musical history. Playing under the alias of Venison, The Strokes started posting hints on their website early Tuesday morning and before the day was up the news was all over the net, as fans geared up for the scramble of getting their hands on one of the limited tickets when they went on sale later that night.

The teeny venue was packed to the rafters with punters including the young, the old, and the famous—from where I was standing I could see most of Coldplay, including Chris Martin, and Radio 1’s Edith Bowman all enjoying a drink and the electric atmosphere.

Then, at exactly 9:30 the group sauntered on and opened with a stomping rendition of “NY City Cops”, to which the crowd immediately went mental and the raucous mood didn’t abate throughout the 18-song set. The hits kept coming, the band clearly not afraid of giving the throng of fans exactly what they wanted with a fairly even spread of favourites from all three albums. By the time the group got round to playing first major single, the amazing “Last Night”, Casablancas was all but drowned out by the holler of the crowd who definitely made up for in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers.

Casablancas was sparing with banter inbetween songs but was obviously enjoying the adoration, saying: “This is our first show in like four years, this is crazy—this is too much.” And even though it felt like a million degrees in there and the sweat was not only clearly visible on the members of the band and audience but was also forming a sweaty cloud of mist above the crowd, settling on the ceiling and dripping from the lighting rigs, until eventually the sound guys threw towels over the mixing desk, Casablancas kept his trademark leather firmly on along with big black shades, proving he operates on whole new levels of cool.

The singer also had words for some of the slightly jumpy security staff, “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, it’s feeling weird”, he said, “Are you trying to make a human barricade? I don’t think you need to, the kids are cool!”—cue a massive cheer from the ecstatic crowd.

After the gig ended—the same way the band ended their super-hyped debut album—with the now indie rock standard “Take It or Leave It”, heartfelt phrases such as “life changing” were being banded around outside and everyone who was lucky enough to have got tickets went home that night realising they had just witnessed something really special.

Published over at Strangers in Stereo, over here.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Album Review - The Good Ship, The Climbers

The Climbers debut album The Good Ship has been a few years in the making. Turns out it was definitely worth it though. This album is a joyous collection of songs covering a whole lot of ground and demonstrating a rare and wonderful talent for composition and song craft.

Full-time Climbers are Tim West, Christian Hardy and Nick Hemming but with Christian and Nick also releasing music as The Leisure Society, The Climbers have been recording in fits and starts over a period of six years.

Recorded predominantly in hired cottages in Wales and Devon, The Good Ship, as the band explain on their MySpace, was about wanting to capture the sounds of houses packed with friends just making music, as it happened. This provides a truly refreshing change from the barrage of over-produced, auto-tuned nonsense that seems to be endemic at the moment.

Second track ‘Anything’ works as a good introduction to The Climbers’ sound, demonstrating at once some truly beautiful instrumentation and yet an impression of simplicity. The pretty guitar strumming, piano, and organ is reminiscent of some prime Eels territory - even a bit of Counting Crows is conjured up in the fingerpicked banjo, which becomes somewhat of a motif throughout the album. Tim West’s tones rattle though the chorus: “I call on my brothers,” and after strings kick in what appears to have been a simple and melancholic song at the start is lifted up to being something quite impressive.

It seems then, that The Climbers are about a really full-bodied sound and that probably comes from the 19 friends they list as part-time band members on their MySpace. Mouth organs, strings, trumpets, electric guitars, banjos and a choir of voices frequently come together to lend an anthemic slant to many of the songs on The Good Ship.

In fact the title track is a great example of this, the oomp-pah-pah style piano riff and "la la las" will make you sway - by the time by the time the dramatic “You won’t sink the good ship” refrain comes in you’ll be a fully paid-up member of The Climbers crew.

The folk influence is also pretty apparent throughout so any music fans that have been enjoying the banjo touting Mumford and Sons and other anti-folk outfits would do well to give The Climbers a listen.

Lending the album some proper country influences ‘I Will Never’ is a banjo and guitar-led ditty with an almost Grizzly Bear vibe in places. But what really makes this album stand out is the voices - coming together so seamlessly that they add an extra bit of magic to each and every track. Perhaps it is unsurprising though, that this is a band which sounds almost perfect – it’s those six years of being together before releasing a debut that has done it.

Published over at The 405.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A musical mixed bag

'Mixed bag' is probably an understatement really and I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the inclusion of the Great British Ukulele Orchestra on IWAOS but all these varied musical stylings are equally brilliant in their own - and perhaps slightly eccentric - right.

Starting with the divine Snowblink and their luscious video, which totally allows me to indulge my 'one-day-I'll-be-a-beautiful-hippy-type-wondering-bare-foot-around -1970s-America-with-a-small-elfin-child' fantasy, you know the one? Well, it can't just be me. Anyway. Their MySpace labels them as belonging to that well-known Soul/Tropical/Surf genre(!) but I think I might agree with them, they're not really like anyone else around that's for sure. You can read a little bit more about them at The 405, here.

Second is Nika + Rory who are actually Zola Jesus and her bandmate Nick Turco. Zola has been intriguing me for a while and I just love how this track manages to sound at once utterly modern but somehow also tinged with a dose of 80s dramatic pop, which is echoed in the slightly creepy video.

The See See next, I caught them a couple of weeks ago when they were supporting the amazing Brian Jonestown Massacre. Quite a difficult slot I should imagine, warming up for the less than predictable BJM, but they were really good fun and gave the psychadelia-hungry crowd exactly what they were looking for.

And last but not least, a nod to my latest obsession - the ukulele. I bought myself one a couple of weeks ago and am quickly becoming a kind of mad ukulele band groupie. Plus the concept of this video is great - the idea of being stalked around town by a ukulele orchestra really cracks me up.