A picture of Emmental cheese because I couldn’t find an image that really summed up the dynamism of Newbury.
Tomorrow night I bring my show about lousy restaurants, My Dining Hell, to the Corn Exchange in Newbury. I am very much looking forward to it. Tickets are available here and at the link below.
While ticket sales are now well into a healthy three figures, I understand some potential audience members may have been put off by what are regarded as disobliging comments I made about Newbury in an article published on the Guardian website in 2011. Newbury does not forget.
The piece was actually an appreciation of the Swiss cheese, Emmental, which I described as ‘The Newbury of cheeses: it’s solid, workmanlike, but very, very dull. Everybody knows it’s there but few think they have any reason to visit.’ This did result in a few newspaper headlines at the time, and a certain outrage online. Or as my agent put it recently, when they came to marketing the current show, ‘Why the hell couldn’t you just have been rude about Slough? They’re used to it’.
You can read that original article here. I want to say now, and for the record, that the article was not meant as an insult to the kind and interesting people of Newbury. I can also see now that using the word ‘dull’ to refer to Newbury – a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, with a cultural life to challenge that of Renaissance Florence – was completely and utterly wrong.
I apologise unreservedly.
Apart from anything else I was clearly out of date, a terrible failing for any journalist. As Jeremy Holden-Bell, chairman of the Newbury Society, told the BBC at the time: ‘Historically possibly Newbury was dull, but it’s changed a lot in the past two years. We have our Parkway development opening next month which will bring a lot more shops to the area. We don’t think Newbury is dull at all.’
In my defence, further on in the article I went on to point out that my use of the word was just a first impression and wrong both for Emmental and, therefore, Newbury. While some misguided fools might regard them as lacking a certain glamour, both are industrious work houses, where real work gets done. In Newbury’s case it is a hub for the British tech industry. That, after all, is why Vodaphone has made its home there. In the case of Emmental, it is the ballast upon which that brilliant Swiss dish cheese fondue is built. Without Emmental, a fondue would be nothing.
And so, to say sorry to Newbury, I am today publishing here my recipe for fondue from my forthcoming book, the Ten (Food) Commandments, which will be published in June.
I’m not a total idiot. I don’t think a fondue recipe can really make amends for the great hurt I have caused the good people of Newbury over the years. But I do hope you will take it as a token of my respect and regard. Can I also encourage you to come to the show. As well as taking you on a journey through truly awful restaurant experiences, I will offer the audience a number of opportunities during which they can call me a self-regarding, up-him-himself, snobby, London-centric tosser to my face. Indeed, I would welcome it.
More than anything, I’m just so bloody sorry. Newbury, please forgive me.
1tbsp kirsch (or other white firewater like Poire William. You could, at a push, use vodka. But DON’T use gin. That would be a terrible thing to do.)
Dijon mustard if wanted
One egg (for later).
Bread cut into pieces.
Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the cut side around the inside of the fondue pot.
Gently heat the wine in the fondue pot. Turn down to a low simmer.
Slowly mix handfuls of the cheese into the wine, pausing to stir until each batch is melted. This could take 10 or 15 minutes.
In a small glass mix the cornflour into the spirit so it forms a paste. Dollop all of it into the fondue mix, and continue to stir over a low heat. After five minutes it should have thickened. If by any chance it hasn’t, add another half a teaspoon of corn flour (in another half tablespoon of spirit).
Get a lackey to light the fondue burner on a medium flame.
Time to season: you can do this with just salt and pepper to taste, though a teaspoon of Dijon mustard (or more if you fancy) will punch it up. It’s your call.
Transfer immediately to the burner, and eat by spearing lumps of bread on to the fork and dredging. We generally eat it standing up. It’s so much easier to see what’s going on over the rim.
I am delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my new book The (Ten) Food Commandments, which will be published by Penguin Books in the UK June. It’s available for pre-order here. At the same time I am announcing my new live show, based on the book. The very first performance, under the auspices of Guardian Live, will be at the Royal Institute of British Architects on June 24. You can get tickets for that here. It will then go on tour through out the UK.
