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8 December 2021

What my vegetable box supplier could teach politicians about the value of honesty

With admirable frankness my grocer writes on everything from her neighbours to current affairs. If only the government would be so candid.

By Stephen Bush

 As anyone who has recently found themselves feeling deliriously happy to be at the kind of social event they might once have dismissed out of hand – the wedding of a distant cousin, or an evening at the cinema to watch a mediocre blockbuster – knows, there’s nothing like a bit of scarcity to make the mundane feel magical.

While there are many societal and environmental reasons to eat more sustainably, the biggest direct benefit, in my experience, comes from precisely that injection of magic into what had previously been wholly ordinary experiences.

PeskyFish, an online start-up that delivers fish direct from the boat to your kitchen (it’s remarkable how much time your average piece of supermarket fish has spent on dry land before you buy and cook it: even the “fresh fish” at a counter could have been out of the water for more than a week) is a wonderful service for any number of reasons. But chief among them is that every day what you can order is different, because every day a fisherman’s (fisherperson’s?) haul is different. I try new things, and am excited when something I love and previously could have bought whenever I wanted, such as salmon, becomes available.

The same is true for my vegetable box, which has transformed the unremarkable – for example, the presence of not one but two aubergines in that week’s delivery – into events of such great significance that I have, occasionally, felt moved to text my partner, several relatives and the odd friend to let them know about them. There are now dozens of vegetable delivery services, but I get mine from Farmaround, one of London’s oldest vegetable box companies. Among Farmaround’s many strengths is that, unlike several of its competitors, it isn’t fazed by tower blocks and entryphones. (Many companies overrule my preferences and deliver to one of the houses on the streets below, whose occupants are really beginning to dislike me.) The produce is delicious and varied.

But the best thing about Farmaround is the accompanying letter from its founder, Isobel Davies. The messages follow a rigid format: recipes to help you make your way through what is in the box, and observations on life, whether in Davies’ village or the wider world. “Find a format and stick to it” is routine marketing advice for anyone in the newsletter game, and I try to follow it in the New Statesman’s own daily email, Morning Call. What makes Davies’ letters wonderful, though, is that there is no way they would ever be cleared by a marketing department anywhere in the known universe.

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While from time to time I experience an overwhelming sense of commonality with their contents, I don’t think there can be a single Farmaround subscriber who hasn’t at some point violently disagreed with one of them. With admirable frankness Davies covers everything from the behaviour of her neighbours to global politics. Last winter she finished off a paragraph about her local walk by noting the beauty of our planet, adding for good measure, “as much as we try, we will never destroy it. It will outlive our puny race.” In the final weeks before the Brexit vote she told readers: “I love Europe but I don’t like the unelected, invisible grey mass which is in control” – a brave choice given that this is, after all, a service for Londoners. And that is why I love the letters so much: I don’t ever feel when I’m reading them that Davies worries what I might think of her, or moderates her opinions in an attempt to winkle a few extra orders out of me.

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So many organisations – from corporations to political parties – like to talk chattily to you, but they tend to do so in a voice that you might reserve for a particularly smart dog or a very stupid child. I recently stayed at a hotel that had thoughtfully labelled its goods with a message, styled as if written by the items themselves, begging me not to steal them.

I am a great believer in the idea that people tend to meet the expectations you set of them. Treat someone as though they are a child who can only be convinced not to steal the toiletries by means of an anthropomorphised towel and they will take great pleasure in pocketing the lot. Send them an unvarnished letter about your reflections on the week and they will take you and your vegetable box company into their hearts. I am convinced, too, that the reflex to baby people is one reason governments make avoidable mistakes.

The UK locked down so late partly because both ministers and experts had convinced themselves that British people would be unable to stomach restrictions for long enough. Had that reasoning been more widely shared, people might have pointed out rather loudly that they weren’t toddlers and therefore a lockdown was, at least, worth trying. It would also surely help if more people were aware that the ubiquitous use of hand sanitiser is essentially useless in the fight against Covid-19 and you really are better off opening a window. This information seems to go uncommunicated largely out of embarrassment at having got it wrong at the start of the pandemic, and a desire to look as though we are always in control of events. Again, this was the response of a controlling adult to an unruly child, not the way we ought to talk to each other.

Honesty spooks political parties, which tend to think that voters will react badly. As the UK works out how to live with variants and potential new pandemics, greater transparency and honesty wouldn’t solve everything: but they would be a start.

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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special