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The Parable of the Independent Bakers

Posted: 25 April 2024

Neil Packer talks about the inspiration for his new book.

‘There was once an old patisserie that had been on my local high street for as long as I could remember, in fact probably for as long as anyone could remember as it had opened in 1926. Over the years it had changed hands a couple of times and by the mid 1980’s it had expanded to a handful of branches in central London. It was my favourite patisserie which sold fabulously good pastries of both the sweet and savoury varieties including a quiche Lorraine to rival anything found in the finest patisseries of Paris.

‘Over the years it had struggled like so many other small independent businesses in London as rent and business rates increased exponentially. The areas in which the few shops were located became more and more gentrified and in the early years of the 21st century the business was sold to a private equity company who wanted to take the brand, if not the quality and roll it out nationwide over hundreds of locations.

‘This was the inevitable death knell for the business as it would be impossible to maintain the standard of its artisanal produce over so many outlets without the skill, love and devotion of the few people who were responsible for the original shops’ cakes and pastries. The new owners were certainly not in the business of trying to preserve those skills, the reality is that it would take years to train new people in order to service their nicely branded new outlets, they didn’t care about the quality they just wanted the brand.

‘This then was the inspiration for “The Parable of the Independent Bakers” and by 2016 when I wrote the story in a flurry of anger there were many other examples of small businesses I had known, loved and used over the 35 years I had lived in London which had been driven out of business, crushed by either the larger chains or by unaffordable rents and rates. These included multiple pubs, cafes, restaurants, bookshops and even the tiny gallery that sold my work and the work of all my fellow illustrators, the only gallery in London specialising in illustration which fell victim to a doubling of its’ rent that same year.

“The Parable of the Independent Bakers” is a love letter and a tribute to the artisan, not just to bakers but to everyone who makes, bakes, builds or creates on a small scale. People who are immensely skilled and who have often obsessed over and live through their work their entire lives and whose work steadfastly refuses to be scaled up.

I was incredibly fortunate to find a home for this book here in Italy with the wonderful Camelozampa, who are the very definition of an artisanal independent publisher. They are joyous to work with and have brought insanely high levels of production and love to this book. As if to reinforce the ideology, not just within the book’s narrative but also surrounding the story of the book itself (which are inseparable), it was printed at Grafiche Veneziane, the last remaining commercial printers on the island of Venice, and true artisans themselves. The book proudly carries the legend ‘Baked with love by Camelozampa and printed on water by Grafiche Veneziane’ I am prouder of this than I can ever really express.

‘The story first appeared as a hand written text at the foot of an artwork in 2016, the artwork was in the form of a child’s toy model railway. I built it for my own child but being unable to afford to buy model houses and scenery we decided to paint them flat onto the board in the form of a map of London. “The Illustrated Train Garden No. 1” as it became known was built as a response to my concerns over the destruction of many pubs, venues, shops and institutions which had meant a good deal to me over the 38 years that I called London my home.

‘This is a very personal map, and although many of the buildings depicted on it are still very much in place and functioning, many are not, and others are under threat, they all however have a significant meaning to me. It feels like every time I take a walk through a neighbourhood that I have not visited for a while I am struck by the absence of another much-loved building, or these days more often than not, an entire block.

‘I sense that I am losing my own personal history of London, indeed we are all losing our collective history of London as it is rapidly replaced by a profoundly dull version of itself, as quaffed and polished and un-interesting as the inhabitants that are now displacing many of us who can no longer afford to live in our own home.

‘This then is the back story of “The Parable of the independent Bakers”, a story informed by a problem not unique to London but a global issue. It’s a warning to us all of the importance of cherishing and championing small independent retailers everywhere and it is dedicated to all those who fight the relentless advance of homogenisation.’

Neil Packer, March 2024

You can read more about this important book here.

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