The Ten (Food) Commandments
The prophet Moses was many things: rebel leader, font of morality, poster boy for dodgy orienteering. On the tricky matter of your dinner he was less helpful, at least if the original Ten Commandments are anything to go by. Assuming they really were dictated by God and not something he cooked up when he was alone on the mountain top after having stomped off in a huff, the first four reveal the maker to be a touch self-absorbed. It’s all ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ and ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’. Really! Some people!
That’s followed by boiler plate stuff prohibiting murder, theft and lying before you get to the only one which in any way pertains to ingredients: the instruction not to covet thy neighbour’s oxen. Always tricky; there are some damn attractive oxen out there. This is the great failing of those Ten. They really don’t offer those of us located in the 21st century much in the way of guidance when it comes to thinking about our relationship with our food. And Lord knows we need it.
The fact is we need a new set of hand-tooled, subject-specific food commandments, custom engineered for the modern food obsessed age. Which in turn means we need our very own culinary Moses; someone with the scholarship, dignity, insight and teeth to stand in judgement on everyone else.
I know just the man.
Oh come on. Who else could it be?
I have a beard flecked with grey. I have shaggy hair and, though I say it myself, I look super hot in flowing robes. (They rather flatter the more generous figure). And yes, I really do have all my own teeth. I wouldn’t mind having someone else’s teeth but I’ll settle for mine. They’ve seen me this far.
So come with me as I lay down the law; as I deal once and for all with the question of whether it really is ever okay to covet thy neighbour’s oxen (it is), the importance of eating with your hands (very important indeed) and whether you should cut off the fat (you shouldn’t).
I will give you guidance on worshipping leftovers and why you should not mistake food for pharmaceuticals which can cure you of all known diseases, especially cancer. (A quick heads up: there is not a single foodstuff the eating of which will protect you from cancer. Not even a little bit.) I will insist that thou shalt cook while also not running from the stinkiest of foods even if they smell of death. The best foods in life smell lightly of death.
I will insist that thou shall honour thy pig. Or anybody else’s pig for that matter. Because everything is improved by the application of a little pig.
Obviously, there’s a chance this will make you hungry. Don’t worry. The book comes with recipes, for things to eat with your hands, using the stinkiest of foods, that honour thy pig and much more besides.
So come with me as I lead you to the culinary promised land.
People assume that, as a restaurant critic for the The Guardian, and working on MasterChef and The One Show I spend my entire life feasting on roast swan, being pelted with truffles and hosed down with champagne. And obviously there is a quite a lot of that.
But really I’m just a greedy man with an expense account. On March 3 I bring my show about lousy restaurant experiences, My Dining Hell, to theThe Alban Arena. I’ll take you through the things that drive me insane, both in service and menu language, and list six restaurants that annoyed me the most. In the second half, I’m joined by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony, and I’ll tell you a few (filthy) stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist.
Ahead of that I thought it was only right that I share a few of my dirty food secrets with you, to prove that my life really isn’t all roast swan and Krug; that I’m just the same as everyone else, assuming everyone else is a greedy swine with no shame. So… three things I have eaten.
1. A sausage from one of those food trucks in London’s Trafalagar Square after midnight at the weekend before a night bus home. It smelt of festering onions and fat and desperation. But I was drunk. And hungry. AND NOTHING ELSE WAS OPEN. DON’T JUDGE ME.
2. KFC – well of course. Though not often. Each year my family goes to Center Parcs. There’s a KFC at the service station en route. I get my wife to buy it so I’m not spotted in the queue, and then hide in the corner. However my son has a photograph of me eating it on his phone. He’s threatening to release it on to social media. Coughing to my crime here is my way of neutralising my son’s filthy attempt at blackmail.
3. The Pizza Hut mini-cheeseburger pizza. It is what it sounds like: a pizza with 12 mini cheeseburgers set into the crust. But I do have an excuse. I was researching an article about ludicrously calorific items. This item, at 2,880 calories, easily won. And I didn’t finish it. I gave most of it away. I’m a good person.
