Giles Coren with the Robshaw family in “Back in Time for Dinner”.
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Which is worse: working at KFC in 2015 or toiling in a 1950s family kitchen?

Rachel Cooke reviews The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop and Back in Time for Dinner.

The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop; Back in Time for Dinner

There’s something heartbreaking about The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop (Wednesdays, 9pm), which goes behind the scenes at KFC’s British operation. I think this has to do with the staff, who remain relentlessly cheery no matter how long their hours or how abusive their customers. “It’s very much like the Oscars,” said Dom, the manager of the Havant drive-through, of the company’s annual awards dinner, a festival of coloured bow ties and Jim’ll Fix It-style beribboned medals. Inspired, he returned to Havant more determined than ever to shift deluxe boneless feasts – buckets of fun that would, he explained, be turned out by his ace head chef, Chad, a loyal employee of seven years. Luckily, Chad doesn’t remotely mind spending his days elbow deep in dismembered poultry. “I used to be an undertaker,” he announced, ducking into an ominous-looking cold room.

The colonel arrived in Britain in 1965 and made straight for Preston. Since then, his empire has grown far beyond Lancashire. Today, there are 865 restaurants in the UK; the plan is to open 35 every year until there are 1,300. There’ll always be naysayers, those puritans and Nimbys who sneer at Popcorn Nuggets and Wicked Zingers. But what do they know? Have any of them ever been inside a KFC? In Middleton, in Greater Manchester, it was clear that a local residents’ association wasn’t well acquainted with the colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. Not that this made its opposition to KFC’s arrival in the next street any less valid. Who, after all, would want to see a giant, illuminated beard rising above their laurel bushes? Even the company’s acquisitions manager hedged when he was asked how he would feel about living opposite a KFC.

“If we win this, we’ll sit in that garden with a bottle of champagne and get bladdered,” said Irene to her friend Pat as they planned their campaign. Alas, the champagne turned out to be as much of a mirage as the hope that the council would listen to them. At a planning meeting, KFC did a weasel move, promising to close its new restaurant at 9pm, after which it received the green light. The film cut to KFC HQ in Woking, where the acquisitions manager could be heard telling his boss triumphantly that this compromise did not “close the door” on later opening hours in Middleton in the future. Poor Irene. Poor Pat. What
use are their garden loungers now?

It was instructive watching The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop in close proximity to Back in Time for Dinner (Tuesdays, 8pm), in which an “ordinary British family” pretended it was the 1950s, with a fridge-free kitchen, a tub of dripping and a five-ounce serving of liver (the series, presented by Giles Coren, is in six parts and will move through the decades accordingly). As is the way with this kind of TV, the idea is to patronise the past as much as possible, the better that we might feel good about our own times – or, at least, about how we own a dishwasher. And so it proved. The Robshaws hated everything about the 1950s. The subsidised brown loaf made them ill; a cake made from dried eggs tasted almost as bad as it looked; even the tin opener was rubbish. Rochelle Robshaw struggled under the weight of the 75 hours a week of housework she was expected to put in and seemed to feel joy only when she was finally given some fish fingers (they arrived in 1955).

Now, rationing was disheartening and, in the 1950s, many women did feel life to be just one long round of chores. But is working for the minimum wage in KFC any less demoralising than using a mangle? Beth, a sweetheart who puts in 14-hour shifts at the Denton Rock branch in Manchester, didn’t seem ecstatic to be there, for all that her smile was as wide as the M60. Pilchards are indeed rank. But is a KFC Twister – don’t even ask! – really more appetising than dripping on toast? Dripping is on all good hipster menus these days. The diet of austerity Britain was close to sugar free, which isn’t something you can say of the KFC menu.

The past isn’t, as the Daily Mail likes to suggest, better than the present. Still, I’d be wary of insisting that it was worse on every measure. Better soggy cauliflower and pink blancmange than a Big Daddy burger and a Skittles Krush’Em.

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood