Monday, December 29, 2008

End of an era, end of Woolworths

Saturday, December 27 will go down in history as the day Woolworths died. Riddled with bad debt and apparently no direction, the Pick 'N Mix delight has ceased to be.

Since news of the store's demise circulated it has been the busiest shop on the high street as shoppers swooped like vultures in search of that extra special discount.

For a documentary photographer, stores like Woolwoorths attract your camera like an electro-magnet. This Preston store was 98 years old and the second Woolworths in the country. Once a huge part of people's lives, getting an image of Woolworths is irresistible.

The reality was a little less romantic. At my local store in Preston, Lancashire, there were stories of staff being abused and punched because discounts were not big enough. I saw customers queuing with basket-loads of discounted merchandise to the checkout, demanding further discounts, then dumping the stuff when staff said no.

By the final day of business, much of the store had been cordoned off and what remained looked more like a bad bring and buy sale than the thriving shop this place once was.

I hold my hands up and say these photographs were taken without having sought prior permission. I just felt the desire to document an institution was greater than being told 'no pictures' after going through all the corporate red tape.

I saw a reporter and photographer from the Lancashire Evening Post outside the store. The photographer had been denied permission to take pictures. I'm glad I got mine.

I remember the one on Northumberland Street in Newcastle when I was a kid before it closed down. The one that remained, in the downmarket part of town, was much bigger at one time.

In later years I used to single out Quality Street coffee creams in the Pick 'N Mix until Nestle stopped making my favourite favoured chocolates. Perhaps that's when it all started going wrong for Woolies.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Raily stupid

PHOTO: How British trains used to be - a lot better than they are now.

In the last few weeks I have been to Holland and Israel. Fantastic places, remarkable people.

But this is not a look-at-me-and-where-I've-been-aren't-I-special blog. This is about trains.

The Netherlands. You arrive at Schiphol Airport, the most impressive I've been to yet, go down a gleaming escalator and wait a few minutes for a shiny, clean huge double-decker train to pull silently into the station. And you're off.

Train travel in Flatlands is efficient, quiet and almost surgically clean. I was impressed. I'm told that sometimes Dutch trains aren't perfect, they do run late. Sometimes. They are a shining example of how to run a train network. I went from Schiphol to Deventer to Amsterdam to Den Haag without fuss or fear or wallet damage.

Getting from Israel's Ben Gurion Airport train station to Tel Aviv and from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a little less convenient. Less frequent trains combined with my Hebrew reading skills meant it took me two hours to take the short journey into Tel Aviv. This included 50 minutes waiting on the platform, followed by a 10 minute journey in the wrong direction, followed by another 50 minute wait on a station platform somewhere else.

But I can't blame Israeli railways for my stupidity.

The trains themselves were either huge, spacious single-deckers or even huger double-deckers much like those in the Netherlands. Israeli's train stations were so clean you could sit on the floor. The trains were a little dusty on the outside but, be fair, this is the Middle East.

And so we come to this proud land. Great Britain. Inventors of the steam train, pioneers of the railway. Keepers of the developed world's worst rail network. Have you ever got on a train from Manchester Airport? It's a shitty little 'cross-country' thing with about as much charm as a Glaswegian family on holiday in Benidorm.

Ugly and dirty (the train, not the Glaswegians) and if you're really unlucky you get the two-carriage version which is fitted-out with the kind of seating you get on a 1980s bus.

Forget the fact that British trains are inexcusably expensive and notoriously unreliable. They are just awful, out-dated and embarrassing.

Even in Ukraine, a former Soviet nation which the British like to think is still a little bit backwards, their rail and underground system (in Kiev) is super efficient and mega cheap - a staggering five pence a journey, actually.

When I travel the 300 miles from my home to London I go by car. British Rail is too expensive and, crucially, too unreliable. And when you consider how congested the British motorways are and how expensive petrol and diesel is in this country, that's saying something.

This country is carpeted with railway tracks but British Rail has for too many years been a shambles, both as a nationalised outfit and a private business. The Dutch can do it, the Israeli's can do it. My god, most of the rest of the world can do it. Why can't we get it right?

NOTE: In December 2008 diesel cost £0.99 a LITRE at the cheapest pumps in this country, down from a record high of £1.30 - again at the cheapest pumps.

NOTE 2: The photo is of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway near Lake Windermere. If you want to catch a train (and a delightful ferry for that matter) visit