Knee jerk criticisms of successful, popular chains always bring out my inner Spiked Online reader. Here is a particularly annoying example. Joan Brady describes how she was shocked, just shocked, to discover that Whitbread might have had some commercial motive in funding the Whitbread Prize.
I suppose I should have given some thought to where the money came from. I didn’t. The shortlist was awarded at the Whitbread brewery –which meant I could hardly avoid knowing it had something to do with beer – but how was I to know that Whitbread saw the whole excitement as just an advertising gimmick?
She goes on to complain that:
Literature is supposed to be independent. It’s supposed to be a statement of an individual view of the world, not a corporate tactic.
But most publishing is driven by commercial concerns – publishers don’t want to produce books which people don’t want to buy. And, despite its ‘tainted’ origins, the Costa prize, and other similar awards, help more literary novelists find a market, just as the patronage of the Medicis helped support artists.
Brady describes a campaign against a new Costa in Totnes:
I lived in Totnes for 30 years, and Totnes outdid itself. Three quarters of its population protested against Costa: Totnes already has more than 40 independent coffee shops. That many people agreeing on anything approaches a miracle, a landslide of public opinion. Costa isn’t bothered. It hasn’t bothered with the populations of other protesting towns either. But isn’t this supposed to be a democracy? Here’s a corporate giant flouting the fully expressed will of local people. And for what? To boost a profit margin that’ll go to build more coffee shops in Russia and Egypt – Costa’s largest is in Dubai – at the expense of UK shopkeepers.
Perhaps there really is almost unanimous opposition to this new Costa in Totnes. But if the opponents are so sure that they are right then they should have no worries – the business will not make a profit without customers and it will close. Also – I am reminded of the campaign in my own area against a small Tesco a few years ago. There was a very active campaign against this – which eventually lost. But – there was also a counter-campaign (which I supported) in favour of Tesco, but this was a lot less vocal and those who organised it came under some pressure from Tescophobes. Reading about the Totnes campaign reminded me of their dreary zeal:
“The idea is to be prepared,” says one of the people behind tonight’s gathering, with some excitement. “So that when they get here, things are organised.”
One man suggests regularly visiting Costa, ordering tap water, and then drinking it very slowly. A woman offers to paste up anti-Costa posters on the chain’s windows, doggedly replacing them whenever they’re removed. A couple of people who live across the street from Costa’s proposed new outlet say they’ll hang protest banners and there is a warmly received proposal of an official day of mourning, “because we’ve lost our democracy”.
I have to say – I’m a Costa fan myself. Back in the 70s, at least in the unfashionable Midlands county where I grew up, the coffee you were served in cafes was invariably very weak and generally instant. Most of the shops were small independents – and they weren’t that great. Even the most downmarket supermarket now stocks lines which would have seemed unbelievably exotic back then, and although they may threaten the independent shops they have also perhaps incentivised them to raise their game. And the same is true of coffee shops.