Not everyone gets a bargain, Linda Burgess

I See Red: The Shocking Story of a Battle against the Warehouse
Judith Bell aka Stephen Tindall – the woman
Awa Press, $29.99,
ISBN 0958250979

I do think it’s a mistake to put the word “shocking” on any book. I’ll decide, thank you very much, if I’m shocked. And what shocks is so personal – what has my neighbour frothing at the mouth could well leave me completely unsurprised, and not at all bothered. Certainly the opening pages of I See Red didn’t shock me at all.

The author was brought up in New Zealand at a time when her mother, like everybody else’s, had shelves groaning with jars of preserved fruit and tins filled with baking. Thankfully, we were spared hearing such outrageous revelations as to whether the tins contained Anzac biscuits, Chinese chews or fudge cake. In her house, kids said, “May I leave the table?”, then helped with the dishes. Now that would be shocking, if she were writing about 2007.

Just in case we don’t feel the tension rising, the book has such helpful little sentences as “Little did I know, I was leaving my Waikato roots far behind.” Hey, come on – isn’t that life? Aren’t we always leaving something behind? And, tantalisingly, when the author has the potential for a good revelation, she tactfully misses out on opportunities. She mentions Mark Todd lived just down the road – now there’s a sentence that begs a “little did I know” introductory phrase.

This, however, is avoiding the point. The point is that Judith Bell, aka Stephen Tindall, has written a Little Kiwi Battler story – small business takes on nasty big business, specifically The Warehouse. I can’t help but admire Bell for her honest account of her and her husband’s early years in business.

To those of us lacking the entrepreneurial gene, it could be read as a primer entitled Why Not To Go Into Business. Bell’s husband Nelson is a handy chap, the maker of very fine woks, the sort that sit flat on the element rather than wobbling about, and that retain their shape when you squeeze them. I know they’re fine because I used to have one. Inspired by the success of these woks, he was eager to supply what was then clearly a niche market by making LPG cylinders. Remember LPG? It’s back there in the same mist that now envelops carless days. The government of the time was dead keen that we all convert our petrol guzzlers to liquid petroleum gas. It didn’t occur to them that most of us prefer to use our boots for bags of groceries rather than gas cylinders.

At the time Bell and her husband were getting into the making of these cylinders, New Zealand – indeed, the whole Western world – was going pear-shaped and free-market mad. Labour had just got in – but it was not dear old Labour, it was the one that had Roger Douglas simmering in its ranks. And they scrapped the scheme to subsidise cars being converted to LPG.

Bell’s story of their business is a terrible tale of bureaucracy gone mad. They were endlessly mucked around by OSH’s dangerous goods division, preventing them from getting their cylinders on shelves and into car boots. Though this was bad for their business, given the explosive contents of their cylinders, I’m happy for OSH to be a little stringent in their regulations.

Back at the factory, it’s hard to decide whether the Bells were acting naively or just a tad duplicitously themselves – they agreed to a tariff concession on imported cylinders being lifted, assuming that they would have already cornered the market. Which they would have, if the bureaucrats had got a bloody move on. The price of steel was doubling and Rogernomics was letting the market run free. No longer could New Zealand manufacturers rely on hefty tariffs keeping offshore competitors out. Meanwhile, the bank dishonours a cheque when it says it won’t, the landlord locks the door, and the steel hits the fan.

Still not all that shocking. Just business, isn’t it? Win a few, lose a few? Take risks? Become millionaires or become bankrupt? Learn to accept that there’ll always be regulations? Never count on things staying the same?

Enter knight on white charger: Stephen Tindall of The Warehouse, offering to do them a very decent deal on their cylinders. Aaah, The Warehouse, the place that, entered by many of us, has a strange physical effect: just being in it causes the flesh to creep, the nausea to rise unbidden in the gullet. Could be that those of us who feel like this about the place are rotten little snobs who are only comfortable in Kirks, or that we know this place is filled with many unnecessary yet strangely seductive goods that will break when we get them home?

I do believe The Warehouse is cynical in its advertising when it waits till you’re inside its walls before it says, “The best present you can give your child this Christmas is your time.” When it entered the New Zealand market in the late 80s, it became an overnight bright red icon. No one reading this could deny knowing that’s where – it’s claimed – “everyone gets a bargain”. And Tindall’s promise that he was aiming to have more than 50 per cent New Zealand goods in his stores was made rather noisily. And, according to Bell, dishonestly.

The Bells’ battle with Tindall (and it makes uncomfortable reading) is told in full detail in this book, which is really a summary of How The Worm Got Nearly Crushed Then Turned (and changed its name to Tindall – which was done as a stunt to draw attention to their battle). Clearly they got bad treatment from him, and clearly some of this they were too naive to see coming. Also, the reader suspects that Tindall rather wished he hadn’t taken them on to start with. It was only when his methods didn’t work for them that they got mad.

Then this book moves from being an outline of a small business being treated badly to a full-out exposé of the gruelling lives of Chinese workers. The link to their trouble is certainly there – and it’s clear many other New Zealand industries are at real risk because of the low wages paid offshore. What with the demise of the small local shop (also in part due to globalisation) times are very hard for small business.

However … the book reads a bit like someone insisting that if a bus knocks you off your bike, every single bus driver should lose their licence so you can get your personal revenge. It’s pretty clear that the last two decades have seen the demise of the small specialist shop all over the world. It’s a great shame, but it’s the way the world has gone. The facts about China are absolutely terrible, but I finished the book still not shocked. Sad and tired, but not shocked. Tragically, we’ve been treating the world’s workers like this since time began. What would be – pleasantly – shocking would be if we all decided to put a stop to it. Can you imagine that happening? Wish I could.


Linda Burgess is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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