Murray Chalmers has been out and about in his native city, Dundee, and is calling on the council to do more to help small businesses succeed.
A drive down Dundee’s Hilltown in search of the effortlessly cool trainer shop Dundee Sole might have precipitated a healthy dose of Adidas envy, but the last thing I expected to be thinking about at that moment was food shopping and Dundee restaurants.
It was 11am and I’d left the spiritual physicality of training at Kanzen Karate on Mains Loan to discover a more retail orientated Nirvana on a street where I once ran scared of gangs like the Hulltoon Huns and their female division, the She Huns. She Huns!
Today, more than four decades later, I can still remember the visceral fear brought on by those two simple words, this from a time when you’d be beaten up for being the wrong religion (clue; whatever your religion, it was always wrong) or simply for wearing the wrong colour banded jersey on someone else’s turf.
In 1976, punked-up, Perth accented and more pretty than vacant, I’d often stagger home through the dark streets of Dundee, clinging like a limpet to my friend Leslie who would call out to gang members as we passed, all the while whispering in my ear that only her patronage of me was saving me from becoming toast – and probably mince too – by breakfast time.
Years later my sister and her friend, Karen, counted themselves lucky to escape the She Huns when a group of angry Shes threw a bucket of freezing water over them from a top floor window, screaming at my sister to ‘get aff oor Hulltoon’. Her crime? Venturing through enemy lines to get to her own promised land of Coldside, 10 minutes up the road.
Elaine and her friend were 11 and ran for their lives before the lawless lady Huns could make it down three flights of stairs to roust them past the demarcation line of the Three Barrels pub.
Those were heady days which separated the men from the boys – and often it was the Dundee women who were the toughest of all. As for me, slender, androgynous, arty and fashionably aloof, I needed all the help I could get from any tough girls I could muster.
Back then only a claggy, rapidly chilling bag of chips or a freshly baked roll from Roughies (Rough and Fraser), the 24-hour bakery, would mark the progress of those drunken, fearful early morning uphill lurches home – and sometimes I think there should be a blue plaque by the Hilltown clock to recognise the fact that not a single hair on my perfectly back-combed head was ever ruffled on reaching that timepiece.
Today, of course, the Hilltown clock doesn’t so much signify pugilism as pizza perfection, serving as an urban lighthouse for the delights of Luigi’s Pizzeria a little further up the street. Progress indeed.
The Hilltown has always fascinated me, not least because it’s always had a good selection of the kind of shops I like – quiet jewels set in an area which, from its beginnings as Rotten Row, has exemplified many of the complexities and struggles of urban life.
It’s a neighbourhood that shows as much as any that Dundee has a long way to go in terms of eradicating poverty and inequality, no matter how many new artisan coffee bars grind their way relentlessly into the centre of town – mere minutes down the hill but a world away from this vertiginous slice of classic Dundee.
Now that teenage fears of the She Huns have largely abated recent visits to the Hilltown have seen me worship in the stratospherically beautiful St Salvador’s church (designed by G.F Bodley, and one of the most significant examples of Gothic revival in the whole of Scotland) and then stop off to buy huge bunches of herbs, delicious Alphonso mangoes and fresh curry leaves at the brilliant Continental Food Store, easily my favourite of the shops in that part of town.
There’s something I love about having to really seek out a shop, which is why I’m often blissfully happy wandering around uncharted neighbourhoods of cities, looking for a place that someone recommended on an obscure blog three years ago.
New York is great for this because it’s so condensed and the city changes so fast, with buildings rising and falling quicker than Douglas Ross’s anger levels – although thankfully with more stability at their core.
London is great too because it’s a city of well-defined neighbourhoods where so many cultures mix. Edinburgh, which I am currently rediscovering with the same fervent joy you get when you re-read Graham Greene or find an old box of Cluedo, is similarly well endowed.
Dundee is smaller and perhaps less easy to define, blessed with so much to love and yet, like many other cities of similar size, somewhat blighted by the complexities and inequalities of modern life.
