Lockdown lunch

Lockdown lunch

Look what our next-door neighbour gave us, a lovely lockdown lunch. Pizza, humous, gorgonzola, salad all combined with special chili sauce. We gobbled it down, sat in our garden, on a perfect Spring day with the mercury registering a sizzling 25C. How great is that? Thanks Frank, that’s so kind. Almost made me forget what we’re living through.

One thing about C19 is that London life has got significantly smaller and restricted. Social distancing, shielding, self-isolation; everyone now lives a little London life.

We are about to enter our third week of lockdown and so far, the Preen Team are in good health and good spirits. No respiratory complaints; no major fights just living with the new reality. Rusty the dog, who runs on the wolf-pack mentality loves having us all around. Not sure how she’ll cope when we go back to work.

The weather, as mentioned, is now beautiful, which is great, but many are flouting the government’s restrictions on freedom of movement. I went on a bike ride to Battersea Park and the place was mobbed and today I learn that Brockwell Park is closed as 3,000 people visited yesterday.

And talking of freedom of movement, a phrase straight out of the Brexit playbook, it got me thinking that we only seem to deal with a single massive news story these days. We moved effortlessly from Brexit, the great slavering news monster that consumed everything to coronavirus which also won’t allow the squeak of another story to get past it.

Panic buying

Panic buying was the big story two weeks ago, with supermarket shelves apparently stripped by a plague of locusts. This seems to have calmed down somewhat, but it made me realise the power of the supermarkets and the fact that most of the population shop nowhere else. We have a butcher up the road fully stocked with delectable meat products, Andy the fishman still comes all the way from Grimsby on Thursdays and I’ve been toddling up to New Covent Garden to see Alf, Steve and John to get our fruit and veg. No iron rations here.

One bizarre aspect of panic buying is the almost complete absence of flour, particularly bread flour. Imagine my delight on finding it for sale in our local SPA. Gold dust!

Journal of the plague year

I’ve been reading Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the plague year’ and there are spooky resonances. Obviously, what we’re going through now is bad, but during the plagues of the 17th Century somewhere between a third and half of Europe’s population died. A mortality rate off the scale to what we’re facing now.

When it hit, the wealthy escaped to their second homes, sending the country servants back to the city to look after their London houses. Something you can imagine they weren’t too thrilled about. Then there’s isolation. If a member of a household contracted the plague a large red cross was painted on the front door and no one was allowed to leave. Two watchmen (One for the day and one for the night) were posted outside to make sure no one left. Well as you can imagine if you’re closeted with a plague victim then generally the rest of the house contracted it, and everyone died.

Many either bribed their watchman to look the other way or beat the shit out of him and made good their escape. Outside London in places like Walthamstow, then a separate town, they barred those fleeing from London to enter in an effort to halt the spread of the distemper as Defoe calls it. The result was that many died of starvation in the countryside. The rich also holed up in their boats, taking on board massive supplies and not allowing anyone off or on. I haven’t heard this to be true, but you have to imagine there are oligarchs and the like cruising around the Med, with full fridges, living their best lives.

Received wisdom has it that rats spread the plague, no so apparently, it was us. Scientists now believe it was a combination of airborne transmission (droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes) and fleas and lice that lived on humans and their clothes. At the time they thought it was cats and dogs and thousands were killed.

Shutting down the office

Three weeks ago, we packed up our offices in Holborn and all went to work from home. I was one of the last to leave and was chatting with one of the young lads who work with me. He said: “Yeah me and my mates, we call it the Boomer Remover.’ Gulp, did he mean me?

Suiting The Beatles

Suiting The Beatles

Dougie Millings made suits for the Beatles, in fact he made every suit featured in the Fab Four’s films: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’  Last night I met Gordon Millings, Dougie’s son, who gave a talk about those fab days and showed us the original patterns created for the Beatles’ outfits.

Gordon Millings, Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds and bespoke cutter Dan MacAngus

Gordon, born in 1945, was three years younger that Paul and almost the same age as George. His Dad’s shop was on Old Compton Street in Soho, two doors down from the 2i’s Coffee Bar. The 2i’s was a famous music venue in its day and can claim to be the birthplace of British rock & roll. A young Cliff Richard got his start there as did the Shadows, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd.

