(Part 1 of 2)
April 2020. Even my prepper’s larder was running low, and the fridge was emptying fast, with 5 of us in the house, 3 of them under 25. One of the kids offered to do a shopping run, but I vetoed it, on the grounds that we did not know, in those early days, precisely how transmission was happening. As an over-60, I didn’t want to risk anything. My saintly next door neighbour and I texted every night, as I gratefully added items to her Milk & More order. That would be after my evening ritual of wasting 30 mins trying to get a delivery slot for a supermarket – any bloody supermarket at this point. Things were getting nasty. Anyone opening the fridge door would find me right behind them, reminding them that, “Those are the only olives we have”, or “I was planning on using that mozzarella on a home-made pizza tomorrow”. I wasn’t exactly hiding the chickpeas, but I did count the tins every morning. The only thing we had sorted was beer, thanks to the micropub’s decision to do home drops on a Friday.
Then I found a FB page – named with urgency and precision: “Support Worthing’s Independents – So We Still Have Them!” That was a hell of a hook.
I read into the group info and found that many small businesses were struggling and that this page was trying to support them and encourage us to use their services. Lots of the businesses had begun to offer home delivery; some were posting set hours of opening for folks to come and stand at the door and buy. Everyone looked like they were working super-hard. It was from this page that I discovered that Souk (Teba International Foods at the time) was offering home delivery. Overnight, I was able to stroll insouciantly past the fridge while one household member stuck their hand into the olive jar, laughingly toss two mozzarellas and a gush of olive oil into a caprese salad – and gather round the garden fire when the boys grilled chicken. Our meals began to carry nostalgia for my days working in UAE: muttabal, hummus, shish tawook. Everyone was guzzling mango juice. I posted a pic on the 2020 blog update of one of our Souk-supplied garden meals.
Lately, that local information page has had a makeover and a name-change – to ‘Independent Worthing‘ – and is flourishing. Nearly 5000 of us now check in regularly on FB to find out what’s on offer. Just in the past week, I’ve learned about a bubble-tea cafe, splatnchat arts activity, a new menu at DDs Jerk n Ting, and a Bees and Seas family event – all in our lovely Worthing. A snazzy new logo is appearing around town in the shop windows. There’s an Instagram account, a homepage (under reconstruction right now) and a handy online directory.
I wanted to meet the people who have turned a lockdown emergency support network into a thriving directory of everything independent in this town. Must be a huge job – we’ve got new stuff opening up every week, it seems. (A fun game to play is – how many street markets will there be this month in Worthing? The answers would astonish you).
I got a chance this month for a sit-down with the page’s founders, Sophie Morgan-Gilder and Graeme Roche, to ask about their story. This couple blend Old Worthing and New: Sophie was raised here, by a mum from Hove and a dad from Lancing. (Her parents raised 4 kids in the area and lived for a while on the Shoreham houseboats); while Graeme is one of our incomers, a Hammersmith-born guy who works in London city and shifted to Worthing for love, after meeting Sohpie in 2012.
They laugh as they tell me about Graeme’s early days in Worthing.
I’d be like, ‘we’ve run out of something’ (at 2am) – ‘I’ll just pop out to the 24 hour shop and pick it up’.
Sophie giggles. Yeah, and do you remember the security thing? You used to triple lock everything! Graeme, grinning – Oh, yeah, I did that!
Sophie – Mmmm, we used to call you ‘city mouse’, remember?
We mull over the latest installment of the Saga of Teville Gate. While Graeme says he doesn’t mind stuff like the wheel – It gives people a reason to come and visit – not all mega-development feels good. All three of us note that we know some people are calling for a Primark – but not us. There’s one in Brighton, if you’re on a super-tight budget and feel like you really can’t manage without Primarni and if ethical and sustainability concerns also don’t bother you.
Sophie points out that another of the things mooted for Teville Gate was a multiplex. That would impact the Dome and the Connaught, we want to see them thrive. Again, if you want the multiplex experience, you can go to Chichester or Brighton. Sohpie’s point is that, What makes us special here is the independents. We need to support and cherish them. She’s worried, as a lifelong resident who is passionate about her town, about a likely wasted opportunity with the Teville Gate development plan. I don’t necessarily have huge faith in what will happen. Commentary about this tormented plot of land over on the Nextdoor neighbourhood site is far less diplomatic; here’s a thread about it, where it seems everyone – left-leaning and right-leaning alike – is feeling anguished.
We turn, thankfully, to a more positive discussion: the birth of Independent Worthing. Sophie begins the story.
We began it in March 2020, during 1st lockdown.
Graeme nips right in- You began it, Sophie, really, you did it.
She smiles, remembering. Yeah, I didn’t think it out much, it was a reaction to seeing friends terrified about their business, and the possibility of crumbling. We’ve got lots of friends who are important to us, and who were in independent business. It was a scary time, nobody knew what was going on, and there was no information, no guidance, no support. Friends with small businesses were, like – what do I do? Shut? Stay open? Nobody knew what to do. Living here, it’s like, you have that experience of having places around you which are businesses, but which are also community, businesses that make and sustain community.
Graeme offers an example: We married at the Dome (independent cinema) and held the reception at Coast Cafe.
Sophie continues to tell the story of Worthing Independent.
It was a reactive gesture, I had no agenda. I just wanted to offer moral support to those friends and that small community. And it just took off. We were as surprised as anybody. We got so much lovely feedback – from the businesses, from users. And we began to see stories unfold. Like, one pregnant lady posted there that she wanted to find somewhere to swim, and people posted responses and help. Businesses would also interact with each other about stuff like card machine problems. Then there were all the posts like – ‘my brother is isolating, how can I get stuff delivered to him’ – some of them from people not in Worthing, but trying to help their relatives. There’s endless examples, really, of what it did.
