Among the very few items in my wardrobe that have made it past the 15-year mark is a navy-blue spotted blouse, very plain but well-cut, with short sleeves and a neatness about it that could be the work of Comme des Garcons or Margaret Howell, but isn't. It's from Marks & Spencer.
The last time I wore it, the fashion editor of this publication stopped me as I walked past her desk. "Nice blouse, what is it?" she appraised, breezily. She wasn't surprised at all when I told her the object of her admiration was something I'd bought in M&S decades ago.
Everybody remembers the golden age of St Michael when it sold perfect v-neck lambswool sweaters in lovely shades of moss green and dark blue. It also mastered classic (if rather soft) tailoring, the sort of cottony basics now monopolised by Gap, and used decent fabrics, leaving competitors like BHS to churn out garish florals and shiny synthetics.
Of course that was before the fast fashion revolution, when the only youthful rival to M&S was Tammy Girl. Now Britain's biggest clothing retailer wants to keep up with the trend-churners, but it also has to dress its core constituency – a group of women in the 60-plus age bracket whose numbers will only grow as our population gradually ages.
M&S fashion is an easy target, but this summer its wardrobe malfunctions have threatened to bring the retail juggernaut to a halt. At the shareholders meeting last week, elderly investors attacked new CEO Marc Bolland for failing to cater to their needs. Bolland, who insisted that Brazilian-style knickers were boosting flat sales, met his match. "The garment I have got on is 25-years-old. This is what we want," barked one shareholder to wild applause.
Now it seems that M&S is jettisoning the celebrity faces – Dannii Minogue, VV Brown, Lizzie Jagger and Myleene Klass – who were deemed such a successful marketing strategy over the last five years. Only Twiggy and Lisa Snowdon will remain, and then probably only in-store.
So where will M&S go next? Despite criticism of the TV ads, nobody actually wants to see the sensible face of M&S in its marketing. But before Bolland and his team roll the dice once again and try to find a suitable new face for the brand, they would do well to look at the shop floor.
The collections have become too slavish and cheap-looking, resulting in the mish-mash of bohemian styles and too-bright colours that hang on the sale rails I can see as I pass my local store each day. Customers are "buying once, but buying well" at the moment – not a phrase you think of when you see, for instance, an egg-yolk yellow tunic that would look good on nobody, not even the slender, fashion-conscious young women who surely wouldn't be caught in M&S anyway.
There are other stores who are elbowing into the market that M&S isn't serving. Visit Cos, or Banana Republic, or Gap, for the some of the classics you remember from the store's better days – or, if you can, simply reach into the back of your wardrobe for a piece of vintage M&S.
Definitely no place for (the) definite article
Of all the rounds in the pub quiz, the part that taxes me the most isn't a question at all: before anything else, you have to come up with a team name. The name has to be funny, timely and fitting. The quizmaster usually gives you about two minutes to think of one, and that's exactly the moment I'll try to sidle away to bar or lavatory.
Last Sunday's naming ceremony was instructive in an entirely new way. We were about to settle on The Malakas, when a new team member, a woman of some style and charm, shook her head firmly. I thought she might be objecting to the use of the friendly Greek term for onanism, but it was the other part of the name that bothered her. "We can't use the definite article," she announced.
It wasn't the first time this month I've noticed an insider-ish preference to drop the t-word. Eels, the band, avoid the prefix, and sound all the cooler for it. Core Club, an impossibly exclusive New York private member's club does the same. Ditto, our sister newspaper, i. One of the swankiest residences in Piccadilly, Albany, had the definite article banned in its founding rules, and use of its proper form of address has long been seen as a snobbish test of a man's knowledge of London. So why, then, does it sound good to drop the "the", other than as a linguistic trick to trip the unwary? That's a question I need a bit more time to answer.
We're all going on a trawl through the internet
How many other people spent a wet Sunday afternoon in July slaving over their laptop trying to piece together a summer holiday? A lot, I reckon. And plenty of people, like me, must also have experienced Rough Guide fatigue – the sensation of tiredness that overwhelms the independent traveller as you cross-check flight times, sweat over cancellation policies and try to interpret the grumpier comments on TripAdvisor (Are Mary and Jim from Stockport freakishly picky about shower curtains, or is the hotel's bathroom actually "beyond appalling"?)
For the first time in a decade, Britons are returning to package holidays and rejecting independent travel, a sector that has boomed in the internet age. A new survey by Mintel shows that while the travel market in general is still struggling in the recession – with holidaymakers taking fewer trips – the package sector is showing a slight recovery because consumers are reassured by the predictability of how much an all-inclusive trip will cost. A majority also report being fed up with the time-consuming research that must go into any serious expedition.
I agree with all that, despite being a fairly adventurous traveller. And yet, and yet. I still don't want to spend my holiday in one of the world's top 10 most touristy destinations, with tacky-looking hotels and air carriers. That said, there are exceptions to the norm, and I think smaller but well-promoted companies that specialise in packages that allow a degree of flexibility, and take holidaymakers to less obvious destinations, could clean up among the growing numbers of disenchanted ex-backpackers who are desperate to escape Britain in July.