What is your primary goal on life's great roller-coaster? Some would say it is to be happy in yourself, to be an individual, not part of the masses; a person secure in their own likes and dislikes. I've got news for you. The imperative to be "different" is the most successful piece of brain-washing achieved over the past 50 years.
If you've been watching the BBC series The Century of the Self you'll have seen how it all started with Freud. The quickest out of the blocks to hijack the thoughts of the great psychotherapist were the public relations people and the marketeers. They have worked out exactly how to capitalise on our lemming-like quest for our inner selves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of alternative therapy.
A couple of weeks ago, a three-day event called The Vitality Show took place at Olympia. It is probably the UK's largest showcase for complementary health, beauty, spirituality and fitness, not to mention healthy eating. Tickets were £10 each and had to be purchased in advance. It was sold out.
With roughly 35,000 visitors, and 350 exhibitors, ranging from organic meat companies to Christian scientists, palmistry and tarot card readers to aromatherapy practitioners, The Vitality Show (now in its third year) was evidently a huge success. Another is planned for Manchester in September. Interestingly, the three largest stands were taken by mainstream household names exhibiting for the first time: Boots, Tesco and Marks & Spencer.
Events like the Vitality Show are happening all over the country every month. Log on to www.exhibitions.co.uk and enter the magic word "life-style". We just can't get enough of it. There's the Mind, Body and Spirit Festival at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London at the end of May, not to mention the 21st Century Woman Lifestyle show, or the Whole Life Festival organised by Organic Events Ltd at Olympia in September.
Ten years ago alternative therapies were hardly part of the mainstream. Diana, Princess of Wales (and latterly the Prince of Wales) both brought a huge amount of publicity to the Hale Clinic in Regent's Park, London. In its basement was a shop selling hundreds of different nutritional supplements and vitamins, as well as a range of books about the treatments available at the clinics upstairs. Last August, in a move that attracted surprisingly little comment, Tesco bought 50.1 per cent of this retailer, the Nutri Centre, for £2.93m. That's a hell of a lot of ginkgo biloba.
The Nutri Centre's founder, Rohit Mehta, became the Tesco Healthy Living Consultant, and there are plans to market up to 22,000 of its products by email as well as via Tesco shops. The complementary medicine market was estimated to be worth around £300m last year, and it has doubled in the past five years. So don't delude yourself that Tesco has decided to flog flax oil and St John's Wort for any reason other than profit, pure and simple.
At the same time as you pick up your over-priced organic veg at your local Tesco, you'll be able to stick a leaflet in your trolley telling you all about the innumerable benefits the Nutri Centre tie-up can offer. Log on to the Nutri Centre's extremely sophisticated website and you can choose between news, shopping, offers or relevant recent articles. I spent a depressing 15 minutes investigating "anti-ageing" to discover that I need antioxidants to conquer my free radicals, whatever they may be. I challenge anyone to make sense of some of this gobbledegook, which seems to involves swallowing a lot of CoQ10, curcumin and bilberry.
Boots used The Vitality Show to promote its health and beauty services, including osteopathy, herbalism and nutrition advice. It is introducing an Alternatives range, which it claims offers "holistic" solutions to aid digestion, circulation, joints and many other ailments. It is also launching dietary supplements for "teeth, mind, heart and eyes".
Marks & Spencer used the show to promote its "Count on us" meals, which do not contain more than 450 calories. I have no doubt that Marks & Spencer will be following Boots and Tesco into the alternative health market. Not one women's magazine dares to risk an issue without a section devoted to alternative health and beauty. Even die-hard right-wing broadsheets like The Daily Telegraph have pages devoted to what I call Evening Primrose Oil News. Our disillusionment with the National Health Service has coincided with an almost child-like receptiveness to wacky therapies of all kinds. I've had shiatsu massages for 15 years and swear by them – but then my therapist is a highly respected teacher. Can you really tell me that this explosion in alternative therapy is going to be carried out by fully trained competent practitioners? And now we are receiving reports of liver damage inflicted by mindless ingestion of totally unnecessary vitamin pills and supplements.
Tell me I'm wrong, but for three months now I have been a supplement-free zone. I eat fresh fruit for breakfast and broccoli for lunch. Controversially, I'd rather eat a plate of cabbage than 25 plastic-coated bilberry extract pills, a couple of multi-vitamins, iron, zinc, ACE, milk thistle and all the big and small number Bs. For the first time in 10 years I feel like a true radical. Instead of Pilates classes I take a simple walk. You know: that old-fashioned technique where you put one foot in front of the other and see where you go.
These days we shop for different schools of yoga in the same way we look for a different clutch bag. The latest Norwich Union billboard ads feature a room full of leotard-clad women in a yoga class with the nauseating slogan "together, we're stronger". Take up my cause, and shun the mainstream. If you want to opt for the alternative lifestyle, stick to the small people, and don't hand Boots and Tesco any more profits.
A small incredulous crowd gathered around an estate agent's window in Whitstable last weekend. Kent's first £50,000 beach hut was for sale, and no shortage of offers was expected, even without the help of Tracey Emin and a bit of artistic graffiti. The interior looked more like something Ken Dodd would have felt at home in: fake wood panelling, a pair of single beds with satin covers, a tiny shower and WC, and a pink-fringed reading light.
Chalet number 24 sits near a pub at the end of Seasalter Beach and looks like a white painted garden shed, indistinguishable from its neighbours. When I arrived, two estate agents were anticipating a bidding war and a film crew was recording it for the local news.
Beach huts are hot. Perhaps encouraged by the filming in Whitstable of the novel Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (charting the life of the bisexual daughter of a local oyster seller), a large group of happy lesbians has purchased several adjoining huts there. Beach huts even have their own website, a buying and selling service, not to mention top tips on care and repair.
On the night Liza Minnelli mimed a selection of her songs to a sell-out audience at the Royal Albert Hall last week, I sat in an audience of just 22 people at the tiny Bridewell theatre off Fleet Street, enjoying a brand new 40-minute song cycle written by Charles Hart, the lyricist responsible for Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love. Brilliantly performed (no miming) by Linzi Hateley on a bare set, it ended last night. I hope someone will stage it again soon.
Chalet No 24, Seasalter Beach. Details from Change Estates, 01227 770022; www.beach-huts.co.uk; 'Tipping the Velvet' by Sarah Waters is published by Virago, priced £6.99