Basket Case

For almost seventy years, British statisticians have used a “basket of goods” to help them calculate inflation. It’s a collection of commonplace items that a family might expect to buy: studying the price of the same items month after month allows a like-for-like comparison, but while it’s interesting to track inflation and see how it affects ordinary families, it’s also instructive to take a long view and see how the contents of the basket have changed over the years.

A recent BBC News magazine item did precisely this, as the annual process of reviewing what goes into a standard basket is a great way to understand the eating habits of the nation. In reality, the basket monitors all kinds of things such as televisions, cars and rail travel… but the BBC concentrated upon the food element. (I hope the podcast is available where you live; it’s quite good.) It makes for an interesting walk down memory lane for those of us who remember Smash (instant mashed potato), tinned peas, Ski yoghurt and Monster Munch.

Smash instant mashed potato

Fifty percent free! Fifty percent more… bland mashed potato. Great.

Nostalgia is fun, but a lot more can be learned from a study of the changes to the basket. It shows how much our lifestyles have changed in three generations, and it says a lot about how much the supply chain for foods has had to adapt as well.

A number of key themes were identified in the broadcast, including the rise (and perhaps fall) of the supermarket: the ‘one stop shop’ for everything was unknown back in 1947 when studies began, when shopping would have involved visits to the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, and the fishmonger. Then shops got big and moved out of town (accompanied by a rise in car ownership) but since working hours became longer, the notion of the “weekly shop” has been eroded, replaced by “grab and go” visits to miniature supermarket outlets found at railway stations, petrol stations and the like. Home deliveries are nothing new, but the Internet is another disruptive factor.

With somewhat less time being spent on the preparation of meals, and the move to more frequent, smaller shopping trips, the way in which our food is presented has changed as well. Instead of stocking up for long periods of time, customers are increasingly likely to be buying something to eat that evening, with consequences for the way in which food is processed, packaged, transported and displayed.

We’re less interested in dried, frozen or canned goods, and more likely to opt for equivalents that are chilled or sold at ambient temperature. Bad news if you own a canning factory; good news if your facility supplies ready-to-eat lettuce leaves. All of this is reflected in the notional “basket”, once new types qualify by achieving significant sales over a reasonable period of of time. Smash, for example, was invented in the 1960s but didn’t make it into the basket until 1974… where it remained until 1987 when it was replaced because customers had become more likely to choose frozen oven chips.

In addition to being increasingly money-rich and time-poor, Britons are becoming more adventurous in what they eat. Bell peppers were unknown to shoppers at the beginning of the study; can you imagine life without the humble capsicum now? Internationalisation has seen us embracing new vegetables, fruits and spices – some of them used in new ways, and others imported along with more-or-less authentic recipes. Another significant shift has been to move away from simply accepting the seasonality of produce, instead relying upon international trade to deliver things at times when they wouldn’t grow in the UK; cut flowers from Colombia, baby corn from Zambia and so on… something that would have been unthinkable before the jet engine slashed the price of fast airfreight.

Frozen fish fillets in box

Ah, the wonderfully non-specific “fish” (a sign that stocks are in decline…) but frozen food is out; chilled is cool.

The BBC chose to focus upon the food items in the “basket of goods” because whatever else happens in society and the economy, we still need to eat. Thus, despite the study beginning when post-war rationing was still firmly in place, a degree of continuity was achieved. Look closely, though, and almost everything has changed: the foods we consume, their sources, the methods of preparation, the retail outlet, the packaging… and at every step, the supply chain has transformed right along with it.


Enter the Jetliner

Virtually every aeroplane enthusiast knows that the first commercial jet aircraft was the de Havilland Comet. Making its first flight in July 1949 and entering service with BOAC in May 1952, the Comet was revolutionary. Before the Comet, passenger flights were undertaken in a ‘propliner’, many of them designs that had proliferated as transport aircraft in the Second World War (the DC-3, for example), or civil aircraft largely derived from bombers (such as the Avro York). That meant relatively slow, noisy and somewhat uncomfortable flights, down amid the weather.