Or perhaps not. To find out how good a person I really am, and for a night of food stories and cracking jazz, join me at the The Alban Arena on March 3. Tickets available here.
A couple of weeks ago a few hundred people gathered in Herne Hill, close to where I live, to demonstrate against the behaviour of the Dulwich Estate, a local landlord. The Estate owns 1,500 prime acres of Dulwich and the surrounding area, including the freeholds on 600 flats and maisonettes and the vast majority of the shops and pubs as well as local amenities. The focus of the demo was the closure of a much-loved toy shop, Just Williams, forced out of business by a 70% rent rise combined with a more general concern about the threat of similar rent rises forcing out other shops. They are likely to be replaced by ones which, to pay those increased rents, will be prohibitively expensive to shop in. The Estate has also proposed selling off a piece of land used as a play area by children at the local Judith Kerr Primary school for flats, and left a popular pub, the Half Moon, closed and empty for over two years. Now that they finally have a proposal for the pub they seem set to accept, it does not include a live music room, which has been a part of it for decades and which locals want re-instated.
The glib response to all this is ‘first world problems’. Boo hoo! for the middle classes of Herne Hill and their closed toy shop. And yes of course, in the face of, say, the migrant crisis and the Syrian war, there are clearly more acute life and death problems. But the existence of those issues doesn’t mean we simply forget about those that seem more banal. The ability of rapacious landlords to clean up financially without any regard or respect for the local community must be challenged. Otherwise our cities will simply become unaffordable places to live for all but those on the biggest incomes.
The Dulwich Estate was established in the early 17th Century, to give an education to poor scholars and the children of Dulwich. Today it is a registered charitable trust and has a number of beneficiaries, including some maintained schools and a chapel in South London. But the vast majority of their revenue after costs – over 85% – goes to three, very expensive fee-paying schools in Dulwich: Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ (or JAGS). Between them they shared £5,815,840 of moneys from the Estate in the most recent year for which there are figures (to March 31, 2015). These are also registered charities.
Given that a year’s boarding at Dulwich College costs £38,000 – it’s £18,000 to be a day pupil – that charitable status is somewhat controversial. Certainly, to maintain their charitable status these schools are required to show that they provide a ‘public benefit’, something of which they are acutely aware. As indeed they make clear on their websites.
The ‘Master’ of Dulwich says in his welcome message that, ‘We are committed to nurturing a supportive community which encourages a sense of social responsibility.’ Likewise, one of the Governors’ objectives at Dulwich College is ‘to promote partnerships between the college and local community’. At Alleyn’s the vision underlying the School Development Plan includes that the school should be ‘recognised within the local and extended community as a force for the public good’. JAGS describes itself as a school ‘with a heart and conscience and one which reaches out beyond its own community’.
So I sent the same email to the three head teachers, Dr Joseph Spence at Dulwich College, Dr Gary Savage at Alleyn’s and Ms Sally-Anne Huang at JAGS. I wanted to know how they squared their pronounced commitment to the local community, with the fact that the Dulwich Estate, of which they are massive beneficiaries, is set on a course which is doing extreme damage to it.
All three gave exactly the same response: that the money from the Dulwich Estate enables them to provide bursaries and scholarships to pupils who would otherwise not be able to afford to attend.
There are two issues here. The first is the implicit assumption that there is a moral or practical good provided by these highly exclusive fee-paying schools. For what it’s worth I went to exactly that kind of school. I hated it and I do not see it as a model to which we should aspire. That said I accept this is a difference of political opinion.
More striking is the assumption that it’s okay to force viable shops out of business if it pays for the bursaries. The bursaries and scholarships are a charitable act. You don’t pay for charity by taking away people’s livelihoods. What’s more, the vast majority of the recipients are not getting 100% bursaries or scholarships; they come from families with the wherewithal to pay the majority of the fees themselves.
I wrote to all three head teachers asking why all this was okay. None of them replied to that point.
