The Battle to save London’s local cafés

We all have a local coffee house that plays an instrumental role in our day-to-day lives. It’s there for us when we are at the most sluggish stage of our morning. It sorts us out with a bacon butty and a decent cup of tea, usually for just under a fiver.

It’s a much-needed pit stop as we venture to work every morning, but since COVID has turned our 9-5 society upside down, we no longer have a need to stop by our local café. In fact, at all possible costs, we have become a society keen on avoiding the grubby greasy spoons. Mainly out of fear for their surfaces potentially being riddled with COVID-infused coffee stains.

It would be foolish of me to try and speak on behalf of the nation’s cafés. I can, however, relay the concerns of one owner, who just happens to run my local café.

I went in for a morning coffee and, while the owner was opening up shop, we had a little chat, like most people do, about COVID. He proceeded to tell me how, after running the Riverside Cafe (Lambeth Pier) for 11 years, he’d never hit such hard times. The owner talked candidly about how, on average, he used to get around 2,000 customers a day. Now, he says he’s lucky if that number reaches 100.

Keeping up with the rental payments on the café is proving to be an ordeal, and it’s even resulted in the poor guy having to dip into his savings accounts and even university funds. As I perched myself on the bar stool, I sat there gazing around at the photos on the wall. It appeared as though this café was a famous little nest for politicians getting their morning brew. The pictures ranged from John Prescott and Nick Clegg to a smattering of A-list celebs and actors.

This little old shack that sits peacefully on the corner of Lambeth Bridge will be my go-to coffee and breakfast pit stop, for as long as they are up and running. Because when the Government talks about trying to get people back to work and seeks to restore society to normality, this is what I believe they are trying to get at.

It’s about small, independently-run coffee stores, eateries, burger vans and market stalls. Their business relies on footfall. They need the 9-to-5 city worker, taxi driver or construction manager to stop in for breakfast and lunch – otherwise, what’s the point? Cafés like the Riverside Lambeth will collect cobwebs, and very soon they will blend into all the other boarded-up shops that have fallen at the hands of this wretched pandemic.

So, if you don’t want to wake up one morning and see that your local café or bakery isn’t opening its doors, then do what you can now. We might all still be working from home, but that doesn’t stop us from walking a few hundred yards in our slippers to grab a bacon bap and a cup of tea. You never know, if enough of us do it, we may just save them from closure.

Is it time for Blow Out to Help Out?

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme may seem like a generous way to kick-start the economy, but is it a sensible economic rescue plan? It is an ingenious means of getting people to part with their cash and inject money into local businesses, but there doesn’t need to be a sole focus on the restaurant industry.

Mark Littlewood, the IEA Director-General, recently said: “You can completely understand why restaurateurs like the scheme … But I don’t see a compelling case for helping the restaurant sector more than any other particular sector, some of which have suffered worse.”

Speaking to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, Littlewood discussed how, although we have this current scheme in place, there ends up being no excuse for the Government to ignore the idea of creating more initiatives for other failing sectors. Industries such as nightclubs, sporting events and even airlines. Littlewood notes that, sooner or later, we’d be in danger of creating an economy in which “absolutely everybody is then living at everybody else’s expense”.

It seems unlikely the Government will be rolling out any more cash for struggling sectors, but that hasn’t stopped prominent members from those industries calling for their own ‘Help Out’ initiatives.

Michael van Clarke, a renowned hairdresser with over 40 years in the industry, said: “After the success of Rishi’s Dishes, with Eat Out to Help Out, is it time to ask for Blow Out to Help Out with hairdressing? Although there was an initial flurry for us all to get our hair done, clients overall are still very cautious about returning to the salon as they did before.”

Van Clarke continued: “COVID and lockdown have been disorientating for most people. Rates of depression have doubled. The Hair and Beauty industry has been hit hard with a near 4-month lockdown.

“And now a bizarre decision to bring congestion charging to central London on Saturdays is damaging trade even further. Instead of issuing more prescriptions for antidepressants, a Blow Out to Help Out scheme would raise self-esteem and improve trading conditions.”

Wherever you turn, there will be a struggling industry with a compelling case as to why they need Rishi’s money, but indeed a better way to tackle the economic struggle would be to implement general policies like a reduction in VAT or income tax. That way, you’d be addressing the issue for everyone, rather than just implementing targeted schemes.

The only thing Eat Out to Help Out has shown is that Britain is a nation that loves a bargain more than it fears a pandemic.

O’Brien the shock jock goes too far

I used to spend many a bus journey on the way to college listening to the ‘Best of James O’Brien’ podcast. It’s an amalgamation of James O’Brien’s weekly shows, edited down into one juicy supplement.

As a Remainer who was never entirely convinced by the Brexit vision, I thoroughly enjoyed O’Brien’s rebuttals when angry Brexiteers phoned up to tell him that Britain didn’t need to worry about issues like the Northern Ireland backstop or trade. However, one thing O’Brien did that made me start to question his personality was the way he’d ‘put down’ his listeners and almost make them feel like they weren’t being listened to, but instead were there to be talked down to.

I soon came to realise the James O’Brien Show was nothing more than a political amphitheatre, in which inexperienced broadcast subjects would come onto the show only to then be set up for slaughtering by O’Brien. A man who, week after week of listening to, made me feel as though if I dared to differ from his viewpoint, I was nothing more than pond life.

When it comes to journalism, I’m a firm believer in punching up and not down. Countless times, I’ve seen media outlets record vox pops and treat the interviewer as though they were grilling a Cabinet Minister. At the end of the day, if there are passers-by who are willing enough to stop and be recorded, despite not having any expertise, this is not something you should then turn into a Paxman-esque interview.

Unfortunately, that was precisely how James O’Brien behaved this week. A willing individual volunteered to come onto his show, to have a conversation about whether or not children should be going back to school. Let’s not forget, this is an incredibly multifaceted issue that, for the last few months, politicians haven’t been able to deliver a concrete answer on. Yet, instead of listening and seeming to understand the caller’s point, O’Brien proceeded to play a ‘shock card’, suggesting that if the caller/parent were to send their child back to school, then they could potentially have a death on their hands.

This was a low moment for the broadcaster and for LBC, who eventually decided to apologise for the incident – but not before they shared it across their social platforms and reaped the benefits of the publicity. It was only after the backlash they received that they felt an apology was necessary.

Despite O’Brien’s LSE credentials, I hardly think the public should be paying much attention to his ‘child death’ soothsaying. It was only the other day that the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, made a statement informing people that the risk of children going back to school was tiny, and in fact, there was a greater risk if they didn’t end up returning.

It’s a difficult judgement for anyone to make in these unprecedented times. Maybe next time, James O’Brien will bear that in mind the next time a willing listener wants to help add to the debate.