Adrian Chiles lives for a week on wearing, eating & using nothing but British-made products
I’VE long wondered if it was remotely possible to live for a week wearing, using, eating, living and travelling in products only made in the UK. So I set myself that task.
I’ve long been unsettled by the thought that we no longer manufacture very much here. I think this unease stems from a childhood growing up on the edge of the Black Country, where one factory after another closed.
I watched the massive Longbridge car plant die a long, slow death, it was horrible.
Many of these factories, distressingly, remain derelict, they’re a haunting sight. Others have been demolished, often making way for lots of lovely shops and restaurants.
I’m no economist, so someone will have to explain to me how this all works.
Do the people working in shops and restaurants earn money to spend in other shops and restaurants? Is that now how our world must turn?
The first challenge on day one of my experiment — which I made as a BBC Radio 4 programme — was to find something British to eat for breakfast, which was actually rather easy.
I had British eggs with bread I’d made from British flour spread with British butter and British Marmite.
I would have had a tomato as well, but it was Dutch, so I just scowled at it instead.
If my mouth hadn’t been so full of patriotic fodder at this point, I would have sung Rule Britannia.
To shop for lunch, I toddled off to see my mate Titch at his fruit and veg stall near me in London. I was pretty gobsmacked at the variety of British-grown stuff on offer.
Potatoes, roots and onions galore, spinach, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli — enough greens to keep me regular until 2021.
OK, no garlic, chillies or lemons to help things along, but apples and pears aplenty for pudding.
This was easily enough to be getting on with. I glared at the asparagus, which had come all the way from Peru. Really, why bother?
I prefer British cheese anyway, so that was easy and, though I don’t eat meat, if I did it would have made matters even easier, as the butcher down the road told me everything he stocked was British.
“The furthest any of it comes is from Haywards Heath,” he added, randomly.
Back home, a look through my wardrobe suggested I’d be walking around in an arrestable state of undress if I restricted myself to British-made clothes.
All I had was shoes, Bridgedale walking socks from County Down and a John Smedley jumper from Derbyshire.
A woman called Kate Hills, from the organisation Make It British, which promotes UK manufacturers and brands, saved my blushes with a whole array of British-made clobber.
From top to bottom, a tweed cap by a company in Yorkshire called Glencroft. I looked idiotic in it but what the hell?
A Christmas jumper from Leicester did the job and, importantly, some pants stitched in Portsmouth, by a company called Halcyon Blue. At 20 quid these were roughly four times what I’d normally spend but needs must.
Some New Balance trainers made in the Cumbrian village of Flimby turned up in the post, as did a beautifully made satchel by Cambridge Satchels.
The trainers suited me nicely. I have only dared leave the house with the sachel once, but I’m going to muster the courage before Christmas.
Anyway, all good bar the trousers. British-made gear does tend to be more expensive. Stuff like John Smedley knitwear, which is all made in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.
They’re proud of that, not least because consumers in countries like France, Japan, and even China, have a particular appetite for British-made luxury.
It could be made cheaper in other countries because they often don’t have to trouble themselves with things like paying decent wages, pensions, national insurance and the costs associated with protecting the environment.
The boss, Ian Maclean, told me there’s a moral case for a British brand to manufacture in Britain.
As he puts it: “Some brands obscure matters by having the word ‘Britain’ all over their brands without making it here.”
To use a very English expression, I don’t think it’s cricket to use your so-called Britishness as a selling point if British workers haven’t made your product.
I’m not saying I’m only going to buy British in future, but I’m certainly not going to buy anything with the union flag all over it that happens to be made in the Far East.
Onward. Next I had to get from London to Manchester to record five episodes of Countdown. I got a train north, a Pendolino put together in Washwood Heath, Birmingham.
In Wolverhampton I picked up an F-pace SUV from Jaguar Land Rover, an Indian-owned firm, but this model was the only car I could find with a British-made engine. I put the national anthem on loud as I left the plant.
Even better, I then got a call from a bloke called Brant, at a firm called HebTroCo, in Hebden Bridge, West Yorks, who had some jeans for me.
We arranged to meet in a dark, cold and windy spot just off the M62.
Alarmed looks from motorists were shot our way as I dropped my Wranglers and donned these beauties, made in Blackburn. Excellent. Job done.
So, I’d kind of pulled it off. On one hand I was pleasantly surprised at how much British-made stuff is available. On the other, I wish there was more.
In my dressing room at the Countdown studio in Salford I looked at the three M&S shirts I’d brought with me. They were made, respectively, in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This is never going to stop feeling a bit bonkers to me.
And then the builder who did out my flat back in London returned a call I’d put into him earlier. He told me possibly the only British material in my flat is the glass in the windows.
Manufacturing constitutes less than a fifth of our economy which, to be fair, is roughly the same as other big countries in Europe.
But I get the sense that around 40 years ago we kind of gave up on the idea of ourselves as big producers of anything. It was something everyone else could do cheaper, if not better, than us.
It was easier to make money in other ways. As John Elliot, founder of County Durham-based washing machine and dehumidifier manufacturer EBAC, said to me: “Why would anyone invest in manufacturing when they can make more money on the financial markets?”
Before you ask, I’ve no idea whether Brexit is going to be good or bad for manufacturing, but at least the idea of Britain in some sense going it alone might change our mindset.
And the pandemic, with grave shortages of PPE and so on, may have focused our minds a bit more on self-sufficiency. As John, and many others, are showing, it can be done.
Newsflash: We can and are still making things. But in the meantime, if you ask a hundred kids where their ambition lies, I doubt if any will tell you they want to make stuff. This is a shame.
If our best young minds can be persuaded to start applying themselves to the idea, then surely there has to be a way.
- Living British is now available to listen to on BBC Sounds.
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