When these singers started to rake in some teen-generated cash they wandered over to Dougie’s to get suited and booted. Cliff was the first to do this and started sporting Millings’ clobber on the box.

Word made its way to Liverpool and Brian Epstein brought Gerry and The Pacemakers down for a fitting. Brian told Dougie the next time he was in town, he was bringing a new band. The Beatles showed up with quiffs and leathers but left with a set of collarless Nehru-style jackets.

At the time Gordon was training as a cutter at Huntsman on Saville Row. He used to pop back to his Dad’s shop at lunchtime to help him out. Once the Beatles became famous, Millings had to move to bigger premises and employed around eight tailors to meet demand. Back then a bespoke Saville Row suit cost £35, today you’re looking at £5,000 or more.

Last night’s talk took place at Dashing Tweeds who have taken the original designs and created new suits according the Beatles’ patterns. There’s a cape jacket which can be seen on the Help! album cover, a collarless jacket and a Teddy Boy style jacket which was worn by Lennon at the London Palladium.

On a final note, Keith Moon was also a customer and was buried in one of Dougie’s dark blue suits. Trouble was, as Gordon told me last night, he had forgotten to pay.

Blue plaque special

Blue plaque special

Ronnie Scott gets a gong

It was bucketing down; more like an Asian monsoon than gentle British rain. Appropriate, I suppose, as there were a hundred of us gathered in Chinatown getting soaked. Suddenly a saxophonist stuck his head out of an upstairs window and started to play.

English Heritage were honouring the old jazzer, Ronnie Scott, with a blue plaque at the location of his original club on Gerrard Street. The weather was not playing along.

On the plaque Ronnie is cited as jazz musician and raconteur. His gags were legendary: ‘I love this club, it’s just like home: filthy and full of strangers.’ Or how about: ‘You don’t seem very impressed. Why don’t you all hold hands and see if you can contact the living?……It’s the first time I’ve seen dead people smoke.

The club was located on Gerrard Street from 1959 until 1965 and was an attempt to emulate the smoky jazz clubs of New York. They presented many famous musicians there: Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz and Ben Webster.

Of course, these names will mean nothing to many people so how about Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Jeff Beck, Van Morrison and Prince who’ve all appeared at the club where it now resides on Frith Street.

Simon Cooke, the MD at the club, who’s a mate of mine said: “Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club has led the way in British Jazz for 60 years through its innovative programming and championing of the music and musicians. An English Heritage Blue Plaque is a fine acknowledgement of the contribution that Ronnie Scott himself made to the British Jazz scene.” He also said a lot of stuff that was entirely unprintable.

I should declare an interest here and that interest is I love jazz and have been going to the club since the late 70’s. In fact, I was there last night to see the mighty Mingus Big Band.

Coincidently I was also there the night Ronnie died on 23rd December 1996. George Melly was appearing as he did for years over the Christmas period and rather bizarrely, said nothing about Ronnie’s passing.

But back to happier matters, as the rain beat down the saxophonist (Alex Garnett, part of the club’s house band) played Ronnie Scott’s own saxophone to wild and wet applause as Ronnie’s widow Mary looked on.

Ronnie’s is a London treasure; a fantastic venue presenting wonderful musicians and for a jazz club even the food is pretty good. Make sure you get along there sometime soon.

Robin’s nest

Robin’s nest

When we returned from living in Asia, we brought a Spirit House with us. It’s a bit of a leap for hard-headed Westerners, but most Asians believe we live alongside spirits, many of whom are malevolent. To combat these pesky intruders, houses are built on different levels as apparently ghosts aren’t good at stairs. And outside just about every residence and business you’ll find a Spirit House, neatly kept and with enticing food and drink, all in an effort to tempt the spirits out of your house and into their own cosy home.

I’m afraid we haven’t kept our Spirit House as neatly as we might, as we don’t seem to have spirits; only mice. The little wooden structure lay dormant until a few weeks ago when a pair of Robins started building a nest inside.

