The family business is hell for the family

Natasha Walter's Notebook
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The Independent Culture
A couple of days ago J Sainsbury announced that it plans to open 1,000 local stores on high streets around the country. The announcement feels timely, since it could help to solve a few of those contemporary problems that currently look pretty intractable. The huge traffic jams that lead to out-of-town superstores, for instance, and their use of green field sites, and the difficulties that people without cars now have in getting hold of cheap, fresh food. Sainsbury's change of heart on where shops should be located could lead to some more humane shopping habits. But, on the way, all sorts of other things will happen.

On the corner of Archway Road and Northwood Road in north London is a typical town corner shop. In front of the shop sit the displays of fruit and vegetables, small piles of bright peaches and rows of lemons and onions. Inside, the Loseley yoghurts have sold out, as usual, but the chill cabinet still has stacks of fresh pasta and Tropicana orange juice. Most of the customers are after an Evening Standard, a KitKat or 20 Marlboro Lights, but some, at 6pm this weekday, are picking up suppers of beer and pasta and ice-cream.

This isn't, in fact, a typical corner shop; with its Covent Garden soups and its Green and Black organic chocolate, it's a lot more tempting than most. But the best thing about the shop is the family who run it. On summer evenings the grandmother sits on the step at the front looking grand, and occasionally deigns to say hello. The grandfather, who takes his time over totting up your bill, is 74 years old, but he doesn't want to stop working yet. "It's my shop. I like to do something," he says slowly. He's originally from India; he lived in Uganda for a time and then came to Britain in the Seventies, when Idi Amin started pushing Indians out of Uganda. A troubled life, but one that's ended up peacefully. "It's good to have a shop of your own," he says simply. "I like the people who come in here."

His son, Harry Patel, agrees. "We hardly ever see a new face in here. Everyone who comes in here, we know." Harry listens to what the customers say they want and tries to get it in for them. "They're all into organic food now; we have to have a go at that."

He knows that they are staring possible closure in the face. "If Sainsbury's opened up a little shop around here, it would have an effect. Their buying power is huge. We couldn't compete with that."

Harry looks with trepidation into a potential future without the shop. "It would be really sad to close," he says. "I'd find it difficult, not working for myself." But he certainly isn't romantic about the life that a corner shop involves. He knows that running a successful one is based on a way of life that is staggeringly tough on the - usually Asian - owners. This shop belongs to him and his brother Jay. Harry is 34, Jay is 44, and they bought the shop in 1986. For 13 years their days have been the same. Work starts at 6.30am when the papers arrive. It goes on until 9.30pm, and then the whole family - grandmother, grandfather, the two sons and their wives and their five children - sit down to supper together in the large flat they share above the shop. They work a 15-hour day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. Harry hasn't had a holiday since 1990. "We didn't have a choice - once you've put your money into it, you're sucked into it; you can't get out. But I am beginning to feel tired." Beginning to feel tired? After working 110-hour weeks for 450 weeks without a break? That sounds like a slight understatement.

Sometimes their children, who range in age from four to 14, wander around the shop, reading the magazines, playing, and getting under their parents' feet. But you hardly ever see them behind the counter or stacking the shelves. "I don't want my children to do this," Harry says. "I want them to be qualified in a profession. I want them to work nine to five." One of Jay's daughters, a slender girl with neat, dark hair and braces on her teeth, smiles shyly when I ask about her future. "I'd like to do medicine," she says dreamily. "Maybe be a surgeon."

No one would want this family and their children to be stuck in a corner shop for the rest of their lives, but you can see how important it's been for them. Before they bought the shop, Harry had been a student and Jay was working at Ford's, selling spare parts. "It was good to become independent," Jay says. "The shop was really run-down when we got it but we changed everything." Doing shift work at a Sainsbury's local store wouldn't have been the same, would never have given them the presence in the neighbourhood, and the independence and security, that they have achieved.

"What would we do if we had to close?" wonders Keyuri Patel, Harry's wife. She is always the sunniest presence in the shop, and she's dressed today in a vivid turquoise shalwar kameez and bright gold jewellery.

"I did want to be a teacher, but I got married before I finished my degree. All I've ever done in England is work in this shop. I don't think I could get another job. There are five in the family who work here. It would affect all of us. And then there are our suppliers. So many people would be affected. Sainsbury's shouldn't do it, should they? They should build big stores, that's fair, but they shouldn't come and open little ones and close everyone down."

Another Sunday, another protest against GM foods. Tomorrow, the protest takes the form of a picnic in Greenwich Park, organised by the Soil Association and Greenpeace, among others. Apparently the It girls Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Normandie Keith are planning to attend, with a basket of organic food - no doubt swiftly purchased from Planet Organic rather than dredged out of the muddy ground.

Last Sunday's protest against GM crops took place in rural Oxfordshire, where hundreds of people turned up at the site of one of the Government's farm-scale trials of genetically modified oil-seed rape. Dozens of them then proceeded to rip up the rape plants and roll on top of them, thereby scuppering the Government's experiment altogether.

A handful of the Oxfordshire protesters also occupied a nearby derelict farmhouse and turned some of its wasteland into an organic garden. I visited them the day before the protest. They were an impressive bunch - not an It girl among them, and a set of more serious and committed campaigners would have been hard to find. They included Philip Pritchard, a graduate in microbiology, who works on an organic farm near Oxford, and gave me a guided tour of the pretty, useful garden that they had created; and Kathryn Tulip, a former lawyer who gave up work 18 months ago in order to devote herself to protesting about GM food. She's already involved in a court case with Monsanto, after pulling up genetically modified plants last year. She finds the battles with the authorities quite tough. "I don't really like conflict. I had quite a conventional upbringing," she told me. "But I feel I have to stick with it."

One thing that struck these protesters during their occupation of the farmhouse was the positive response that they were getting from local people. "We haven't had a hard time from any of the locals," Philip told me. "We thought there might be mobs of rednecks coming up to turf us off the land, but we haven't really seen any negative reactions." "People toot their horns as they go by to show their support," said one of them. And it wasn't just the people around the farm who struck them as positive towards the cause. "The GM protests are portrayed really sympathetically in the media," said another. "Unlike the peace protests. We're not portrayed as commie, anarchist, hippie, or whatever the current hatred is."

Yes, these are the protesters that everyone loves. In the past, campaigners who squatted on other people's land or destroyed private property or clashed with the police would be routinely portrayed as thugs or lunatics in the media. It happened to the Suffragettes, to the peace protesters, to the anti-poll-tax movement, even to the road protesters. But the movement against GM foods has entered the mainstream. What marks it out is the way it has linked so many different elements of British society. The dozen campaigners whom I met in Oxfordshire are not out on the fringes of society. They have links, strong or tenuous, with millions of other British people - not just with other campaigners, but with all the ordinary consumers who buy organic food, all the councillors who put pressure on schools to serve GM free food, all the MPs who are lobbying their own Government to halt the farm trials, all the food companies, including Tesco and Unilever, who are trying to banish GM food from their products, and all the people in cities who will turn up to protests in the parks.

So far, the Government is sidelining the protesters against GM food. It seems to think that if it ignores them they will go away. But any movement that has managed to unite elements as disparate as Unilever and Friends of the Earth, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and Kathryn Tulip, is unlikely to disappear in a hurry.