Comet Prototype at Hatfield

Comet Prototype at Hatfield, unlikely birthplace of the Jet Age

Desiring to break the American domination of air transport (in 1939 the Douglas DC-3 was carrying 90% of all airline passengers), de Havilland undertook the challenge of producing the world’s first jet airliner. As a whole new class of aircraft, getting it into the air in just four years was an engineering feat.

Relatively few people know that a rival, larger jet airliner lifted into the air just thirteen days after the Comet’s first flight, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And it wasn’t American… but Canadian.

Avro Canada’s C102 Jetliner was a world-beater. During route proving trials it flew all over North America, breaking just about every passenger transport performance record there was – and it was the first jet to carry airmail. Several US airlines were terrifically impressed by the Jetliner, and repeatedly expressed interest in buying some. Even the United States Air Force wanted to buy a fleet of twenty…

Advertisement for the Jetliner

Advertisement for the Jetliner (Flight Global archive)

Then on June 25th 1950, the Korean War began. Avro Canada was also developing military aircraft including the CF-100 Canuck fighter and with the demands of the Cold War forcing Canada to expand its military, work on the Jetliner was shelved. Howard Hughes was desperate to acquire some Jetliners for TWA and suggested building them under license. Convair was keen to do the work, but the Canadian government insisted that the Jetliner must not be a distraction.

Howard Hughes and the Jetliner

Do those look like the trousers of a billionaire to you? Howard Hughes and the Jetliner.

Despite being almost complete, the second Jetliner prototype was scrapped – and after seven years of service (much of it flying in support of the CF-100 programme) the first and only Jetliner was declared surplus to requirements. It was donated to the National Research Council, but they didn’t have room for it so it was cut up. Its only legacy would be the word jetliner – long afterwards used to describe any jet passenger aircraft.

Avro Canada C-102 Jetliner


The Comet didn’t fare much better: not long after they entered service, metal fatigue caused several Comets to break up in mid-air: their large, square windows concentrating the stresses acting upon the skin of the aircraft as it was pressurised on ascent, and then depressurised on descent. Commercial flights of the redesigned Comet wouldn’t resume until 1958, and while the Comet 4 addressed the flaws in the original design, it had largely been denied its opportunity.

By then, Boeing had finally got in on the act and developed their 707. They came late to the party, but they cleaned up – with 1,010 built between 1958 and 1979. For comparison, de Havilland only produced 114 Comets. Being a larger aircraft, the 707 carried more paying passengers, and was therefore more attractive, economically.

Boeing 707

Boeing 707

The technical problems that did so much to harm the Comet are all too common in ambitious projects that set out to effect a revolutionary change within an industry, but the political problems that destroyed the Jetliner are far harder to anticipate. The history of the aerospace industry is littered with project cancellations that remain contentious to this day, such as the British Aircraft Corporation’s TSR-2, or Avro Canada’s CF-105 Arrow. (Yes: Avro Canada again.)

Politics. It seems that little ‘P’ in your PESTLE analysis is every bit as hard to predict as wing flutter in a high-performance aircraft.


They call us consumers, but there are an awful lot of things that you buy but don’t consume. After you’ve finished a bottle of wine or a jar of antipasti, you’re left with a container that weighs around half of the weight of the original product. Is this an efficient delivery system for our food and drink?

Glassrite was a project within the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that aimed to reduce glass wastage, and carbon emissions.

glass half full

Have a look at this…

Is the glass half full, or half empty? If you’re an engineer, the right answer is that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. In a government-funded landscape that features plenty of talking shops but precious little in the the way of action, Glassrite stands out, offering (among other things) a tool to encourage those who buy glass containers to choose lightweight ones: it’s a simple online directory of producers, where you specify capacity, style, closure type, colour, etc., and then get to choose between the various suppliers, seeing the weight of the empty bottle or jar. Lighter bottles means less embodied material and energy, and additional energy saved in transportation.

So far, so good. Very good in fact: the Glassrite project reduced the amount of glass used in bottles by 27,048 tonnes, simply through promoting the use of lightweight ones. Additional savings came through increasing the recycled glass content in UK wine bottles by 44,295 tonnes, but they didn’t stop there.

