In Portugal: Requiem for O Manel

Manuel Simões is being forced to close his 70-year-old family business, a restaurant on the outskirts of Lisbon. Since VAT rose for businesses like his, 75,000 jobs has disappeared from the industry.

Manuel Simões, 64, stands behind the steel and glass counter of his restaurant, O Manel, looking tired under the dim lights. “Everything has a beginning and an end,” he says, trying to hide how emotional he can get when talking about closing his 70-year-old business.

Simões has been serving meals and pouring drinks since the early 1970s, when he inherited this business from his father, who established it in the 1940s. Running the restaurant has never made Simões rich but it provided him with enough to keep the business profitable while employing four members of staff.

Located in Vale da Amoreira, a troubled, working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, O Manel is a place where you can enjoy the rare sight of an amiable conversation between African immigrants, gypsies and Portuguese. 
 
“Even those kids who are involved in all sorts of things – you know, drugs and what not – when they come here they never cause any trouble,” says Fatima Simões, Manuel’s wife and the restaurant’s cook. 
 
O Manel was founded back when Vale da Amoreira’s landscape was all pine trees and wild nature, not sevenstorey grey buildings enveloped in an aura of crime and poverty. Seven decades later, the restaurant is the only institution left that has seen it all.
 
But this month marks the end of O Manel. Although Portugal’s financial crisis is partly responsible, Simões was driven over the edge by the VAT rise from 13 to 23 per cent for restaurants and cafés – an austerity measure implemented in 2012 as part of Portugal’s bailout programme. This has slashed most businesses’ profit margins, at a time when eating out has become more of a luxury than a habit.
 
According to the association of Portuguese restaurants and hotels, since VAT for restaurants has risen, 75,000 jobs have disappeared in an industry that employs 300,000 people, 6 per cent of Portugal’s workforce. The association predicts that by the end of 2013 the number of jobless food-service workers will rise to 120,000. 
 
Simões reacted to the VAT hike in the way he thought most fair to his blue-collar, crisis-affected clientele: instead of raising his prices, he reduced them in order to keep the customers coming. 
 
His hope was proved wrong – or rather, insignificant, as Portugal’s economic crisis spread like wildfire, bringing the country to a record overall unemployment rate of 17.8 per cent. Although the customers stuck with O Manel, spending €6 (£5.20) for a meal gave way to paying just €1 (90p) for a beer. 
 
“When we shut the restaurant down, people won’t know what to do,” Simões told me when I met him. “We’ve always been here. We’ve seen so many people grow up. It’ll be like losing family.”

 

A "Pastel de nata" - Lisbon's most popular pastry. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.