It’s also worth considering the detail of the finances. All three schools say the Dulwich Estate money enables them to pay for bursaries but, certainly in the case of Alleyn’s and Dulwich College, they use it to fund other things too. In its accounts to 2014 Alleyn’s reveals it spent £1.293 million on bursaries. However it received £1.624 million from the Dulwich Estate. Dulwich College received £2.176 million from the Dulwich Estate but spent only £1.78 million of that on bursaries (they spent more, but it came from their Bursary Appeal Fund). The picture in 2012 was even more striking, because the schools received significantly more from the Dulwich Estate, presumably because of the sale of assets. Dulwich College spent £1.662 million on bursaries but received £5.617 million from the Estate. Then again, they are building a new £21 million science block so they do have things to spend it on. For sake of doubt, they are legally entitled to spend this money as they wish. Whether it is moral to do so given how it is raised is a different matter.
The head teachers of both Dulwich College and Alleyn’s also told me that they had no authority over the trading methods of the Dulwich Estate. Dr Spence, Master of Dulwich College, said they have a once a year meeting with the Estate where they can express an opinion to its commercial practices, but that the Estate is not obliged to take any notice of their opinions. It’s perhaps worth noting that the Estate has 11 trustees, and that the three Dulwich schools nominate two each. So, between them they have six trustees; a majority. Again, Dr Spence tells me the schools have no influence over those trustees once they are appointed. That being so they could issue public statements declaring themselves opposed to the way the Estate is behaving. All three have stayed silent.
The Dulwich Estate and its Chief Executive John Major (no, not that one) can point to Charity Commission rules which require them to get the best financial deals they can, and therefore argue that they are merely performing their legal duties by pricing out the toy shop. Except they’re not doing so consistently, because, for example, they’ve left the Half Moon Pub empty for over two years, when it could be earning them rents. They don’t even seem to be applying their own policies as laid out in their Scheme of Management drawn up in 1995. That requires them to behave in such a way as to have ‘a positive impact on the community, is attractive to the public and thus stimulates local businesses‘. There is nothing attractive or stimulating about their current behaviour. Indeed, the Charity Commission also requires trustees to consider ‘reputational damage’ caused by their trading policies. Right now they are doing themselves enormous reputational damage. So much so that there are many of us who question why a body like the Dulwich Estate, with property worth hundreds of millions, should be a charity at all, given the tax benefits that status brings.
After my first email exchange with Dr Joseph Spence of Dulwich College I asked whether I might quote directly from our correspondence. He refused the request because he said it was clear from what I had said that I was determined to divide the local community rather than unite it.
One of us is the head teacher of one of the most expensive schools in the country benefiting from a trust that’s putting toy shops out of business. The other is a concerned local resident. I’ll let you decide who’s dividing the community.
Obviously food is about taste and texture. But it’s also about the language used to describe it and, more to the point, the way language is violated and trampled upon in the service of a tiresome agenda. On March 3 I bring my show about awful restaurant experiences to The Alban Arena. During My Dining Hell I talk about many things, including menu language (before being joined in the second half by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony). Ahead of that I thought I’d share a few words used around food – on menus, in its marketing – that really drive me nuts.
Clean Eating – Where do I start? Food isn’t clean, or dirty. It’s just food. It doesn’t have morals. What matters is whether you eat a balanced diet or not. Having a kiwi, kale and avocado smoothie every morning doesn’t make you clean. And it doesn’t make you a good person. It just makes you rather annoying.
Proper – as in a ‘proper pie’ or a ‘proper hamburger’. So help me here. What’s an improper pie? One that tries to put its hand up your skirt while you’re eating it? It’s a meaningless word. What you’re trying to say is that your pie is better than everyone else’s. But presumably you’ve always thought that your pie was better or you wouldn’t be trying to sell it.
Honest food. Another utterly meaningless term. Again it’s an attempt by the food manufacturer or the chef to claim virtue for themselves. As in ‘All we serve is good, honest food’. So tell me: what is dishonest food? Is that the carrot on your plate which keeps you occupied while the rest of its mates nick your car? Tell me about the dishonest salmon. Does it have a criminal record? Arggh.
There are more, many more, and I’ll go into that during My Dining Hell. In the second half it’s time for my jazz quartet, with songs of food and agony. And some truly filthy stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist. What’s not to like?
