How Wally went fishing for bigger catch and lost it all

June 15, 2001

You can no more make a whelk stall into a fish-and-chip shop than you can make a former polytechnic into a university, a lecturer writes.

Once upon a time there was a whelk stall, a simple, honest, old-fashioned, much-loved, English, working-class whelk stall called Wally's. It was situated in the middle of a simple, honest, old-fashioned English town. It sold whelks and other old-fashioned, much-loved, working-class seafood.

For many years, Wally provided a service to the townspeople and made a good living. Workers and shoppers bought lunch from Wally's and treats to take home. Drinkers ate snacks to soak up the beer between pubs. Late-night revellers stopped for seafood to fuel them for the next party or for breakfast on their way home.

Next door to Wally's was Fred's Fish, a fish-and-chip stall, selling cod, haddock, plaice and chips to a different clientele, no more discerning, simply richer or hungrier. Many customers frequented both stalls, making their choice according to their needs, appetites and cash-flow situation.

Neither needed a menu. Everyone knew what was on offer, just as they knew what was on offer at all the other simple, honest, old-fashioned, much-loved whelk stalls and fish-and-chip stalls around the country.

But one day, long before new Labour and Cool Britannia rang the death-knell on all things socialist, working-class, honest and old-fashioned in England, the Tories, as part of their vision of a classless (or rather middle-class) society (or rather collection of individuals), decreed that whelk stalls and fish-and-chip stalls should from now on all be known as fish-and-chip stalls. And so it came to passI Wally's is now officially named Wally's Fish and Chip Stall. However, the locals still just call it Wally's. As a curiosity for tourists and sometimes on high days and holidays, it still sells some whelks and other old-fashioned, much-loved, working-class seafood, but mainly it sells cod, haddock, plaice and chips. Fred's is still next door, offering the same fare. Some customers prefer Wally's - longer queues but cheaper prices, frozen chips. Others prefer Fred's - shorter queues but higher prices, chips from real potatoes.

Wally retired, heart-broken at the philistine march of "progress", but his stall lives on. In fact, it is now a chain of stalls, part of the growing world of franchised outlets.

And therein lies the root of the problem. Wally's has changed beyond all recognition from that simple, honest, old-fashioned, much-loved, English, working-class whelk stall that did not need a menu. The Tory vision was that Wally's would transform itself into Fred's. However, Wally knew all along and discriminating customers now know that what Wally's has changed into is merely a pale imitation of Fred's and what it has lost is its unique place in the scheme of things, which is what drew customers to it. Tories and new Labour believers do not give their children money to spend at Wally's. They pay for them to go to Fred's.

Although Fred's still does not need a menu, Wally's needs somehow to make its menu, which offers the same fare as Fred's, more attractive, to draw in not just Fred's customers, but those who have never wanted to buy from fish-and-chip stalls.

Unfortunately, Wally's Fish and Chip Stall is still run by those who first bought it from Wally, thinking the change of name would take it upmarket and guarantee a healthy profit.

After a few years of declining profits, it was only when Wally's was near bankruptcy that senior managers finally realised the situation's urgency. They quickly came up with a plan, sketched out on the back of a lottery ticket, presumably in a moment of intoxication or senility.

Several of Wally's stalls, including the original one, are to be closed. The remainder will become sushi bars, offering delightful delicacies made of raw fish and seaweed. Although local customers have shown little inclination for these dishes, the senior managers believe that Japanese customers will flock to Wally's Sushi Stall, paying handsomely for the privilege.

Those members of staff made redundant from the stalls that are to close may apply for a limited number of jobs as geisha girls and guys (you can't accuse managers of discrimination). However, to be considered for these jobs they will not only have to wear the costumes provided, but look good in them, which is difficult when they are made deliberately not to fit.

The situation is grim. The senior managers have saved their jobs for the time being at the expense of many loyal employees who worked hard and long at Wally's Fish and Chip Stall, many of whom still remember fondly a simple, honest, old-fashioned, much-loved, English, working-class whelk stall called Wally's. There is little hard evidence that customers want Wally's Sushi Stall and no hard figures have been given to justify the changes. Those employees who can are finding jobs elsewhere.

Sadly, this tale merely goes to show what most of us knew already: those who can't run whelk stalls certainly shouldn't run sushi bars.

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