Written by Ron Noon at 16:58 on Thursday, November 09th 2017
Bitter sweet Social Science Foundations (This is technically a Golden Oldie as it was written in August 2001!)
Towards the end of last century a social science foundation course, launched a Liverpool Polytechnic history lecturer into what was then a wonderfully dynamic Open University world tutoring on D103. It also put in place foundations for his twilight academic career as sugar historian and inveterate sugar buster. The October 2001 History Today essay, Goodbye Mr Cube will help realise some of that first claim, with a centre fold essay on “History’s most famous sugar lump”! Who are these odd guys? Well the bitter sweet talkin’ OU historian is this wannabe writer, but more importantly Mr Cube is the iconic cartoon character, “born in July 1949 in a climate of grey austerity, rationing and contentious nationalisation proposals” but who undoubtedly captured a big chunk of the public’s imagination declaiming Clem Atlee’s landslide Labour Government’s plans to nationalise sugar refining.
Despite ritual company representations of free enterprise and free competition the reality since 1921 was that refining in the UK was totally dominated by an Imperial sugar giant, Tate & Lyle. A war torn Britain that had fought the People’s war for a New Jerusalem could now be deprived of the much anticipated sweet things in life unless they supported Mr Cube’s mantra conspicuously displayed on sugar packets, “Tate not State”! This amazing icon of free enterprise and “Conservative freedom” appeared every day on the nation’s breakfast tables with teas and cereals and unsurprisingly Mr Cube became a big hit with housewives who had so stoically made many sacrifices for their families and loved ones. He became the industry’s champion and the company’s official logo.
Sadly today not only has D103 been replaced by DD100, but Tate & Lyle’s web page warns that the swashbuckling champion of private enterprise sugar, “looks forward to retirement from public engagements”. “Goodbye, Mr Cube” in History Today may well be the final lament to the cartoon figure once revered as Britain’s very own version of Asterix the Gaul!
Although seventeen months older than sweet fightin’ Mr Cube, my sugar bustin’ career began forty two years after he wreaked political embarrassment and electoral setback to the Labour Government in the February 1950 General Election. The 1945 landslide majority of 186 was cubed to six but the psephological consequences of Mr Cube and the sci-fi notion of an Open University were back in the distant future. Mr Cube was only seven months young at the time of his incredible success but my epiphany moment would be a long time in maturation, decidedly post cot, OU sponsored, and inspired by one of its international luminaries, Professor Doreen Massey. Initially it had little to do with the multinational sugar and sweetener group that now operates in five continents and over fifty countries.
Doreen’s coruscating World of Food Production exhorts the reader to go beyond common sense, and convinced many more than me that “behind simple taken for granted everyday commodities like sugar” there was “invariably a more complicated social story”. Contractually obliged to be at least ten cerebral minutes ahead of my class it was incumbent on me to dig deep, to unravel sugar’s nefarious history and introduce Billy (the Fireman) Baker’s group to this far from “natural” social story. The trade in human cargo from Africa to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, and the development of huge refineries and temples of applied science in Liverpool and London was also a reminder of my own city’s nefarious history as Slave City first.
The mother plant in Henry Tate’s sugar dynasty, the comically misnamed Liverpool Love Lane refinery once a “ladies and maidens’ walk”, closed in 1981 signifying according to Block I “the end of a link – Jamaica-Liverpool – which was established right at the beginning of our story of food production”. The demise of that prominent Liverpool landmark left a hole in the community, a site of physical and emotional devastation that was seared into the national consciousness the following year in the closing scenes from Alan Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff”.
Bulldozers smashed the guts out of the historic refinery that had been Henry Tate’s mother plant, as Chrissy, Logo and ‘gis a job’ Yosser walked disconsolately along its walls away from the manic pub redundancy party in the Green man public house! So when asked by ex Love Lane employees a few years after my first foray into OU teaching, to help them record their ten year struggle to keep the plant open, there was never any turning back. The story of the boys and girls from the Whitestuff demanded a more sugar centric approach to life and the social sciences than that contained in the blue books of D103 but it also opened up a “life changing” dimension with wonderful new friends who had worked down the Lane. Albert E Sloane and John Maclean who had been two of the leading activists in the campaigns were excellent mentors and they became magnificent friends.
From my first Summer School at Stirling in August 1992 right through to my last single transferable rant as module coordinator at Bath University in the Summer of ‘99 I bitter sweet talked my students. Even the stockbroker from Grantham in ’99 acknowledged that it was not just the perennial wars between the two commercial sources of supply, sugar cane and sugar beet, first world and third world growers, that was relevant, but the actual irrelevance nutritionally of a commodity which mankind had lived without for millennia. “Strange that an article so sweet and necessary for human existence should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed.”
That lucid indictment by Eric Williams, Oxford Don and former Prime Minister of Trinidad contains only one debatable word about the commodity indelibly tainted by the blood of African slaves. “Necessary”? No. Indeed throughout its six centuries of global expansion the driver has been wealth not health and sugar is today very much part of the “natural architecture” of fast foods and processed profits. Montignac, the French food writer argues that every packet of the granulated scourge should carry a skull and crossbones, but like the tobacco industry thirty years ago powerful vested interests have a great deal to lose from public awareness. That is the real politics of arguably the most political of commodities. Mr Cube is history and hopefully soon recorded history so if there’s something strange in your neighbourhood food, “who ya gonna call” now? OU sugar busters? Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!
Ron Noon August 31.2001