There is something melancholy, but gripping, about the weekly shop. All human appetites and desires, wants and needs, shrink-wrapped and bar-coded. How sad, but poetic, to see the paracetamol next to the lager, the Andrex hard by the Thai green curry.
Never mind DNA, here are the real building blocks of life, lined up in a checkout queue near you. Hence the hallucinatory fascination of National Statistics' conceptual shopping basket. We no longer need to peer into our neighbours' trolley, or to covet his ass: the Government has done it with mystical precision.
Here is a rich seam of information on the proclivities and preferences of modern man. A picture of the New Briton emerges with compelling clarity. Into the eternal darkness that awaits dead products go last year's necessities: Walkmen, cassettes and answering machines join CB radio and eight-track stereo.
New Briton is wired. DVDs and CD-Roms speak of an easy relationship with computers, while the taste for disposable cameras betrays a sense of practical economies. But the appearance of crystal goblets is evidence that New Briton is among the most knowledgeable of wine consumers. New Briton is also happy out of doors. Aesthetes might deplore the plastic patio sets you buy in petrol stations, but they suggest an enlarging taste for entertaining en plein air. Leg waxing and dumbbells confirm New Briton keeps up appearances.
But most revealing – most touching – of all is the substitution of interesting shellfish for dull tinned salmon. Clean, cosmopolitan and adaptable, here is proof of our eclecticism.
Does this really matter? Well, yes it does. A century ago Henry James's brother, William, a psychologist, said the personality not only comprised a man's body and his psychic powers, but "his clothes, and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses and yacht and bank account". He should have added supermarket trolley.