(If you’re a “wine snob” you might want to stop reading, but I thought this was interesting…)

Why send wine bottles across oceans? Why not just send the wine? Eliminate all that faffing about with fragile, heavy glass bottles that don’t fill the space in a shipping container at all well, and let the importer worry about final presentation.

Bulk importation of wine became the goal, with bottling taking place close to market. That allows the importer to do all kinds of interesting new things with branding, and it also reduces the landed cost of the new, highly commoditised wine. (Just don’t tell the customer that their favourite wine wasn’t lovingly bottled at source, but crossed the oceans sloshing around inside a huge bladder…)

containerised bulk wine

Wine, and bladder… a match made in heaven?

If your small boutique vineyard can’t deliver wine by the bladder-load, palletised alternatives are available in 275 and 330 gallon sizes (1,041 or 1,249 litres). Of course, they occupy the same amount of container space when returned empty, which is a shame. Maybe we can export cider in return, or something.

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

Palletised 275 gallon Intermediate Bulk Container

The Glassrite project increased the bulk importation of wine by the equivalent of 190 million bottles; all bottled right here in the UK. By 2012 the South Africans were crying foul: it seems the practice had cost 700 jobs among people who formerly packaged wine, and there was talk of a retaliation with the bulk import of whisky. I can’t see that working myself… but it’s interesting to see how importers can drive down the price of a commodity in the name of reduced carbon emissions – causing job losses in the process.

I say let’s take things a bit further, and instead of bulk importation in shipping containers let’s put pipelines in place. A least-distance surface journey from Australia to the UK would be around 20,000 km, but you would only need to pump the wine gently such that it flows at a leisurely 1km per hour and it would have aged by a perfect 2 years by the time it arrives. (And since France is so much closer, Beaujolais Nouveau is no problem either.)

Obviously, pipes could have sections lined with oak, in order to yield the right level of tannins, for optimum flavour. (The oak sections of the pipe would be in places where it crosses land, for ease of replacement, since the oak would need to be renewed over time: you don’t get those flavours for free, you know!) For closer nations whose wine we consume, you’d simply vary the pumping rate to achieve the desired ageing.

Of course, you’d need one pipe for each variety, which is costly, but that’s a one-off setup cost. Think of all the drums, barrels and bottles that would be saved! Another regrettable cost is that at any given time (assuming a 25mm diameter pipe) you’ve got almost ten million litres of inventory tied up for two years… but that’s not much worse than sticking it in a bonded warehouse.

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem... you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers...

Shiraz Cabernet? No problem… you could achieve blending at the point of use, like they do with post-mix bar dispensers…

One hazard of the new wine pipeline is that of theft: unscrupulous people could steal some of the commodity as it crossed their land, and there is a precedent for this. In the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, beer was brewed and then brought into the house itself through an underground pipe. (Specifications: 75mm diameter, 323m length, gravity-fed.) During landscaping work in the early 20th century it was discovered that the gardeners had added a branch to the pipe where it crossed the Rose Garden, so they could take a little for themselves.

The audacity of those gardeners is today commemorated by the craft beer Gardener’s Tap – available from the Chatsworth farm shop.

Gardener’s Tap beer

Gardener’s Tap

Now, no doubt there are other challenges and hazards associated with the wine pipeline, – and also other possibilities. (Toothpaste on tap in the home? Tomato ketchup?) At this point, sadly, we had to abandon any further speculation because the pub was about to close.

Tees Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough


When I was a kid, I remember seeing a picture of a transporter bridge in an encyclopædia. We didn’t have anything like that where I lived, and I was intrigued. What a bizarre contraption! A bridge that has only a small section of roadway that shuttles to and fro, suspended from a gantry far above. It looked so… complicated. I was used to bridges that just got built and stayed put – and generally didn’t require operators, or engines.

It’s not surprising that I’d never seen a transporter bridge, as fewer than two dozen of the things ever got built, and just six of them survive in use today; one each in France and Spain, and two each in Germany and the UK. The Spanish one was the original, completed in 1893 and now a World Heritage Site.

