A funny thing happens when I open a newspaper just lately. Gazing at the headlines, trying not to feel afraid, I sometimes picture a little brown car. As a child, you see, a butcher lived in our street, and he drove a chocolate-coloured Austin Maxi with a fake walnut dashboard: a shiny flourish that spoke not only of his financial success, but of the fact that he knew he, like most butchers then, was a highly regarded member of the community, a stalwart of charity fundraising, PTA committees and local enterprise schemes run by the city hall. I know, I know. I sound like JB Priestley. But this is how it was. Next door to the butcher lived a university professor. His car came with a lot of rust, but no ersatz wood at all.
It is, of course, the much-talked-about (or not-talked-about, if you’re the prime minister) national pig cull that stirs such 1970s-tinged memories. As I write, hundreds of pigs have been slaughtered, their carcasses burnt or buried, and a further 120,000 await the same fate – a situation born of an acute shortage of butchers and slaughterers in post-Brexit Britain (mature pigs are on farms they would ordinarily have left weeks ago for processing). British people, it seems, no longer want to do such work, or not in sufficiently large numbers – though the crisis is hardly exclusive to the world of pork butchery.
The poultry industry finds itself in the same situation, while the British Growers Association reports that labourers are being paid up to £30 an hour to pick broccoli in Lincolnshire, a sum that – according to its chief executive – may, or may not, prevent them being poached by the increasingly desperate hospitality industry. Such things will, in turn, cause food shortages. There’s already wailing about Christmas pigs in blankets, but this feels like a distraction to me. What about potatoes, and carrots, and onions? Responding to these labour problems, growers have put fewer crops in the ground this year.
As I write, hundreds of pigs have been slaughtered, their carcasses burnt or buried, a situation born of an acute shortage of butchers and slaughterers in post-Brexit Britain.
Sometimes, headlines can make gloomy things seem oddly distant. My Austin Maxi musings are doubtless a clever tactic on the part of my subconscious, a way of escaping the present by thinking about the past. But, in this case, any relief can only ever be temporary. Most of us are already experiencing the consequences of the bad news. On the phone to my mum, we discuss the rising cost of the weekly shop, now seriously marked. Ordering groceries online the other day, there were so many out-of-stock items (the result, I assume, of yet another labour shortage, this one in haulage), I ended up placing two separate orders, the second at a different supermarket. I’m starting to think of the bounteous allotment of my brother and sister-in-law with an envy that is anxiously practical as well as merely wishful.
London, where I live, feels busier (and happier) than it has for ages. But it is still not precisely the same as it was before the pandemic, a crisis that, as we can now see all too clearly, distracted us so efficiently from the underlying brokenness of our systems; from all the things our politicians failed to do in preparedness for exiting the EU. And now I wonder if our cities ever will be – the same, I mean. A chef tells me that cooks are walking out of restaurants mid-shift, having received a better offer from elsewhere. The owner of a famous chain of delis spoke to me the other evening of staff shortages like he’s never known in his life, and of plummeting profit margins, the latter only making the former the harder to fix.
Arriving at a restaurant the other evening – a well-known place run by long-standing pros – we found it half-empty at half past nine. Was there a table for four? A certain amount of awkwardness followed. The maître d’ knew we could see perfectly well that he had room. But stretched rotas and earlier closing hours had, I sensed, brought him to a place where he felt he had no choice but to attempt to deny reality. “I’m not sure…” he said, head bowed over his reservations screen like a teenager who’s about to fail to produce their homework. For all sorts of reasons, not one of them good, half-empty is the new bulging-at-the-seams.