Being a restaurant critic teaches you to hate. Right now it’s teaching me to hate whacky serving plates. On February 23 I bring my show about appalling restaurant experiences to the Kingston Rose. Ahead of that performance of My Dining Hell, part of my night of Food and Agony, I thought I’d share with you my top five most hated ‘inventive’ serving items. These are generally pressed into service by chefs and restaurateurs who think that using one of them will distract from the fact that the food isn’t actually very good.
And so, in reverse order:
No 5. Cocktails served in old jam jars. Apart from the fact that it’s unpleasant to have your lip locked around something with a lid groove it’s an absurd pose. When the drink inside costs anywhere from £7 to £14, posing as some poverty stricken joint that can’t afford proper glasses is just plain annoying.
No 4. Chips served in mini-chip pan fryers, both round and square. Stop it. JUST STOP IT. I am not four years old. Dolls-house sized versions of big things do not improve the quality of the chips. It certainly doesn’t fill me with glee.
No 3. Bread served in flat caps or slippers. Yes, really. I’ve experienced both of these. The flat cap thing was at a restaurant in Yorkshire, ‘cos of course all people in Yorkshire wear flat caps. All I could think was ‘who’s head has been in my bread basket?’
No 2. Buckets for anything. I’ve had chips served in teensy weensy buckets. I’ve also had spare ribs served in small versions of a household galvanised dustbin. Because, you know, it’s dirty food. Food isn’t dirty. It’s just food.
No 1. Anything at all served on slates. Roof slates are brilliant on roofs. They keep out the rain. They are nasty to eat off. Sauce dribbles off the edges. Your cutlery makes a hard scratchy sound against them. They are terrible at retaining heat. And they make life hell for poor waiters. Oh, and they look absurd. Please just serve food on nice round plates, with rims. They function brilliantly.
Blimey, but I feel better for that. If you want to join the campaign for normal serving items you could follow @WeWantPlates on Twitter. Meanwhile I’ll be talking about all of this and more in My Dining Hell. In the second half I’ll be joined by my jazz quartet for songs of food and agony and telling a few filthy stories of life growing up with a mother who was a sex advice columnist. We’ll sing the blues. Given the things that sometimes happen in restaurants, there’s lots to sing the blues about.
In the meantime, am I wrong? Are these serving items just a bit of fun or the devil’s work?
Add again, if you want tickets click on the link below:
A piece about the jazz singer Ian Shaw, and the work he is doing in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. As it says he launches a charity single on Wednesday.
By Simon de Bruxelles, December 12, 2015
It was dawn, and Ian Shaw was running the gauntlet of riot police surrounding the Jungle refugee camp as he tried to get a badly injured Syrian teenager to hospital.
He had been called by a friend after police had refused four times to call an ambulance for the 18-year-old migrant, who had been hit in the face with a CS gas grenade and a riot shield and was bleeding heavily. His jaw was broken in two places, three of his teeth had been smashed and his lip was split wide open.
As Mr Shaw drove him to get medical treatment the wing mirror of his black Peugeot was smashed with a baton and his passenger seat drenched with blood. The teenager, called Osai, is still recovering in hospital in Lille.
The next night, Mr Shaw was performing at a private party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, accompanying Sir Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood and Jeff Beck as they sang Christmas carols.
The award-winning Welsh singer is leading a double life, spending half the week on stage at venues such as Ronnie Scott’s, in Soho, and the rest in the mud and squalor of the Jungle.
The unofficial camp is home to about 7,000 migrants and is growing by the day. Refugees, most of whom have fled wars in the Middle East and Africa, arrive to find themselves in the midst of another one.
Hope that they will find sanctuary in Britain turns to despair when they find their journey halted by razor wire, riot police and tear gas.
Mr Shaw, who was twice named vocalist of the year at the BBC Jazz Awards, is angry and frustrated.
