Life in the Freezer Cabinet: The strange tale of Iceland food

The cheap food store doesn't care for PR, and prides itself on transforming communities, one Bubble Bobble Prawn at a time.

Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet
BBC2

I’m a little obsessed with Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet (Tuesdays, 9pm). For a start there’s its title, which is moderately weird, given that there is no life at all in a freezer cabinet – such places being home only to frozen peas, fish fingers and, in the case of Iceland, a selection of slightly bizarre finger foods (to which I’ll return, with some gusto, shortly).

Of course, when they say “life”, what they really mean is the company’s management. To be more specific, they mean Malcolm Walker, its grinning, gurning and goofylooking boss. Some commentators have likened Walker, a plain-speaking fellow who could not cross an open field without stepping in at least one cowpat, to Gerald “total crap” Ratner. This is unfair. Walker has a galumphing charm and a manic kindness one sees only rarely in the rich and successful. He also still seems to grasp how most British people live, despite his own wealth. If I were a politican, Labour or Tory, I would have him on speed dial, and run every policy past him as a matter of course.

Walker started Iceland in 1970 in Shropshire, with a couple of freezers and £30. Today, it has some 790 stores and annual sales of £2.6bn. However, it’s quite an odd business. Its cheapness I don’t disdain, given the economic circumstances in which many families, if not most, now find themselves. Nor do I turn my nose up at its employment practices: the company has a reputation for being a happy place to work and Walker, an inordinately benign boss, regularly treats his staff to various morale-boosting shindigs.

Some of its products, though, are strikingly strange, at least to me. It has this thing for combining dishes and flavours. The Chicken Tikka Lasagne. The Italian Stonebaked Breakfast Pizza. Party Fish, Chip and Mushy Pea Stacks. Baked Bean Baguettes. And – drum roll please and do pour the Asti – Bubble Bobble King Prawns. This, by the way, is basically a prawn that has been rolled in Rice Krispies and then deep-fried. Bit of tongue-twister to say but they are allegedly really fabulous with a chilli dipping sauce.

Such products are trialled at Iceland HQ in Deeside, Flintshire, where there is a test kitchen, complete with resident home economists, and a fully kitted out Iceland store. Walker buzzes happily between the two, taking a hearty bite of Bubble Bobble King Prawns in the kitchen before heading to the shop to try out his latest wheeze: a one-sizefits- all label for wine (it will read either “Good Red Wine” or “Good White Wine”).

Walker is the only person in Britain who feels nostalgic for the days when Kerry Katona was the face of Iceland, and is wary of the metropolitan ad agencies who would like to be ironic about Iceland. “They’re always the same,” he opines, “in their sharp suits, and then one in a denim shirt and maybe a ponytail, who’s the art director.” And fair enough, he’s hardly wrong. It was embarrassing watching an agency called Karmarama make their pathetic pitch, which was nine parts bullshit to one part sneer. Publicity doesn’t interest him either, which is just as well, given that his head of PR is a 59-year-old cynic with a sign that reads “Public Relations Centre of Mediocrity” on his office door.

The only acronym Malcolm ever uses is JFDI, which stands for “Just Fucking Do It”. The only upmarket ranges his store carries – we’re talking frozen risotto – come with the moniker “Posh Grub”, which seems a lot more honest to me than Tesco’s “Finest” and Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” ranges.

I found all these details fascinating and funny. But beyond the comedy, this series has blazed with real pathos and insight. A new store in Treorchy in the Welsh valleys brought valuable jobs to the town, and it was heartbreaking both to see how woefully illequipped for work some applicants were – and how desperate.

A hard-up local couple took advantage of Iceland’s arrival by using it to cater for their wedding, the bride merrily lining up rockhard chicken drumsticks in rows on an oven tray, her nails long and gleaming, her hair already in an up-do. This “totally lush” buffet cost them just £1.75 a head and it went down a storm with their guests, their smiles and sticky fingers revealing more of 21st-century Britain than any number of earnest and slyly knowing Newsnight reports.

Frozen Britain: an Iceland lorry on the road. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder