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Letter from abroad: What if it doesn't feel like a recession?

In Britain, there is a difference of opinion as to whether it feels like a recession for every business. 

David Williams
Thu, 05 Jul 2012

Observers from afar might think tumbleweed is blowing in London's Canary Wharf and British dole queues are full of out-of-work public sector workers as the recession bites.

Technically, there are huge problems. Government figures confirm there is a double-dip recession.

The bad news isn't restricted to the eurozone, either. Construction figures have been down and there were even fears lack of output over the four-day jubilee weekend in May would prolong the economic mire.

Anecdotally, there are stories of Kiwi finance sector workers who have curtailed their OE because it is too hard to get a job in London.

On the ground in Britain, however – where many in the public sector, from police officers to border control staff have been striking over reforms – there is a difference of opinion as to whether it feels like a recession for every business.

This summer, London is still flooded with tourists, with shoppers cramming Regent St underneath flags of the world (a pre-Olympic celebration).

It is noted, however, at a beautifully-designed restaurant in a pedestrian lane off Regent St you can get a two-course set menu for the reasonable price of £11.

For those escaping the cities in Lymington, on England's picturesque south coast, a steady stream of shoppers peruse the Georgian market town's shops – and cram the pubs to escape a torrential downpour.

Across the border in Wales, Cardiff's bustling main shopping street is packed with shoppers, hawkers and even musicians signing copies of their CD.

The news isn't all good. In Hereford, near the Welsh border, some businesses are having closing down sales and there are signs in shop windows advising customers that hours are being restricted because they can't find staff.

Yet, the open-air market in the pedestrian mall is thriving and there's the thought that some businesses might have just been located on the wrong street.

Adapting to survive

A London-based lawyer says you wouldn't know there's a recession considering how full the coffee shops are in nearby Brighton.

In his own area of expertise – property – it's slow going, however. His practice relies on turnover, and, he says grimly, things have slowed considerably.

A London-based advertising executive confirms there's plenty of money still flowing through his firm, and there has been no paring back of the after-work high jinks in the seedy streets of Soho.

The cocktail crowd spilling onto the streets on a Friday evening attest to that, although early in the night you can get two-for-one specials.

Around the corner, in Charing Cross Rd, there doesn't seem to be any fewer of the cavernous book shops, either, despite the rise of e-readers.

In an Earl's Court bar (no, not a Walkabout), there isn't a shortage of people lining up for a £5.40 glass of wine during the Euro 2012 football tournament.

A small town bed-and-breakfast owner says her business is booming. The pebbled car park adjoining a beautiful, wind-swept field often contains cars worth more than £50,000.

She has survived by being adaptable. Pointing across the water to a small, popular tourist town, she says the owners of ageing accommodation houses have maintained their high prices in the face of increasingly discerning consumers who demand more for their money.

"I've spent more money on this place in the last two years than I have over the previous seven."

Perhaps this summer isn't the best litmus test – considering the usual summer fare of Wimbledon is this year wedged between the Queen's diamond jubilee and the Olympics. 

Flag-waving Brits flocked to London's waterfront and The Mall, in particular, for a peek at the Royals and to take part in celebrations during the many jubilee events.

Considering the glittering concert staged outside Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II, the Brits clearly know how to put on a party. 

However, millions still chose to watch TV coverage of London-based events rather than string bunting between the lamp poles and slowly empty a barrel of beer with their neighbours.

In Hereford, there were apparently fewer street parties for the Queen's 60th jubilee weekend than there were 10 years ago.
One also wonders if there were fewer pensioners attending public celebrations in the city after the cuts swallowed up their free parking rights. 
Is this stay-at-home phenomenon a symptom of how tight money is in some households or the fact a European debt crisis is unfolding close to their shores? 
Is it financial anxiety or, perhaps, a sign people care less about their fellow man? 
Perhaps the answer is even simpler. Maybe it had something to do with the weather. 
David Williams and family are just back from a month's sojourn in the UK.
David Williams
Thu, 05 Jul 2012
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Letter from abroad: What if it doesn't feel like a recession?