He first visited the Jungle in June this year, partly out of curiosity. “I can see the Calais lighthouse if I stand in my bath. I thought I would go and visit this place I’d read about,” he said. Appalled by what he found, he organised fundraising concerts and collected instruments so that the migrants had some way to pass the time. He set up a restaurant providing free food and performed two concerts in the camp. For the past couple of months he has been spending all his free time there.
He said: “I move in the most ridiculous circles at the moment but I can tell you where I want to be the most, even though it is cold and when it rains the whole place is reduced to a fetid mud slide.”
He was there when a fire started by a candle swept through the camp on the night of the Paris massacres. More than 100 tents were destroyed and many of the migrants lost the few possessions they had.
Each week he fills his car with shopping and he has set up a first aid station manned by a refugee doctor in a caravan. He is frustrated that there is no mechanism for the refugees to claim asylum in the UK without first getting here illegally.
“We need a humane way of processing the ones that are most in need, and the ones who are most in need are those who have ended up living on a rubbish tip in Calais, not the ones living in the safety of a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon,” he said. “It would not have to be expensive or time-consuming.”
On Wednesday he is releasing a charity single entitled My Brother, because that is how the refugees greet him in the Jungle.
The Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner has launched a scathing attack on PR agencies that use spurious charity tie-ups to secure free celebrity involvement with their promotions – including one recent example involving TV personality Mary Portas’ agency.
Rayner, who also appears regularly on television, used his personal blog to lambast what he called “a less than appealing attempt by some (happily small) parts of the public relations industry to work the charity angle in the service of their clients”.
In the blog post he criticised an agency – which he did not name – that he claimed recently asked him and fellow restaurant critic Giles Coren to make an appearance on behalf of a shopping centre client.
“I am approached by the agency for a major UK group of shopping centres,” he wrote. “They are asking baggy-arsed celebs like me to come down to one of their sites to take part in a skating competition on the rink that is always installed there at this time of year. The winners get to make a donation to the charity of their choice. And because the people involved are recognisable there will be lots of PR opportunities, which will happen to include the shopping centre where the skate-off is taking place. Who are of course the agency’s client.”
He told PRWeek: “I regard it as a clumsy and self-serving attempt to put a veneer of self-righteousness on what is simply a commercial transaction. I notice they never said how much they would actually give to charity.”
In his blog, he gave another example of an approach to host a charity dinner at a lap-dancing club. “The charity knew nothing about it and wanted nothing to do with it. Neither did I,” he wrote.
He argued that such approaches actively damaged charities in the long run because celebrities had finite time available and frivolous approaches reduced their ability to support their chosen causes, telling PRWeek: “CSR is a legitimate business activity, but the acid test of whether a charity-celebrity tie-up is legitimate is whether it is primarily about charity or commerce.”
While Rayner’s blog did not name Westfield as the shopping centre in question in the ice rink example, the centre’s agency Portas has confirmed to PRWeek that it was the company involved.
Approached for comment by PRWeek, the agency said in a statement: “Westfield supports a number of charities throughout the year including long-term partners. This year, as well as supporting Save the Children, we have been exploring a skate-off challenge that would see the winning participant receive £5,000 for their nominated charity and would deliver much needed funds and awareness to charities this Christmas.”
Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, agreed that the practice could damage charities. “If Jay Rayner is correct in suggesting that many charities are often not even aware that they are being used by PR consultancies in this way, then they obviously won’t have the opportunity to have a voice on the event that is taking place in their name, and this could actually be quite damaging to their brand,” he said.
Some mistake, surely? The big, bearded bloke from MasterChef? Is he a jazz pianist too? Well, it’s true that no one would mistake Jay Rayner for Oscar Peterson, but that isn’t the point of this engagingly laid-back show.
The jazz world is awash with stamp collectors and train-spotters, those well-intentioned folk who know the catalogue number of every bebop record made since 1946. What it really needs is people who can engage with a public that is terrified of the j-word and assumes that listening to a Duke Ellington tune must somehow be the equivalent of sitting an A level.
Rayner, a restaurant critic and boulevardier, is the perfect communicator. Sidling up to his audience with a ragbag of jokes and family anecdotes, not to mention an imaginative repertoire, he conveys the sheer joy of playing and exploring the music he loves.
