Thursday, 9 May 2013

Yet more coffee, anyone?

I like to keep an eye on the coffee culture in Whitstable. I'm a frequent customer, for one thing. And it's interesting that few small businesses, aside from hairdressers maybe, can perhaps inspire such fierce loyalty. Cappuccino consumers and the espresso elite can be very picky about where to call for their shots.
We in Whitstable can get in even more of a froth on the subject. A chain coffee company's High Street entrance was daubed with 'Costa go home' back in 2009, regardless of the fact that it brought 10 local jobs (and that many of this firm's outlets are franchises, so sort-of independent businesses).
I still meet a few local people who say 'oh I never go in there' - but there clearly aren't enough of them to ease the queues frequently faced by the busy baristas. I do wonder how often some of these folk would buy a coffee out anyway. As I've remarked before, Costa's sole but considerable advantage to me over 'independents' is its longer opening hours.
The anti-chain brigade was quick to rise up again when Tesco-backed Harris and Hoole put down a marker on the ex-Clinton Cards shop across the road from Costa (as first made public in an earlier entry on this blog). Posters were posted and petitions raised, and the story even gave the Daily Mail an opportunity for 'arty-type' bashing. The use of Tesco carrier bags as protesting headgear was loudly decried, though, by parents of small children.
Some of the criticism was directed at the fact that Tesco is an invisible though substantial partner in H & H: 'A little bit about who we are' on the company website is so little that it omits any mention of the supermarket's 49% stake.
Eight months later, Clinton Cards is still empty with its windows now used as a convenient noticeboard for other, more overtly political campaigns - Axe the Bedroom Tax, for example.
Meanwhile, even more coffee cups are being filled and drained up and down Whitstable town centre. I came home from holiday to find the Rendez-vous traditional 'caff' re-invented as theWhitstable Coffee Company. Almost at the same time, David Brown's deli in Harbour Street has expanded into next door offering coffees during the day, and wines by the glass or bottle in the evening. And on top of that, the new Waltshaw's local food outlet a few doors along has installed a couple of tables and chairs with locally roasted beans on the drinks menu.

However, I notice that there are now also a few gaps in the town centre, created by Clark's Flooring's move, greengrocery closures and (as of this week), the departure of the Found At Home store after less than two years.
So... even more coffee, anyone?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Looking on the sunny side

Back to Whitstable with a wallop at midnight on Sunday after 10 days in southern France ...missing the fresh croissants, crusty baguettes and (usually, though not 100% reliably) cracking coffee already.
One of the first imperatives to do back home after sleep, the laundry and a kitchen restock was to stroll along the beach in a Whitstable sunset.
We in the Bubble are quite possessive about our showstopping displays of the orb gently but purposefully dropping behind Sheppey leaving the sky in a palette of spreading colours. With postcards galore on sale in the town and many photographers dotted along the shingle bent over their specialised gear, you'd think we were witnessing a rare phenomenon special to Whitstable. There is (or was) even a local website dedicated to pictures of sunsets.
But one of the features of the little village house we rented several hundred miles south of here for a week was - yes - a grandstand view of the fabulous 'coucher de soleil' across the beautiful countryside of Provence... Many, many people are, at slightly different times, watching the same sun do the same thing in a different place and there's a kind of world unity about that that I like.

I find the French on the whole kind, polite and helpful. I'm told it maybe helps that I speak a smattering of the language and make some attempt at adopting a Continental accent. Quite fun to make them play 'guess where the foreigner comes from'.
The fact that everyone you pass on a footpath, every shop assistant and all restaurant staff are not too self-absorbed or self-conscious to sing out 'Bonjour, Madame' is very agreeable, and suggests that France is on the whole an egalitarian society (it's part of their motto, after all... liberty, fraternity, egality; and they solved the aristocracy problem in a very dramatic way some time ago).
But Marseille airport is a bit of an exception.
After an hour in the terminal building waiting for our gate number to appear for the flight home, we twigged that something was wrong. The flight was listed on the board, and thankfully with the expected departure time, but instead of a gate number there was a cryptic 'mp2' displayed.
Turns out that mp2 is a shed in the corner of the airport, well away from all the smart buildings, car rentals etc. and specifically built to make low-cost airline users feel cheap!
No snazzy decor and flashy shops here. You queue at a tiny flatpack-type desk, hump your case on to the scales (no luggage trolleys available), then CARRY IT YOURSELF to a sort-of dumping area hoping that is not the last you see of it.
But it wasn't just the French airport making me feel a cheapskate: the back of my British easyJet chair was broken, which I had to demonstrate each time the crew asked for all seats to be adjusted to an 'upright position'.
C'est la vie.... or, to translate extremely loosely, you get only what you pay for.
But just look at that free sunset...