Whilst feeling brand loyalty to Dundee and firmly believing in championing the underdog I do think it’s very important to remember that Dundee is a long, long way from getting everything right and in fact continues to make some very serious errors in its planning.
There’s a school of thought here that advocates repeating ad infinitum that Dundee is a paradise of a city until the repetition grinds down any voices of dissent. I get that, after years of derision, it’s important to stand tall on the world stage. But to me, this blind adherence to a sunny Dundee script is just as unreal as those moaners who seem to revel in perpetual doom.
Neither nihilism nor blind optimism will make life better for those who can’t afford the bus fare into town to see a criminally neglected shopping centre transformed into a design exhibition for a few weeks before being forgotten again.
Abysmal town planning
It certainly won’t help small businesses struggling to survive post-Covid.
Systemic poverty, abysmal town planning, a growing number of empty retail units, draconian and expensive parking and lack of incentives for small businesses are all factors that mean Dundee has to have a radical rethink if retail and hospitality are to survive and prosper in times which have already hastened the death of the high street.
Businesses need our help but please excuse me if I’m not rushing to give my money to McDonald’s, Tesco or Nandos right now; it’s the small traders, the mavericks, the trailblazers who I want to support.
Dundee council needs to step up to the mark -the fact that parking fees and restrictions returned on May 10 is just ridiculous. At a crucial time for retail and hospitality parking should be free but parking in Dundee, including on some very minor streets, is more expensive and less user-friendly than in Scotland’s capital city!
Dundee has so many great shops and we need to nurture them, support them and encourage Dundee City Council to think creatively and do the same. Spex Pistols, J A Braithwaite, the Parlour Café, the Cheesery, Pacamara, The Health Store, Forte’s Café, Fraser’s Fruit and Veg, Cartocon, lefreak, Birchwood, Manifesto, Matthews Foods and the Kathryn Rattray Gallery are all examples of businesses run by people who had a great idea and saw it through with stoicism and resolute belief.
These people had the vision and the courage to try something new and they should be encouraged because, for me, it is their true independent spirit that keeps retail alive and interesting.
Dundee Sole, housed in a refreshingly uncompromising space at the bottom of the Hilltown, is the same and its international reach is proof of the adage that if you build it they will come. Just ask the Wu-Tang Clan, whose legendary rapper Raekwon contacted the shop to buy some rare trainers.
Walking around Dundee city centre after seeing such a great example of entrepreneurial spirit, it was hard not to feel sad about all the buildings which would not open even when restrictions lift further.
Now is the time we must all support new ideas and new business because now is a crucial time for Dundee hospitality. Visitors will start coming back to the city and they will want to eat and shop.
In truth, every time I see a new coffee shop open I feel divided emotions because on the one hand it’s a new business opening in the city – but also, do we really need another coffee shop? Do we really need another fast-food restaurant when there are so few places selling fresh, nutritious, affordable food in the centre of town?
I felt similarly when I read about a recent new restaurant opening; firstly, there’s the relief that an empty space is being used, but then I read an interview with the owners who said that they struggled to define the type of food they will be serving, and my heart sank.
Why would you struggle to talk about your food and identify its unique selling point, if indeed there is one? And if there isn’t then why isn’t there? When I read about a new restaurant I want to know that they have as much knowledge of the sumac and Za’atar spices in their kitchen as they do of their balance sheets.
King of this in Dundee is Phil Donaldson who is in the vanguard of bringing eclectic and finely-tuned food and drink offerings to the city. Each of his restaurants and bars has a very strong ethos where the design and menus meld to make a brilliant experience for the customer.
The King of Islington, Draffens and The Blue Room are not just examples of a highly focused vision at work but show that it can be done here in Dundee where a tiny bar like The King of Islington can easily compete on the world stage.
I eagerly await going to Phil’s new place Franks which, according to their Instagram feed, will offer “handmade fresh pasta and beautiful wines from across the globe alongside carefully curated cocktails and craft beers in a stunning surrounding”.