Bruntsfield Memories, Supermarkets Shopped

I was born in Edinburgh, in the Royal Infirmary. I lived on or near Bruntsfield Place for longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else in Edinburgh or elsewhere. We moved to Hartington Place when I was two, and then to Bruntsfield Place – about three hundred yards away, uphill – when I was five. So for twelve years, that locus of Edinburgh was home to me: I’ve lived in Leith for longer, but ranged from Montgomery Street to Albert Street to Newhaven. The only other street in Edinburgh I feel the same kind of attachment to is Broughton Street.

When I walk along Bruntsfield Place now, the shape of it is the same – except that all the fences are shorter than they were, and the stair doors are different colours. But the shops have almost all changed. The newsagent where I got my first job delivering papers is still a newsagent, but it’s a chain shop, Margiotta’s, not an independent.

The corner greengrocer is now Oddbins, the general grocer’s over the road that sold rounds of tablet for 5p is probably one of the many glossy luxury shops, and I can’t remember what happened to the tobacconist who also sold sweeties from tall glass jars.

Round the corner on to the Links: in summer under dark green trees the flower bed is a pink so luminous it’s almost painful. The trees were there three decades ago, and the flowers there were always bright.

I registered with a dentist there when I was 19. That’s a good many years ago and the man himself is some years retired, but his successor inherited all his NHS patients, and so I still go back to Bruntsfield Place at least twice a year, notice shops opened and shops gone, admire the trees planted on the Links, and wonder who else remembers the palatial greengrocers that used to be where Oddbins is now. (The hairdressers that faces Oddbins on the corners of Bruntsfield Avenue, though it may have changed owners in the decades, was a hairdressers then as now. I think I even had my hair cut there once. Possibly the apprentice that clipped my hair then is the owner of the place now.)

Across the grass on the Links, the old stone bench facing Bruntsfield Terrace is still there, though I think the wooden seat may have been replaced – it looks old and battered, but it’s been decades since I last sat on that bench. The stone paving around the bench is still there, and around the old pavestones are newer slabs – but the dip of dry bare earth covered in broken glass and bottlecaps is still there, just moved further out.

Because you can get to the Links without crossing a main road, we were allowed to go there by ourselves: my brother learned to skateboard there, and golfed on the putting green: I used to take our dog there for a walk, or my sister and I would buy comics at the newsagent and go along to the bench on the Links and read them and eat crisps.

The Links is a big triangle of short smooth grass, dry in summer, rarely muddy, criss-crossed by grey smooth paths. There are trees – more trees than when I used to come here: a local firm donated 25 in 1985 for their silver jubilee. People play football here, or let off fireworks on 5th November. There are two fenced areas: a putting green and a dog-free area for small children. The secondary school I went to for six years is just across Whitehouse Loan, the other main road bordering the triangle.

I love Edinburgh. I could give you reasons for liking it: the compactness of it, that people talk to bus drivers, the golden stone from which most of the older buildings are built, the centuries of history in the stones. The sight of Arthur’s Seat; and the looming ancient rock on which the Castle was built; and the way the New Town was designed to bring a walker vistas upon vistas. I have listened and reluctantly agreed to what people have said in criticism: the expensive bus fares, the neighbours who don’t talk to you because keeping yourself to yourself is a virtue, the Presbyterian morality, the racism, sexism, sectarianism, and homophobia: the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the city council: the snobbery that almost buries everything else. But I like other cities, other places: I like Cambridge, and San Francisco, and Montreal, and Antwerp, and Paris. And I like Edinburgh. But I also love it: helpless, unreasonable, unreasoning passion for the city which is my home.

Peckhams is one of the places I still categorise as “new”, meaning they opened long after I moved down to Leith – my parents still sometimes refer to it as Nastiyuks, which is the deli that was there before Peckhams. But apparently it’s to go – Peckhams went into receivership late last year.

One of the reasons Bruntsfield is still familiar is that it is still, like Broughton Street, a place where people both live and work. The businesses may have gone a little upmarket – my recollection is that back in the day, there were far more shops selling ordinary things that people ordinarily wanted to buy, rather than fancy coffee and chocolate and juice and shiny mathoms: but where the newsagent that employed me for my first paper-round was, there’s now a Margiotta’s. The chemist may have become a branch of Lloyds, but it’s still a pharmacist.

Instead, Sainsbury’s plan to open a branch. They won’t be competing with the restaurants and cafes or the shiny mathom stores – they’ll be competing with the shops that still sell real things to real people, the small businesses that make the area a pleasant place to live.

There is a community meeting planned to oppose the new Sainsbury’s in Bruntsfield on Thursday 16th February in the Bruntsfield Hotel, at 6:30pm. (Discovered via @TheVintageDoc @CraftyGreenPoet on Twitter.)