We watched as they brought sticks and grass to make a perfect cup-shaped nest. Then bewilderingly they vanished. We figured the location was too close to our back door and our comings and goings had persuaded them to find lodging elsewhere.

But suddenly they were back bearing grubs and worms, which could mean only one thing. It’s very dark inside the Spirit House, but Mrs Preen swears she could see three tiny beaks.

I suppose we are typical soppy Brit animal lovers, but we felt blessed to have them and would sit around watching the parents bring tasty tit-bits to the little ‘uns. A moments research revealed that once the eggs hatch there are only fifteen days before the chicks fly the nest so it wouldn’t be long before they were gone.

Last Sunday morning, at around 8.30, I was in bed sound asleep when suddenly Mrs Preen burst into our bedroom in floods of tears.

She had let our dog Rusty out into the garden and was pottering about in the kitchen when she heard the Robins tweeting in alarm and saw them dive bombing our dog. They were sending up distress flares.

Rusty had caught a fledgling and killed it. Bucket can’t catch a damn thing, she half-heartedly goes after squirrels and gives our mice a wide berth, but a little bird, probably on its first flight, just couldn’t get away in time.

I love our dog and I know nature is red in tooth and claw, but the death of that little bird left us feeling forlorn. It may be ridiculously sentimental, but we felt we had a duty of care to the Robin family and we flunked it.


 

Can an app save the high street?

Can an app save the high street?

Ian C Jones CEO of LoLo Rewards thinks it can

 LoLo stands for Local Loyalty and is the brainchild of an itinerant Australian now living in Kennington. Jones has worked all his life with small and medium sized businesses and thinks he’s found a way for individual shops and services to take on the might of the giant online retailers. It’s based on loyalty discount tokens and is an app that sits on your phone.

This is how it works: Download the LoLo app on to your mobile and you are immediately given twenty loyalty tokens. One token equals one pound. Via the app you now search for a shop or service you are interested in and for the sake of argument find a restaurant that you’d always meant to try. You take your partner out for dinner and at the end of the meal get a bill for £100. On that bill is a QR code. You open your LoLo app, zap the QR code then through the magic of modern technology the telephone talks to the card reader. You decide to use all your twenty tokens, so your bill now comes to £80 with you enjoying a 20% discount. You leave and as you’re walking down the street your phone beeps and you find the restaurant has gifted you £16 new tokens. (As part of the agreement with LoLo the minimum they can give is 5% in tokens however some will accept up to 50%). The restaurant will then likely ask you to write a review of your meal for which they agree to give you another five tokens. So, you started out with 20, spent those and got a 20 % discount and now have a further 21 tokens on your app to spend at the restaurant or with any of the other retailers who are part of LoLo.LoLo Local Loyalty

Jones adds: “Unlike a frequent flier programme where you’ll use all your points at one go, ours you’ll never run out. Ours only accumulate, you can transfer them to friends and family, but every time you spend them you end up getting back at least 10% more than you consumed. That’s what’s unique about it.”

The App also tells you how many tokens you currently hold and how much cash you’ve saved by supporting local businesses.

When a business signs up with LoLo they are given a whole stack of QR codes that are unique to their business. These are printed on cards for staff to hand out to their customers.

As Jones says: “If I had a coffee shop, I’d be standing at the door handing out the cards to everybody coming in saying download the app.”

He makes the point that if a retailer gives you a discount then that money disappears into the wider world, but with a token that money stays local.

But how do LoLo make money out of this? It’s very simple they harvest 3% of any transaction that goes through a card reader. So, going back to our notional restaurant LoLo receive 3% of the £80 spent by the customer.

Jones also sees the possibility of businesses, perhaps a florist, restaurant and dry cleaner, working together to cross promote their products to increase footfall and ultimately sales.

Jones’ mantra is first shop locally, then regionally, then nationally and if all else fails go to Amazon. He has high ambitions: “We want to make (LoLo) operate on every small business in the UK. Individually no small business can compete with the strength of online, but collectively they can. They’ve got some power so what we’ve done is given them a platform to be stronger.”

