Humpty Dumpty

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

(from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)

I don’t often defend Labour MPs or their policies on here. But this morning as I travelled in to work my twitter feed was filled with people harrumphing about the apparent idiocy of a pronouncement by David Lammy MP that we should “give shoplifters softer sentences if they steal from top stores” or that “Stealing from Fortnum & Mason less serious than pilfering corner shop“. It sounded like just the sort of inane class war thing a left wing Labour MP might say – instead of let them eat cake, let them steal posh cakes!

However, in a fit of generosity, I went to have a look at what the story was really about. The reason Lammy was on the news this morning was that he had published for the think tank, Policy Exchange, a report about property crime in the aftermath of the riots that had started in his Tottenham constituency in 2011. As think tanks go, Policy Exchange is not really on the bleeding heart liberal end of the spectrum – a few years ago it provocatively recommended that instead of “wasting” money and effort on regenerating places like Sunderland it would be better if people in such benighted places got up and went to booming places like Oxford and Cambridge. The interesting and that context unsurprising thing about this report is that what it actually says is almost the diametric opposite of what it was being reported to have said.

True, it does state in one of its recommendations (number 17) that “The impact of a £150 theft, for example, would be far greater on an independent corner shop than on Fortnum and Mason”. But, the recommendation this is there to support is not, as the Mail and Telegraph reports would have you assume, to reduce the sentences for shoplifting from Fortnum and Mason or other high end shops. What it is actually looking at is the way in which the replacement for ASBOs seems to have effectively decriminalised shoplifting where the value of goods taken is less than £200. At pages 29-30 the report explains in more detail how low value shoplifters are able to repeatedly target small shops and receive no real punishment. What it proposes is to increase the penalties and enforcement resource for lower value thefts rather than to decrease them for higher value ones. There may be a resource implication to this but that is a different matter.

As I said earlier, it would have been easy and predictable for Lammy to have concluded that punishment for low value shoplifting was too severe. Particularly as some of those who had stolen no more than a bottle of water or a pair of trainers during the 2011 riots got custodial sentences when ten UKUncut protestors got conditional discharges for the aggravated trespass of “occupying” Fortnum & Mason. It would have been easy for a Labour MP for a relatively poor area to conclude that people nicking food or nappies from a corner shop were victims of austerity and poverty so they shouldn’t be treated harshly. Instead, the report takes a much more aggressive stance against such criminality.

I know there’s an election on, but it does seem rather strange to find apparently “right wing” media outlets criticising proposals to get tougher on crime just because they come from someone of the Left. Or to find them unsympathetic to moves to protect small businesses, preferring outrage at the suggestion that a luxury food emporium owned by a multi-billion pound private investment fund might be able to mitigate and bear the costs of shoplifters than a corner shop run by a hardworking family taking up most of their waking hours for relatively modest profits. Perhaps it is all just about who, as Humpty said, is to be master. It does seem a bit of a waste when there are so many better targets for ridicule in Labour’s official policies.

Burger Me!

I like burgers. As a fussy-eating child they were one of the few things I ate happily and my similarly fussy son has also recently discovered a liking for them. They’re pretty simple and so pretty hard to get badly wrong – even a greasy hoof-burger from a stall at a football match is palatable enough if hot (the main problem with these come when they’re served in frozen buns which have disintegrated on defrosting).

So, before going to see Shaun the Sheep over half term, we were both quite excited to stop off at the newish Five Guys branch at the Kirkstall Leisure Complex in Leeds. Five Guys has a “back to basics” ethos – a short menu of burgers and hot dogs, self service soft drinks machines, spartan interiors with little decoration beyond immense numbers of reproduced reviews from various London and US local newspapers and little paper trays you can fill with monkey nuts to occupy yourself while waiting for your order to be cooked and called out. The posters proclaim the freshness of the produce – “these guys don’t even have freezer!”.

After some fun fiddling with the settings on the touch screen drinks dispenser (“yes, you can have peach Coke!”) we didn’t have long between grabbing napkins and ketchup and our order being ready. As for the food, it didn’t disappoint, the burgers were tasty and the meat quality good, the skin on chips were also pretty nice. The thing is, because burgers are fundamentally a simple food, they weren’t amazing. They were just very good burgers (not quite as good as Red’s True Barbecue according to OMB though, and not as good as the ones at the Busan BBQ pop up in Leeds Trinity Kitchen which I had a couple of weeks ago). Comparable to what is on offer (although rather less quickly) across the road at Rosie’s Diner. Rather more substantial and “natural” than those at the McDonald’s a hundred yards further away. But, as Giles Coren recently wrote, how fussy can you be about a burger?

