Traveller's tales

Monday, August 07, 2006

What’s in a name: making the Earth flat or the pot pouri of multi-ethnic Britain

Walk along any High Street in Britain – up Baker Street in Stirling, or along Three Tuns Parade in Wolverhampton, or anywhere, and you will only need to look up at names over windows to see how we live.

In Baker Street, with its straggles of weary tourists climbing the steep hill to the castle, Robert Burns and Lewis Carroll face each other – in a pub called ‘Droothy neebors’, and a shop called ‘Jaberwoky’ – the pub higher up is called ‘Claymores’, and the Greek restaurant lower down is called ‘Alexander the Great’.

But then the Greeks have always owned restaurants in towns and cities in Britain – the Indians and the Chinese too – where’s the difference in that, I hear you say.

Lower down the hill, where the locals in Stirling do their Saturday shopping and browsing for bargains, we see more familiar names – Costa, Macdonalds, Burger King, Starbucks – all those big, well known names. These are known, not just in Stirling, Scotland, or Britain, but all over the world – in Singapore, Ottawa and Dubai, and in Stirling too.

This invasion of our shopping centres is not by tandoori takeaways or places selling kebabs, it’s by the global economy – where the most significant theme is sameness – unity and predictability.

The chap who owns ‘Alexander the Great’ and who doubles up as head cook and bottlewasher, and who locks the place up for the night when all the plates have been washed and stacked ready for the rush the day after, is probably called Stavros, or something similar, his kids will go to local schools and talk to him in rich Scottish tones, while he and his wife still have some Greek sounds in their Scottish.

The methods he uses to prepare and cook the food he serves will be his own, the ones he picked up as a young man back in Athens when he was learning his trade. His menu will change from time to time as his local suppliers either run out or let him down.

Very occasionally, he might have to close early or open late because of some minor domestic crisis, but he will be cheerful when he greets his first hungry customers, even on days when something is slightly amiss behind him.

And it will be the same in the shops and pubs next to his and across the street from him – they are all run by real people who have their highs and their lows, who react to the way their world runs and deal with it in ways that are human – which are not always the optimum ways where their customers are concerned, but being human themselves, most customers understand once they are told.

In the chains’ the ‘Starbucks’, ‘Macdonalds’ and ‘Burger Kings’ things are slightly different – very different in some ways.

For a start, these outlets, as they have come to be called, are not run by the proprietors, they are run by a regime, which determines what appears on the menu, how it will be prepared and cooked, and how much it will cost.

The suppliers are on contract – they dare not fail – this is lucrative stuff. The opening and closing times never vary – rain or shine – despite bereavements or weddings.

The staff, while being human, are trained (though sometimes you’d never know it) in how to deal with customers. They have stock phrases like the ubiquitous, “Have a nice day!” – that universal irritant that has prompted Tee-shirt designers to sell shirts with, ‘Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!’ emblazoned across the front – we all get the drift and feel that way ourselves sometimes.

Some people find it reassuring – safe – predictably so – to know that what happens in a Macdonalds in Golders Green is the same as what happens in one in Greenland – I don’t, when I go to the North Pole, I want to feel cold, not room temperature.

Robert L. Fielding

Visit My Website