Luke Johnson: Why are the British obsessed by food?

The Brits love food like never before, whether its cookery books or TV shows. But is it all a fad?

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 17 May 2016

It is fascinating to observe the rise and fall of mass-market pastimes. When I was growing up, Top of the Pops could command weekly audiences of 20 million.

We were a generation obsessed by pop music, everyone had seen the latest blockbuster movie, and Hollywood grew ever fatter from the profits of VHS tapes and DVDs. The brightest graduates all wanted to work in the media.

Stand-up comedians and TV sitcoms were hugely popular. But where are they now?

Music and comedy are much shrunken industries, television feels stagnant and the film business faces existential threats.

Our energies and spending are elsewhere. Restaurants and eating out have become the new rock'n'roll. We are a culture obsessed with cooking, food and drink. All ages, from teenagers to the grey market, have discovered the joys of lunch, cocktails, dinner and even breakfast out.

As a nation, Britain came to gastronomy fairly late, but we have made up for it in the past couple of decades. London has seen more new bars and dining rooms open in the past 12 months than ever before in its history. Hundreds of millions are being invested in this city alone in launching new establishments, while billions are spent every year by eager patrons on countless meals - grand and casual, social and solitary.

Cookery books dominate the non-fiction bestseller lists; food shows dominate the ratings for factual television broadcasts.

I cannot explain this phenomenon, but I am both delighted and terrified by it. Happy because I have spent almost 30 years in the hospitality trade, but worried that it may all be something of a fad, that if fashions change, all the current enthusiasm will inevitably fade.

In the meantime, a witty new manual has just been published for the growing hordes of restaurant-goers: The A-Z of Eating Out by novelist and critic Joseph Connolly. From foraging to brunch, from fine dining to pop-ups, all the latest topics are dissected. I recommend it to anyone who loves to dine out.

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I was recently appointed as a member of an independent report into the English libraries service, commissioned by the Government. The nine-strong panel is led by publisher William Sieghart. Our mission is to explore how public libraries should adapt for 21st-century citizens.

It should be educational. I've always loved books and when I was growing up spent hours every week in Uxbridge library, sometimes cycling miles after school to borrow books.

My passion cost me greatly later on when I bought the ailing bookshop chain Borders: I know firsthand how reading habits are shifting rapidly. In the age of Amazon, e-books and online education, the traditional library model is no longer as relevant or productive as it was in the 1970s. Libraries should be centres for literature and reading and perhaps career advice, childcare, computer coding - who knows what community services libraries could provide?

The thousands of librarians and 3,180 libraries across England are a great national resource, but they are managed by more than 152 separate local authorities and their usage is in decline. Like all branches of the information and media industry, they are threatened by the digital revolution.

If they do not reform and evolve, they may wither. Later this year, when we publish our findings, I sincerely hope we can come up with some constructive solutions to their challenges, which will make libraries even more useful and busier hubs than ever.

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It appears to me that we overestimate how corrupt Britain is and that this perception does us harm. These false beliefs damage our standing in the world, help to undermine our confidence in vital institutions and reduce trust.

According to a widely reported EU survey, almost two-thirds of Britons thought corruption was widespread. They should try doing business in almost everywhere else in the world. (Look at Sochi for how Russia does corruption: most ordinary Russians just accept it as part of the unseen costs of public works.) Whether it is public servants, our judiciary, politicians or our institutions in general, I believe we are remarkably honest as a nation.

I suspect that one reason we think we're so crooked is that we have a vocal, competitive and free media, and their noisy investigative journalism distorts impressions. I have done business for decades across sectors such as construction, healthcare and financial services, including serving as a director of a bank. Our levels of bribery, fraud, organised crime, nepotism and other forms of graft are very low.

But we have zealous reporters, regulators, officials and police who expose and tackle these offences far more vigorously than in virtually any other nation. It is good that in Britain rogues and the powerful are held to account. Yet perhaps because of the parliamentary expenses and phone-hacking scandals we have come to believe we are a corrupt place.

Transparency International ranks us only the 14th most trustworthy country out of 177, based on 'expert opinion'. It doesn't spell out very transparently who its 'experts' are. Inevitably, its UK arm argues that there are 'significant problems' here.

What is amazing is that a majority of this organisation's costs are paid by us, the taxpayer. Yet it seems to spend much of its time promoting the idea that Britain is corrupt.

The government should invest that money in selling Britain abroad not helping to perpetuate myths about how bent we all are.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners.

Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP.

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