And, for me, that was the real problem. While I can’t fault the food, the price just doesn’t seem worth it. OMB and I each had a “little bacon cheeseburger” (the standard size is a double burger- which was too big for either of us to fancy at the time), shared a regular portion of chips and had a fizzy drink each (free refills, but there’s a limit to how much fizzy pop even an 8 year old can put away – particularly if you want to make sure they don’t have to miss half the film they’re going to for comfort breaks). That came to £22.50. Or, nearly four times what we’d have paid had we gone to McDonald’s. At least if you go to Rosie’s, Red’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron or any one of the other “premium” burger chains that gets you table service and some sense of having gone out for a meal rather than merely refuelled somewhere more starkly utilitarian than a McDonald’s. But, as the place was pretty full in the middle of a gloomy, wet Sunday afternoon by a bowling alley and multiplex, perhaps I’m still a comparatively fussy eater.

Fifty Shades of Benham?

       A young self-made multimillionaire. A naive football club which has barely escaped numerous abusive relationships. The promise of untold wealth and excitement, but only if some unorthodox tastes and dreams are realised. But you’ll have to trust in him and give him the control he wants. You’ll have to be punished if you think you know better or think you can just settle for a bit of it. But you can have a safe word to make it stop because in the end he loves you and respects you. That safe word is Woking.

Perhaps there are some parallels between the strange goings on at Brentford and the product of Brentford resident EL James’ fevered imagination. The film version of Fifty Shades of Grey was released on the same day as Brentford suffered their own red room of pain at Charlton and no matter how many chants in support of club, players or management were mustered, Charlton hadn’t agreed any safe word.

However, the real parallel or lack thereof between Fifty Shades and the developing story about whether manager Mark Warburton was to be replaced at the end of the season is in whether owner Matthew Benham is like Christian Grey and how you view Grey in the books. Most fans of the trilogy see them as a naughty and erotic fantasy- Mills & Boon without the coyness for a generation that can attend Ann Summers parties without embarrassment or shame. They can identify with the fantasy of Ana Steele without actually wanting to be tied up and thrashed soundly after a trip to B&Q to acquire the appropriate wall fixings. But some critics also point out that basically, Grey is a classic abusive controlling man who might have some superficial appeal and sound caring and generous but who actually cares for nothing other than his own need to have someone to manipulate however he wants.

It would be too easy, given the understandable sympathy that most Bees fans will have for Warburton after the great work he has done in managing the team to the upper end of the Championship to suddenly feel that they’ve been duped by Benham and that in fact he is the typical megalomaniac club owner who cares nothing for the club or any of the people within it unless they bend to his will. Like Noades he’s now, in their minds, ready to take his ball home if he can’t play his way.

But, as I wrote last week, that depends on imputing bad faith. Or some form of sociopathic disorder (yeah, you gotta be a sociopath to get that rich, man!). It also involves being ready to imagine Brentford as a weak and unwilling participant in Benham’s game, with no agency and no choice, dazzled by the riches. But just as that might be an unfair reading of what so many otherwise strong and capable women found appealing in the Fifty Shades books, so too here. True, Ana Steele does seem to me to be a bit of a wet blanket, but while she likes the trappings of wealth she gets from her relationship with Grey, she wasn’t ever particularly looking for them, nor did she dislike her life and prospects before. It isn’t too hard to believe that she might genuinely be happy and free within what looks to be an unconventional relationship.

Similarly, when Benham first got formally involved with the ownership of Brentford, the club was slowly emerging from the painful work of getting on a sustainable financial footing after the depredations of Noades. But it was emerging from it. Fans were happy in the knowledge that the club could realistically think to survive in the lower divisions it had inhabited for most of the previous half a century and maybe slowly over time build to a little more by careful stewardship. Benham didn’t then come in waving a chequebook and promising a one way trip to the Premier League and if he had, he’d have been sent on his way- we didn’t particularly want it (many aren’t sure they want it now when it is realistically achievable, even if still unlikely) and had seen too many clubs go closer to the wall even than we had after pursuing that objective. What we have seen is that there is a path towards doing that without being unsustainable. The question facing fans now is whether we can take the jagged edges of that journey or want to squat in Grey’s penthouse while despising everything that got him or us there. Have we been groomed by an abuser or have we just grown complacent in recent years at the relief in not having to worry about what was going on behind the scenes so that we throw a tantrum when we see what needs to be done to keep going?