The fact that only subscribers can watch the Big Fight shows that today 's choice is no choice

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The Independent Culture
Two unrelated items in this newspaper caught my eye earlier this week. One was an advert for tonight's heavily promoted Bruno vs Tyson world championship boxing match, the other was the news that Sketchley, the well-known dry-cleaners, is to close hundreds of its high- street outlets and set up shop instead in the vast fluorescent-lit sheds of one of the inexorably expanding edge-of-town superstore chains.

By the end of the week, these two events had become inextricably linked in my mind, for, in their own ways, both represent contradictory aspects of the fetish of consumer choice that has warped the British body-cultural over the past 15 years.

The promise of successive Conservative governments since Mrs Thatcher was first elected to office in 1979 has been that of a form of economic liberalism that would somehow bestow upon every citizen the right to choose the way they wished to order their lives. By invoking the free-market spirit of Adam Smith, some form of vote-catching, Mystic Mag hocus-pocus would, very soon, have us all conjuring our very own homes, schools, hospitals, trains, buses, gas and electricity.

Citizens, or "customers" as they were now increasingly known, of free- enterprise Britain were to benefit from boundless choice; the nation would be turned into one giant supermarket and we customers, sporting in the sunlit uplands of a new-found-land of mortgages, school fees and shares in what were once public utilities, would pursue the high life, indulging in a boundless cornucopia of goods and services. No longer would nannying state commissars tell us what we could or could not have, or what was good for us and what was not.

In future, when we turned on the television, we would have a choice of a dozen channels with the promise of many more to come. Standing at a London bus-stop we would choose between green, day-glo and buses the colour of Refresher packets: no more tyranny of the standardised red double-decker (note the dictatorial, Communist-inspired colour) for us.

At railway stations we would deliberately miss the 10 o'clock Tesco express (don't miss the on-board shopping facility), so that we could catch the following 10.30am Heineken flyer, the train that reaches parts of Britain no other train can reach (customers, joining at the Paddington station shop, please note the pub car situated towards the centre of the train). By the year 2000 (when parliament is to be privatised and every MP sponsored by a company; nothing new there), everything we eat, breathe, buy, use and wear could well be put out to tender. How about a choice of lip-smacking tap-waters (including your choice of Cedric Brown's, the senior citizens' favourite with natural gas, and Frank Bruno's Old Time spearmint 'n' prawn cocktail flavoured) brought to us by rival companies.

Is all this nonsense? Yes, but so is the new culture of choice. We may have more television channels than ever before, but, if you want to watch Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson knocking the testosterone out of one another tonight, you will have to be a subscriber to Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV and pay an extra pounds 14.95 on top of your subscription for the privilege. You cannot see the Big Fight if you do not. In the bad old days of the choice-free Gestapo state, Frank and Mike would have been slugging it out on BBC or ITV and anyone could have watched for the cost of their annual TV licence.

Recently, Murdoch tried to buy the television rights for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. If he had succeeded and if you had wanted to take part (from the comfort of the living-room sofa while tucking into your choice of takeaway pizza, burger or sushi), you would have had to buy into Murdoch's empire and attach one of those disfiguring satellite dishes to the side of your house. The fact that only Sky subscribers can watch tonight's Big Fight proves that today's choice is no choice.

The same is true of this week's news from Sketchley; in moving their dry-cleaning outlets to banal superstores on the edge of town, they are part of a conspiracy to force us into the jaws of these retail dinosaurs. There are people who claim to prefer superstores to street markets and high-street shopping parades. They remain, for me at least, an enigma. Quite why anyone would prefer a perspiring continental-style lettuce shrink- wrapped in plastic when fresh green leaves are for sale at lower prices from robust market stalls is quite beyond me (beyond our European neighbours, too). The superstore may well offer a galactic choice of cheeses air-freighted from exotic parts and pre-washed fruits of paradise from the South Seas, but what choice does it offer those who either cannot get to out-of-town supermarkets or want to shop in the very market towns and high streets they serve to destroy?

If I cannot have my clothes dry-cleaned in the high street, I am pressured into joining the supermarket set; because I think superstore culture is damaging our national culture I will refuse, but my choice will mean having a wardrobe of grubby clothes.

Perhaps it is time for us to choose to fight the faux culture of choice. After all, what have we got to lose? Only our satellite dishes, shrink- wrapped ugli fruit and 15 years of demeaning political dogma.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns next week

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