Once my neighbourhood had personality - then it was "blessed" with a Tesco Express. Now, huge lorries arrive daily and unload calorie-packed sugary drinks, ready meals full of E numbers, wine and many flavours of crisps. My Tesco Express is an organic-free zone, in spite of the fact that consumers are so determined to eat more healthily that sales of organic produce soared by 30 per cent last year. In spite of being situated in an inner-city area full of young single professionals who all visit the gym and fret over the source of everything that passes their lips, my Tesco Express is about as useful as a big boil. Located in an area with some of the most highly praised restaurants in London, my Tesco Express sells hardly any vegetables and little fresh fruit except bog-standard apples, bananas and oranges. It is more a meeting point for drunken people leaving the bars and clubs around the corner than it is a source of anything you would want to eat. The perfect place to buy a toilet roll, a white sliced loaf and a tin of baked beans. It sits at the end of a street full of art galleries, interesting cafés and pubs and historic buildings, unloved, unwanted, a large unattractive glass excresence.
Tesco has just announced that it is to revamp 30 of its convenience stores to make them "more subtle and welcoming". It could try polling local residents to find out what they actually might want to buy, for a start! The idea of Tesco "blending in" anywhere, is, of course, ridiculous. The retailing monolith has a CEO, Terry Leahy, who has said time and time again in interviews that he is only interested in one thing: world domination. Tesco seeks to emulate Wal-Mart in every way, stockpiling land, and opening superstores less than 10 miles from each other, eradicating any other shop which might stand in its way. You can never be too big or too brash if you're Tesco.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England has just published a fascinating report about what happened when the Suffolk town of Saxmundham successfully fought to prevent a branch of Tesco opening there. Local food shops have flourished and the number of food suppliers in the area has risen from 300 to 370. And when it does win planning permission for new stores, Tesco is not interested in fine-tuning what it does to local inhabitants, no matter what it says about changing its shopfronts. Tesco is a brand and whatever size its stores, it is all about volume and uniformity, and profit per square metre.
Shortly after being referred to the Competition Commission, Tesco trumpeted its "community plan", in which it aims to be an environmentally aware good neighbour. The first of the 30 Tesco Express shops to be changed under the new "subtle and welcoming" scheme announced last week is the branch in Old Brompton Road in South Kensington, just down the road from Harrods and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It will be given clear glass windows and navy paintwork. Significantly, Tesco plans to open another 130 Express outlets this year, so making just 30 look better is a drop in a retail tidal wave.
Soon, we will all have to decide just how high a price we are prepared to pay for the concept of convenience. Last week, Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, ruled out an extension to Sunday trading hours, in spite of heavy lobbying from the superstores. This was a small but significant victory for small retailers. Now he needs to turn his attention to the proliferation of convenience chains such as Tesco Express, which offer nothing to shoppers except their extended opening hours.
My part in a Sixties cult movie
The Beatles Decade, a new television series, looks at the Sixties, and its makers commissioned a survey to find out what people remembered about the era. Fascinatingly, it emerged that most children of the "flower power" age freely admitted to having embroidered what they got up to during their formative years in order to impress their friends and family. The biggest lies were, "I was a hippie"- 27 per cent, and "I experimented with soft drugs" - 20 per cent. I don't have the luxury of lying - my years in the Sixties were well documented by my photographer husband, and by me, in the drivel I wrote every Saturday as a 22-year-old columnist of a national newspaper! I took acid, got busted by the police, was fined for possessing a tiny bit of hash, went to the first "rave" at Alexandra Palace, met Mick Jagger and knew Pete Townshend of The Who. Most embarrassing of all, I was in the 1966 cult movie Blow Up dancing in a nightclub while Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds played, wearing my own weird home-made clothes - a silver PVC coat, red and yellow plastic trousers topped off with long hair sprayed metallic. This month, an exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in London will show images from the film, in which a fashion photographer, played by the late David Hemmings, uncovers evidence of a murder while casually taking snaps one night in a London park. Blow Up captures the free-wheeling spirit of Sixties London perfectly. Get the DVD and you'll be able to spot a whole range of famous faces standing around as extras in that nightclub scene - Manolo Blahnik, decades before his shoes were immortalised in Sex and the City, for one.
TV's fat cats: The BBC bosses have some real brass neck
According to the BBC's annual report published last week, top executives' pay has risen by 30 per cent over the past two years, "bringing it into line with the market average". What market? The BBC admits that young viewers are switching off in favour of the internet. The number of people watching BBC1 and BBC2 for just 15 minutes a week has fallen by nearly a million. The talk show hosted by Davina McCall, below, is an expensive disaster. Meanwhile, union members are offered a pay rise of 2.6 per cent while the Director-General is awarded 8.7 per cent. Another 2,000 jobs are to be shed by the BBC. Instead it should cut the number of executives and pay them by results. Yesterday, Radio 4 offered us Gyles Brandreth, Sandi Toksvig and Ned Sherrin. If that is not white middle-class and middle-aged, then I'm a Cornish pastie.
Show-stopper: Just mad about this revival of 'King Arthur'
Purcell wrote some potty operas, and King Arthur is more a pantomine than a serious work, a series of songs about the spirit of England interspersed with courtly dances. The ENO revived it in collaboration with the New York City Opera, energetically conducted by Jane Glover, directed and choreographed by Mark Morris, for a limited season. I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening (sadly, the last performance was yesterday) watching a show first staged in 1691 - the costumes, by New York designer Isaac Mizrahi, are superb and the singing excellent. But the audience was another matter - Baroque opera, from Purcell to Rameau, does seem to attract a special breed of eccentric die-hards. No wonder I feel at home.Reuse content