Amazon, Deliveroo, Uber Eats; they’re all disrupters and are playing havoc with our high streets. Can a humble app turn the tide on the big boys? Only time will tell, but why not sign up and be part of a revolution, there are tokens waiting for you.

Click here if you want to be part of this.


 

What is the most loathed retailer on the high street?

What is the most loathed retailer on the high street?

As this blog now seems obsessed with all things retail I thought I’d share the answer to the above question along with findings from the latest Which? magazine shop survey. They asked more than 7,700 shoppers which high street shops are top of the pops and which are dangling in the dirt.

Say what you like about WHSmith, but they are nothing if not consistent and for two years straight find themselves bottom of the plie. Customers slammed them for their poor value for money, poor service, and criticised the ‘cramped and messy’ stores.

WHS responded: ‘This survey accounts for the views of only 586 Which? subscribers and is neither statistically relevant nor meaningful relative to our loyal customer base.’

I put their response into Google translate and it came back with this: ‘You can take your minuscule little survey and shove it up your arse.’

At the other end of the scale, home entertainment specialist Richer Sounds came top scoring an impressive 89% customer approval rating.

Customers praised Richer Sounds for its in-store experience, which included having purchases carried to their cars and the retailer paying for customer parking.

Specialist shops tended to score well with John Lewis, the only non-specialist making it into the top ten.

Other highly ranked shops include Apple, toiletries shops Bodycare (both 83%), women’s clothing store Seasalt and bookshop Waterstones (both 82%).

Shoppers told Which? that Homebase/Bunnings was difficult to navigate and that it was ‘hard to find anything in overcrowded shelves’ and it was ‘difficult to find staff for guidance’.

Sports Direct was described by one shopper as having ‘a very oppressive atmosphere’. Perhaps the atmosphere was created by the staff on zero-hour contracts.

Which? Magazine editor Harry Rose, vying for the most bleeding obvious quote ever to make it into this blog, said: “Giving shoppers a great in-store experience is more important than ever if brands want to thrive on the high street. Our findings go to show that, if retailers can deliver great value, quality products and first-class customer service, customers will keep coming back.” Way to go Harry.

Here are the scores on the doors.

Top-rated shops

  • Richer Sounds (89%)
  • Rohan (87%)
  • John Lewis (86%)
  • Hotter Shoes (84%) = Lakeland (84%) = Toolstation (84%)
  • Apple (83%) = Bodycare (83%) = Crew (83%)
  • Screwfix (82%) = Seasalt (82%) = Waterstones (82%)

Bottom-rated shops

  • Clinton Cards (61%)
  • Peacocks (59%) = House of Fraser (59%)
  • New Look (58%)
  • River Island (56%) = JD Sports (56%)
  • Sports Direct (54%)
  • Homebase/Bunnings (53%)
  • WHSmith (50%)

Massive outbreak of Pétanque in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Took Bucket for a quick lunchtime spin to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens today only to discover a major outbreak of boules or Pétanque or whatever you call it.

Has this been a thing for a while, and I’ve missed it or has there been a massive influx of Frenchman come to laugh at us about Brexit? There must have been half a dozen teams playing, all taking it very seriously. Bucket and I stopped to drink it in.


 

Photo London: Visual treat

Photo London: Visual treat

I took a stroll to the Photo London Exhibition at Somerset House with Gyuri Szabo. He’s an old friend of mine, and an amazing photographer, who decoded many of the photographs for me and made sense of some I didn’t understand.

I usually let the words do the talking on this blog, with pictures something of an afterthought, but with Gyuri taking shots as we went around and the organisers kindly allowing me to use a few of the exhibition pictures, I thought I’d turn the tables and give you a visual treat.

Nick Brandt ‘Bus Station with Elephant and Red Bus’
Gyuri Szabo
Tom Wood ‘Mad Max’
Gyuri Szabo
Tom Wood ‘Sit Down Great Homer Street’
Gyuri Szabo
Tony Gum ‘Milk the Bok’
Jamel Shabazz, ‘The Playboy’
Gyuri Szabo