For the four years or so that I’ve lived in this Dutch barge moored on the Bristol River Avon near Keynsham, the Cadbury’s factory just up-river has been a troubled landmark. It sits there across the flood plain, the archetypal, monumental brick-and-glass ‘factory’ of days gone by, a beacon at night, surrounded by playing fields like a doomed industrial Eton, tended by a slowly vanishing breed of workers.
On one occasion, opening the barge’s throttle as I passed by on the river and sending clouds of exhaust fumes into the air along the factory’s towering frontage, I thought I might trigger a contamination scare. Quite what comes out of the factory’s own exhaust pipes I dread to think. With the wind in a cold easterly direction (as it is now) a faint, enticing scent of chocolate still wafts over me from time to time.
The trouble was that Cadbury’s (which had taken over the original builders, Fry’s) meant to close the factory and move production to Poland. There were union protests and demonstrations in Keynsham, one led by Ken Loach, the film director, who apparently lives nearby. Others began to busy themselves with the profitable potential for ‘redevelopment’ on the spectacular promontary the factory occupies.
The town, of which I have become very fond, is a defiantly unfashionable relic of the 1950s, complete with a gossiping High Street, small specialist shops and an almost completely white, visibly ageing but relatively prosperous working-class population. More recent additions have been a ‘Fairtrade’ Town Council, a plethora of charity shops, a small farmers’ market and a ‘Victorian Evening’ before Christmas when the High Street is closed to traffic for the only time in the year.
Then came the Kraft take-over bid for Cadbury’s, together with promises - never, of course, unequivocal - to keep the factory open. A campaign in favour of Kraft began in Keynsham. Notices opposing the closure began to disappear from windows, sometimes replaced by notices favouring the Kraft take-over. The town was split, its views even less relevant to the events overtaking it, together with the studiedly supine organs of government.
Yesterday, almost immediately after the take-over, Kraft announced what it must have known all along, that the factory would be closed anyway. The scent of chocolate became bitter.
In most other cases I’d probably be bemoaning the madness of Kraft, along with Nestlé the biggest and worst of the world’s industrial food conglomerates - a negative view apparently now shared (if for other reasons) by Warren Buffet himself, one of Kraft’s largest shareholders. I’d probably feel no fonder of Cadbury’s, another globalized corporation flogging poison, despite claims that it was better managed than Kraft.
In any event, history suggests that take-overs like this benefit no-one except the financial institutions that fund them - scarcely, under current circumstances, an advance. They’re a legacy of corporate globalization, a lethally flawed and now shipwrecked phenomenon in the ‘real’ economy that lies behind the financial crisis. It’s explored a little further in the upcoming March 2010 edition of New Internationalist magazine.
But, in this case and quite by chance, I find myself only just down-river and -wind from the front line of corporate globalization. I know, for example, that the chocolate factory eventually replaced a long local history of using the fast-flowing river for milling, including ‘logwood’ to produce red dye for the textile industry, until Brazil was finally logged out of the stuff in the 1930s. It’s a safe bet that the river was killed stone dead by one of the most polluting industries there is.
Fry’s, then Cadbury’s, may have seemed like an improvement on that at least. Perhaps, with the advent of Kraft, the absence of anything at all except smart ‘lofts’ and the like on a prime site in the middle of an otherwise beautiful and protected valley between prosperous Bristol and Bath, will stimulate a fresh upscaling of Keynsham’s population.
Perhaps. What’s quite certain, however, is that the bitter legacy of betrayal will remain in Keynsham, along with an immediate future in which the lying fantasies of corporate globalization are ever-more starkly exposed. I fondly imagine that the good citizens of Keynsham now know, to their cost, what they might eventually have to do about that. ‘Sold down the river’ is, after all, a term first employed by the slave trade.