Sunday, 14 April 2013


Yesterday evening I listened to former reporters Kate Adie and Triona Holden and camerawoman Susan Stein talk about their war zone experiences in working for the BBC.
I think it's a fair observation that most of the 100+ audience squeezed into the top floor room of the Horsebridge Centre were in awe, particularly of Adie who led the talk and subsequent discussion, and were simply amazed to find this top-class event in little old Whitstable.
The explanation is that Holden, now an artist, has recently made her home here and seems keen to get involved in the town (you are warmly welcome, Triona!)  Every penny from last night's ticket sales is being kept by the Horsebridge and the generosity will be repeated next week in a similar event with Sandi Toksvig (already sold out).
As we remember from TV, Adie is a fluent, articulate and strong speaker, well-equipped to deal with one or two slight 'digs' at the BBC from last night's audience and giving some revealing information about censorship - yes, she wrote her own scripts which were never edited by others before she presented them to camera - but also yes, the marrow-chilling, agonising screams of the injured and bereaved in earshot of the broadcasting crew are edited out. It's an interesting thought that sounds may be more unbearable to us than sights...
Too much of the second half Q and A session, in my view, focused on the gender of the trio and whether they had found this a hindrance in their work. Adie amusingly recounted how a heavily bearded warlord had to be persuaded into an interview with her - and her colleagues dredged their memories for one or two other similar anecdotes.
It might have been mildly interesting to learn how they fared with personal hygiene and sleeping arrangements in tough conditions. But really, this 'wow - how amazing for a woman to do that' is tiresome stuff which we've surely got beyond. As Adie said, at least twice, things have moved on in the last 40 years, so I was surprised to hear young women raising this question.
When I was a rookie reporter in my first newsroom in the 1970s, the gender split was roughly 50:50 and as far as I can recall, every newsroom I subsequently worked in was much the same, local and national. If it wasn't quite that evenly balanced, I didn't notice but just got on with the job. There was the editor I went to see after we moved 'up north' who assured me that my new husband wouldn't mind if I didn't find a job straightaway... luckily I never got to find out the make-up of his staff.
I never had an issue with interviewees who, in fact, may have been more amenable to a slightly-built young woman than to a masculine reporter. This advantage was not lost on one news editor, who was rebuked by a colleague for sending me to talk to a newly-arrived community of travellers. His reply was that he knew I wouldn't get a 'hostile reception'. And I once inveigled my way into a National Front meeting because the chairman took a shine to me...
With promotions which later came my way, it never occurred to me or (as far as I am aware) anyone else that there would be a problem with my supervision of older, longer-serving men.
At five foot nothing and without Adie's kind of self-assurance and assertiveness, I now look back on this with mild curiosity... but I never wondered at the time, and never had anything but co-operation.
There was, I have to admit, some blatant sexism among some of the print workers. One of a newspaper sub-editor's tasks until about 20 years ago was to work alongside the compositors who 'made up' the pages, checking that they had pasted the correct headline and story together, stuck the photo on straight, and that they hadn't cut an over-long story mid-sentence to fit the space.
Very often I would be scrutinising pages, working in a room 'decorated' with posters of topless pin-up girls. Then there was the guy who always asked me in a very concerned way if I found my husband 'satisfactory'...
He was easily dealt with. As I held the power in this situation, with him desperate to have his page 'signed off' with my initials, I would be just a little bit more pernickety about his work and insist on absolute perfection...