Tales of the City: We are a nation of gastro-gnomes

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The Independent Online

I've been trying to fathom the significance of the cheese slices and the fishing rods. Not to mention the sudden national outbreak of acoustic guitars and kitchen roll.

I've been trying to fathom the significance of the cheese slices and the fishing rods. Not to mention the sudden national outbreak of acoustic guitars and kitchen roll. According to the Office of National Statistics, we've turned into a nation of crazed, manicure-loving devourers of minced lamb, dishwasher tablets and fabric conditioner. Apparently, life in England is just one big hedonistic riot of modern groceries...

Let me explain. Every year the NatStats people select certain items whose prices are closely monitored to measure inflation levels in the UK. The items they select - about 650 of them - have to be exceptionally popular things (because if there were no demand for them, their price would remain boringly static) and their popularity tells us about the nation's spending patterns and thereby offers a snapshot of the zeitgeist. Without intending to be, the ONS "shopping basket" is a register of our secret desires and self-image. The trouble is, some findings suggest that we're moving into a sphere of cool and groovy trendiness, while others suggest quite the reverse.

We know, for example, that we have become more picky about food. We no longer buy "frozen turkey" because it is too naff, too huge and takes a fortnight to thaw out. Nowadays, we buy "fresh turkey steaks" and cook them as Nigella Lawson tells us to, perhaps with some home-made stuffing from her little man in Kentish Town. Frozen turkey, indeed. We don't do that any more. You would as soon catch us buying Bernard Matthews boneless turkey roll and Fray Bentos cook-in-the-tin meat pudding.

Cheese slices have gone down the same pan, the one marked "hopelessly naff". We don't buy cheese slices any more, not even for our eight-year-old's lunch-pack; we send her off instead with "regional cheese", and don't think I mean anything except French regional. A finger of Pont L'Eveque, a tiny pot of reeking Vacherin, that's what we give today's modern playground tot. Oh yes. Goodbye, cheese bloody slices, and Kraft Dairylea wedges while we're at it. How we've moved on. How we've - but what's this? "Lamb mince" has just come into the NatStats shopping basket for the first time. What does that mean? Why are we all suddenly eating tons of agneau haché? Are trendy opinion-formers all over the Home Counties making great steaming mountains of shepherd's pie?

Looking at the things which have recently been added to the baske (nail treatments, "CDs purchased over the internet", "fishing rod", "men's football boots", "mineral water", "digital camera"), it's hard to think of modern consumers as heroic figures. The fishing-rod suggests pure escapism, ditto the new surge in acoustic guitars (too many smoky-voiced young teens out there, thinking they're Katy Melua or Joss Stone), while the prospect of hundreds of holiday-making British, simultaneously adjusting their digital cameras in that I'm-taking-your-picture-sideways gesture, is something too horrible to contemplate.

There's some odd jiggery-pokery when it comes to household goods. It's understandable that we've jettisoned dishwasher powder in favour of those handy little rectangular tablets, thus showing how cool and cutting-edge we are, but how do we account for the fact that "toasters" and "wine glasses" are no longed deemed worthy of inclusion in the list? When did we stop making toast? Was this a style edict from Delia Smith (in her forthcoming book, How To Eat Bread)? A warning from the Ministry of Health ("Partially incinerated dough products may affect the circulation, causing impotence")?

And when did we stop buying wine glasses? It can't mean we're drinking less wine (God, no). It can't mean we're less clumsy about breakages (worse, if anything). It can only mean we're now drinking wine out of something else - teacups, biscuit tins, empty jam jars, bathroom tooth-mugs, our sweetheart's shoes...

The inflation figures themselves don't bother me. What bothers me is the image of homo britannicus 2004 that's thrown up by the report: of an epicene, gnome-like figure holding a fishing rod, cooking turkey steak and huge mounds of shepherd's pie for his cheese-scented progeny, while swigging gallons of mineral water out of a plastic kitchen bucket and taking photographs of his louchely painted fingernails. That's the vision of Britain which the Office of National Statistics has put before us. It's not a pretty sight.

A strange case of mutual appreciation

The oddest literary-historical news in ages is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were big mutual fans. It's a little counter-intuitive to think of the bluff, whiskery, Boer War veteran Doyle, the epitome of Victorian enterprise and common sense, cosying up to the languid, fin-de-siècle dandy, but that seems to have been the case. A long-unseen cache of Doyle's papers have turned up in the London auction market. There, amid the correspondence on campaigns to issue soldiers with body armour and to reform the divorce laws, there's a letter Wilde wrote to Doyle, thanking him for Doyle's note praising The Picture of Dorian Gray, and complimenting, in turn, the younger man's prose style. But should we be surprised by their mutual admiration? Both men were of Irish extraction, both were fascinated by the criminal underworld, both were interested in fairies, both kept a network of boys (at least, Sherlock Holmes had the Bow Street Runners...), both took as their subject the subversion of British society in the 1880s and 1890s.... And of course there was always something inexpressibly camp about Sherlock H, as he swishes his cloak and flares his nostrils (or am I thinking of Jeremy Brett?) through the stews of Whitechapel. If only they'd collaborated. Wouldn't you have longed to read The Bitch of the Baskervilles or A Study in Puce, and queued around the block for Dr Watson's Fan or The Importance of Being Lestrade?

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