It was only recently that I finally got to see a transporter bridge for the first time: the Tees Transporter Bridge that looms over the large industrial town of Middlesbrough, in the North East of England. Local people view it with considerable affection, and I loved it because I’d been wanting to see one for decades… but I have to admit that it dominates the skyline rather like one of the terrifying Martian fighting machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Tees Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough

Boasting a massive 49m clearance above the water level: just how big did they build ships back then?

Tees Transporter Bridge seen from below

Up close it looks strangely delicate – no doubt because it doesn’t have to carry the weight of a full roadway.

The transporter bridge is a strange hybrid of several very different kinds of transport system. The gondola looks rather like a boat, complete with ‘wheelhouse’ and life preservers… and a schedule of regular crossings that’s more like a ferry than a bridge. Up above, the gondola is suspended from a wheeled dolly that runs on rails like a train, or more accurately like the trolley on a gantry crane. Its motive power comes from cables connected to a winding-house, which makes it seem more like a cable car, a funicular railway, or even the pithead gear at a mine. Most bridges of this kind also serve as a footbridge, although the Rendsburg High Bridge in Germany actually has a rail bridge on the top.

Transporter bridge gondola

Gondola, seen from above. Maximum capacity is nine cars.

Tees Transporter Bridge: stairs

Many factory workers chose to ascend the stairs and cross on foot, rather than pay a the halfpenny toll to cross on the gondola. (Nowadays there are no stairs at the far end of the bridge, so only tourists go topside.)

Transporter bridges actually make a kind of sense… or did, back in the 1890s and early 1900s, when rivers were still being navigated by sailing ships. A low bridge couldn’t be allowed to block the way for frequent river traffic, but a high bridge would require tremendously long approach ramps if road traffic were to ascend and descend. So what do you do? You build a bridge that only has a small obstruction at water level, that shuttles back and forth.

Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge

The massive Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge was completed in 1905; demolished 1961.

The 20th century wasn’t kind to transporter bridges: road traffic increased in importance and transporter bridges could only convey cars in batches, in a world where constant flow was becoming the norm. An unusually late transporter bridge appeared in Stalingrad, Russia, completed in 1955: while the widespread use of automobiles rendered the transporter bridge impractical in the free world, it appears to have still been worth trying under communism.

With space for nine cars on each crossing, Middlesbrough’s transporter simply didn’t have enough capacity to serve the industries that became established on far bank. A more conventional bridge can be found a little way upstream, and today that has left the Transporter as a wonderfully quirky way to reach a minor industrial estate, or to visit the village of Port Clarence. I think they make more money from bungee jumps than they do from river crossings nowadays. To make a bridge 259m long, in order to span a gap of 180m; to make a bridge that consumes energy with every crossing, and requires careful maintenance; to make a bridge that only operates part of the time; it was bizarre. It was a daft way to cross a river, but at £68,026 6s 8d (in 1907 money) I think it was an absolute bargain. It’s magnificent, even if inefficient. How dull the world would seem, if everything was optimised!

We crossed the bridge, did a three-point turn, and drove straight back for the return crossing. If that sounds like a silly way to expend £1.30 (each way) it’s no more pointless than any other piece of tourism that sees you return to your point of origin. As Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” When you’ve crossed on a transporter bridge, you’ve experienced a rare, impractical, somewhat steampunk and entirely unforgettable mode of travel.

Oakland City Hall in 5 Minutes

It might look retro to you, but there was a time when projects like these were the future… although the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 put paid to any chances of this particular scheme being approved.  (Via 99% Invisible.)

18th, 19th and 21st Century Slavery

Back in November, fellow WordPress blogger Pip Marks did a two-part series on Slavery in Australia, where the sugar industry caused tens of thousands of South Sea Islanders to be transported and then to work in appalling conditions. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had supposedly abolished the slave trade within the British Empire, and required the Royal Navy to suppress the international slave trade through inspections and fines for ship owners, but this mostly affected the triangular route known as the Atlantic slave trade. Kidnapping labourers for the sugar cane plantations of Queensland was another matter entirely. ‘Blackbirding’, as the coercive recruitment of indentured labourers was known, was a very lucrative business in the mid-19th century, aided by corrupt government officials.