Sensibly enough, he keeps his solos short and brisk and has signed a couple of accomplished sidemen in the double-bass player Robert Rickenberg and the saxophonist Dave Lewis. Rayner’s wife, Pat Gordon Smith, takes care of the vocals. Even if she came slightly unstuck on a daring, bare-bones arrangement of Love and Affection — a Joan Armatrading ballad that would tax even the best vocalists — she was a throaty, bluesy presence elsewhere.
Peel Me a Grape, Dave Frishberg’s droll portrait of uptown ennui, sat alongside the vintage treat Save the Bones for Henry Jones. There were risqué tales, too, of Rayner’s mother, the late agony aunt Claire Rayner, whose daily postbag could give any teenage boy enough neuroses to last a couple of lifetimes.
Herbie Hancock’s hit Cantaloupe Island may have had only a tenuous connection with fine dining, but the band gave it a suitably funky treatment. Rayner is taking the show on the road in the new year.
Settle down. Get a cup of tea. I’m going to have an embittered rant about what I regard as a less than appealing attempt by some (happily small) parts of the Public Relations industry to work the charity angle in the service of their clients.
But first, some background. If you have a public profile eventually you are likely to be approached by the charitable sector looking for help with their cause. This makes sense: people are more likely to get involved with a campaign if a person they recognise is also involved. Sometimes they don’t even have to like them. If they’ve seen them on the telly that will do. Different well-known people deal with this in different ways. Some decide they’d rather not make their charitable work public, which is their right. In my case I was getting so many requests from so many equally deserving causes, big and small, I decided the best way forward was to find one charity – in my case the brilliant foodchain.org; please do click on the link – and dedicate almost all the time I have for fundraising to them. You will see me tweeting about them regularly.
In my experience, direct approaches by charities are always above board, the intentions and motives completely transparent.
But there is another kind of approach, by Public Relations companies on behalf of their clients (businesses rather than charities) which are far less so. It is an attempt to use a charity angle as a means of getting free ‘celebrity’ involvement with an activity and thus, in turn, generating cheap PR for a client.
A couple of example of approaches I’ve had: a new restaurant app is being launched. Will I come and host a charity auction at the launch? Obviously, as the auction is for charity, I will not get a fee. That way they’ve got the involvement of a ‘face’ – not a very pretty one, to be fair; god knows who’d already said no – for free, and they can shift PR pictures to the media which otherwise they would not get. The launch of the app is mentioned in the coverage. Hurrah!
On another occasion I was approached by a lap dancing club. Yes, really. Would I host a dinner at said lap dancing club for a hunger charity, so they could send out lots of PR pics from the event? The charity knew nothing about it and wanted nothing to do with it. Neither did I. Frankly I wouldn’t want to sit down in one of those places, let alone eat off the tables.
And then today, another one. I am approached by the agency for a major UK group of shopping centres. They are asking baggy-arsed celebs like me to come down to one of their sites to take part in a skating competition on the rink that is always installed there at this time of year. The winners get to make a donation to the charity of their choice. And because the people involved are recognisable there will be lots of PR opportunities which will happen to include the shopping centre where the skate off is taking place. Who are of course the agency’s client.
Now then why would a shopping centre want cheap PR, involving famous faces, in the run up to Christmas? Incidentally in their pitch to me the agency did not say what sum would be paid to the charity of my choice. Well of course not, because this notion didn’t start with the charity angle did it. It started with the PR angle. And I wonder: how much will the agency be getting for running the campaign?
Businesses have long been involved in making donations to the charitable sector and so they should. A robust Corporate Social Responsibility policy is an important part of any reputable business’s involvement with society. But they shouldn’t be doing it because it’s good PR. Or at the very least they shouldn’t be doing it with the PR angle first and foremost in their minds. They should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do. The vast majority of PR companies recognise this. They understand what constitutes reasonable behaviour.
But too many do not. So here it is: trying to strong arm people with a public profile into involvement with a campaign because there’s a small pay off for charidee is just plain cheap.