In December last year, the Guardian published news about a report on supermarket expansion:

Almost 4m sq ft of new grocery retail space is under construction and the nation’s big retailers have already won planning permission for another 21.4m sq ft – enough space for more than 1,600 new supermarkets.

On top of that, applications have been submitted for a further 19m sq ft of space, CBRE’s research shows. The chances of these stores being given the go-ahead is likely to increase if Greg Clark, the planning minister, succeeds in his planned reform of planning laws giving a default “yes” to development.

The CBRE, which collated the figures by poring over local council planning applications, said the “pipeline” of new space has grown by a “startling 54% since the collapse of bankers Lehman Brothers”, which sparked the 2007 credit crunch and recession. It expected the surge in development to continue.

Apparently Scotland is a special target – supermarkets plan to build for 7.4m sq ft of space, more than anywhere else in the UK. Even the so-called “Tesco tax” that the SNP promise to deliver doesn’t look like slowing up these poisonous squids much. (Sainsbury’s opened a new branch in Bernard Street and has applied for planning permission for another in Howe Street: I don’t know how many more.)

Supermarkets are expensive places to shop. They may provide jobs (though Sainbury’s uses workfare) and they shut down other local businesses that were also providing jobs. From 2010:

For example, the report’s claim on job creation hides the net destruction of employment that follows in the wake of supermarket expansion. Their profits come from reducing operational costs, and a key one of those is labour. And they act like giant economic vacuum cleaners, hoovering wealth out of an area. By contrast, money spent in locally owned, embedded enterprises is more likely to stick and recirculate. And conventional street markets often provide cheaper fresh fruit and vegetables.

This is not surprising, as the supermarket method of central storage often adds hundreds if not thousands of unnecessary food miles to your shopping. Because supermarkets buy from a very limited range of suppliers, bad weather in one part of the UK can lead to food shortages all over the UK for people who have access only to supermarkets.

Shopping locally – even if you have to walk down to Global Fruit and Veg or Fruit-A-Licious, will be better for the area than buying at Sainsbury’s, as well as cheaper overall:

An analysis of procurement spending conducted by Northumberland County Council with NEF has shown that £1 spent with local suppliers is worth £1.76 to the local economy, while £1 spent with suppliers out of the area is worth 36 pence. A Friends of the Earth study of local food schemes found that on average just over half of business turnover was returned to the local economy, compared to as little as 5 per cent for supermarkets.

There’s nothing about supermarkets to love.



Filed under Childhood, Supermarkets

3 responses to “Bruntsfield Memories, Supermarkets Shopped

  1. julietwilson

    Excellent article. i was really upset to hear about Peckhams, also a couple of independent food shops in Stockbridge closed recently and my personal favourite (because most convenient) independent food shop at the West End shut at the beginning of the tram works fiasco. Supermarkets are expensive (usually hiding behind loss leaders on certain products to help lure people in) – they also reduce genuine customer choice and make towns and cities into identikit places.


  2. I’m afraid that this is ultimately a freedom question. If you don’t like a supermarket, don’t shop there. If you are able to convince other people to agree with you, the supermarket will lose customers and eventually go bankrupt. But anybody should be able to open a shop without all of the other surrounding shops forming a weird cartel and trying to drum it out of the neighbourhood. Even Sainsburys.

    Incidentally, I live at Holy Corner, and I’m only reading this (excellent) blog because I’m waiting for the Tescos across the road to quieten down, so that I’m actually able to walk around it. Hope there’s still some sushi left…

    • Hi Tychy – sorry for the delay in approving your comment, for some reason Akismet thought it was spam!

      The problem with regarding Tesco or Sainsbury’s or indeed any of the other billionaire giants as just “anybody”, is the same problem with assuming that as an employee and a corporate employer are just legally two individuals negotiating a contract, bringing in union representation is somehow unfair on the employer.

      George Monbiot has written at length about how the planning process, which is supposed to give local people a say in neighbourhood developments, is in fact skewed massively in favour of huge corporations like supermarkets. A key quote:

      To understand these promises, you first have to grasp an extraordinary fact at the heart of the planning system. If a developer’s proposal is turned down by the local authority, he can appeal against the decision. If he loses the appeal, he can either alter the plan and re-submit it, or wait for a period and re-submit the original plan. As long as he has enough money, he can do this endlessly. Big developers such as Tesco keep appealing and re-submitting until they grind down the resistance of local people and get what they want. The objectors must fight, fight and fight again. The developers know that eventually they’ll become exhausted and give up.

      You remain free to buy sushi at your nearest Tesco‘s. Supermarkets help make bad food ubiquitous and more expensive than they want you to notice.

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