The city of Hull, not far from where I live, was the birthplace of William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a prominent anti-slavery campaigner. We’re proud of our most famous son, and we celebrate his work: visit Wilberforce House, or come for the annual Freedom Festival.

While he certainly had a lot of advantages in life (you needed them if you were to become a Member of Parliament, back in the 18th century) Wilberforce was a man of strong moral convictions. Eschewing party politics, he remained an independent throughout his career and voted his conscience: something that burdened few of his counterparts, it seems. His efforts to end the slave trade were defeated time and again; too many members of parliament profited indirectly from industries that depended upon slave labour.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (Hull City Museums and Art Galleries)

Teamed up with the lawyer and fellow abolitionist James Stephen, a change of tactics led to a bill aimed an banning British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies; this fitted well with the political climate of the time, and the act was passed on March 25th 1807 – by which time Wilberforce had been campaigning for twenty years. It did not actually outlaw the ownership of slaves, and full emancipation had to wait until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. (Aged 73, Wilberforce died three days after that bill’s final reading.)

It would be another decade before slavery was abolished within the territory of the East India Company, though, and as we have learned something very similar to slavery continued in parts of Australia for decades. This seems to be the trouble with slavery: stamp it out in one place and it springs up elsewhere, a hydra-headed monster. In fact, with the number of people living in slavery or slave-like conditions today commonly estimated to be somewhere between twenty and thirty million, there are more people suffering these miserable conditions today than there were in the days of William Wilberforce.

The modern face of slavery is a little bit more subtle than that of the 18th and 19th centuries, although still liable to provoke disgust. In October 2014 a man was jailed for four and a half years, having pleaded guilty part-way through a trial in which he stood accused of keeping a vulnerable man performing unpaid hard labour on his farm for thirteen years: not in some far-flung land, but in Newport, South Wales. There was also a case in Bedfordshire, England back in 2011, involving twenty-four victims, some of whom had been held for as long as fifteen years.

Pip Marks’ second post includes ten questions from Anti-Slavery Australia that are meant to identify a victim of slavery or forced labour, such as “Do you have a debt or contract?” and “Has your identification or documentation been taken from you?” These ten simple questions are all that is needed to expose modern-day slavery. You don’t have to be a sex worker or the victim of a religious cult to end up in forced labour; in fact, the conditions of low-status crew on some cruise ships should arouse similar concerns. (More about that at some point in the future.)

Now, the supply chain: modern manufactured goods are made from an awfully large variety of materials, from all over the world. How can we be sure that the products we buy and sell aren’t at some level dependent upon forced labour? The short answer is that it’s very difficult, although efforts are underway to tackle the problem. The Walk Free Foundation, in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, is encouraging businesses to commit to “slavery-proof supply chains”, by providing information and a range of tools for risk assessment and remediation.

Modern Incidence of Slavery

Modern Incidence of Slavery (Walk Free Foundation, 2013)

As customers, we need to take an interest in this as well. How many slaves prop up your standard of living? Long-time readers might recall the ‘ecological footprint’ test that I recommended, indicating one’s share of the Earth’s resources. There’s something similar to assess your ‘slavery footprint’ here. Apparently, thirty-seven slaves were involved in the supply of my food, electronic gadgets and clothing.

As Wilberforce himself said:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”

The naming and shaming of specific brands isn’t yet possible, but that’s the goal of the Made in a Free World movement, and they’re making headway. They’re getting a lot of attention on the Internet, and they’re refining their models, looking specifically at the supply chains on which we all depend. Sometime soon, all our models of sustainability are going to look outdated if they fail to address the issue of forced labour.

The potential for scandal greatly exceeds that previously seen in relation to child labour, and news of it could spread around the planet at the speed of light. Has your company done everything it can to ensure that its suppliers are acting ethically?

We shall see.