We pause for a moment, all 3 of us silently reflecting and remembering that terrifying time, when it really did suddenly feel like a crisis, with no information, and an infrastructure and governance that wasn’t equipped or ready to handle the situation. Remember the toilet roll shortage? And the reports of arguments at early morning supermarket sessions for the elderly and vulnerable about who was entitled to go in? (Not to forget the way that firstly, all key workers, and then other segments, were forgotten in hastily-assembled policies about priorities for tests, food, masks. We lived a moment when pensioners, with all the time in the world, could access supermarkets, while NHS and care home workers were running ragged in their off-moments to brave long queues and empty shelves. Remember all that? We mustn’t forget it, so that next time, we can push for better planning and more care for our carers from the get-go, rather than offering them a dose of the clap every Thursday night).
Sophie brings us out of our silent reverie.
It’s reaching a critical stage now. I’m aware that, as things normalise, people are moving back to corporate and to the old habits, but it’s hard for the people who stepped up and now find it hard to cope with the drop-away in customers. We’re asking ourselves (at Independent Worthing) – how do we do more? How do we support these businesses as the situation changes? It’s consuming a lot of our time.
Graeme nods. It’s amazing how much behind the scenes work there is. We have authenticity and we want to keep that, so we do work to engage or meet with all the businesses. We allow businesses to promote themselves on our pages, with a very light touch gatekeeping. But anything that we ourselves promote or recommend, we’ve got first-hand experience of. It takes time.
Yes. I’d seen how many posts and check-ins and mini-interviews the FB page does and kind of assumed that it must be the work of a home-maker with time on their hands and a desire to do some volunteering. I’m surprised to find out that they both work full-time and that Sophie is a mental health nurse, while Graeme works in a demanding IT security field. Blimey. ‘Consuming a lot of our time’ is a very mild way to put it, Sophie. I can’t imagine. This tiny WoBy blog takes over my free time and I choose how much I want to put into it (and sometimes don’t post for weeks) but Independent Worthing is a burgeoning directory and a daily ongoing flow of FB posts, new businesses and customer queries – and there’s no control over the pace. You can’t set something like this up and then leave everyone without it once lockdown ends – by now, we’re all engaged with it and people are depending on you (businesses and customers alike).
Luckily, they tell me, they do have support from a couple of friends. This includes a perfect example of those people the couple spoke to me about earlier – the small entrepreneur who is at the same time personal friend and is also part of the Worthing networks that are growing sustainable and thriving communities here – Jaki at Perfectly Preserved. Another Independent Worthing friend and helper, Jus, runs her own independent wheelchair-accessible transport service for people living with disabilities.
My questions around whether the Council (with its ‘Time 4 Worthing’ campaign) or the Chamber of Commerce (with a show coming up soon) have, given the obvious synergies, approached and engaged Sophie and Graeme, result in a complicated discussion. I can’t not ask whether there’s anything going on here connected to what WoBy has come to name the Worthing Illuminati – a shadowy group of old-school vested interest and power-holders that many of my interviewees hint at – and often squarely lay blame upon – for Worthing’s past failure to thrive or adapt and change. Sophie laughs that no, it’s simply that there’s not much deep collaboration. She and Graeme are happy to support this year’s re-vamped Better Biz Show on September 23rd, run by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber people are working hard and we want Independent Worthing to be part of their re-energising. But eventually, the 3 of us agree, all organisations have their own values, goals and areas of work. Sophie and Graeme explain that, while there are lots of collaborations or short-term crossover projects happening, everyone involved in an event like the show is keeping their autonomy and holding to their different goals.
Sophie also complicates the narrative that I’ve heard from some other interviewees down the years, which allege that stagnation was allowed to happen in Worthing, with a stranglehold on creativity or innovation. While there might have been a period of stagnation, people did still manage to move and make stuff happen, despite that broader context.
There’s been grassroots creative movements in Worthing all my life, there’s always been people doing stuff. Worthing people have supported makers and creatives. Worthing has always been mixed.
Sohpie won’t have any of this ‘Old Worthing, New Worthing’ talk.
Maybe in the past, you had to look a bit harder for some bits, but it was always there. There was – and in a really great way – an alternative scene.
Through my teens and 20s, Dan Thompson was here. Then there’s Stef Sykes, who regenerated Coast Cafe over 10 years ago. Nadia Chalk, from Creative Waves. All three of them are ‘Old Worthing’. And they were supported by the council and that, and they did forward-thinking stuff. There’s always been music, art and stuff going on. Tank Girl – that was a Worthing thing.
Wow, who knew? Lots of Original Worthingites (OWs), obviously. Us incomers have a lot of catch-up and self-education to do.
Say more, Sophie?
Well, there’s a danger of feeling that nothing was happening until incomers arrived and came in to change Worthing. She laughs. I own that I get affronted by that kind of talk.
Graeme and Sophie grin as though this has been an issue between them, in the early days of their meeting. And maybe it has, because yes, it’s all too easy to assume that the creativity and flourishing we’re witnessing lately is connected to nothing older than the much-discussed branding exercise that is the Creative Coast, or even to the very recent ‘creative brain drain’ from London.
The couple recommend anyone wanting to dig into Worthing’s past to spend a bit of time rootling in the FB group Bygone Worthing. Seems like a good idea. If we’re living here, maybe we should dip a toe a bit into popular histories.
All this change-talk leads us on to a discussion of gentrification.
Coming in part 2.