The single activity most of us will be performing this weekend is queuing for a cashier in a supermarket. While high street retailers are struggling – yesterday there was the launch of huge reductions in an attempt to boost flagging sales – the big four supermarkets are locked in a battle to buy our loyalty. The reason? For the first time, the big four (Tesco, Asda, Morrison and Sainsbury's) have seen their market share decline, while discounters (Aldi and Lidl) have reported an astonishing growth – Aldi reported 30.7 per cent increase in sales recently.
Loyalty cards such as Nectar and Tesco Clubcards have been joined by MyWaitrose and even John Lewis cards, as stores try to persuade us that we're members of a special club and will get good deals. In fact, loyalty cards give very little – you generally have to spend a £1 to get about 1p in vouchers, but they give supermarkets valuable information about our shopping habits which they use to target us with unwanted emails and a blitz of utter rubbish.
MyWaitrose might give you a free newspaper and a cup of coffee if you spend enough, but on a £212 shop last week I got exactly £2.50 off with the card – pathetic, although I used another voucher worth £6 (which came with an online wine order) as well. Tesco fans say they get free cinema tickets and meal deals with their vouchers, ignoring the level of spending involved. Nothing for nothing!
Food prices are set to rise faster than salaries until 2018, so, unless we shop around, the weekly grocery bill will take a larger part of our budget. Which? magazine has highlighted another anomaly: some Tesco customers have been paying more than £200 extra for holidays when they used Clubcard vouchers. Although the retailer now says it has rectified the situation, it does make me wonder. To earn a £50 voucher, you must spend £5,000 in a store or £10,000 on petrol. Is that really a good way of saving money? Is our time so valuable, that we are abandoning comparison shopping?
More news, less Babykins
I turned down the opportunity to appear on Newsnight on Friday evening to discuss Nigella Lawson. While I have every sympathy for her predicament, I wonder why the case involving her former personal assistants was given so much prominence by the corporation. Would a normal fraud trial have received so much coverage if it had not involved allegations of drug use, lavish spending at designer shops, and a female television presenter who is seen by many (including our Prime Minister, it would seem) as a national treasure?
By wondering whether Nigella "had been on trial" – on two extended items on Saturday's Today programme, one focusing on whether she could "resurrect her brand" – the BBC seemed intent on continuing her public torture in the name of journalism. Why not give the poor woman a break and not mention her name for a day or two?
Currently, the BBC seems horribly fascinated with news we don't need to know. Last Thursday, it repeated intimate phone messages and terms of endearment Prince William left for Kate while he was in training at Sandhurst – produced as evidence in the hacking trial – over and over again on each news bulletin. (Achieving what? They were certainly not justified in the public interest.) The corporation was no better than the tabloids (and much of the quality press, which printed the word "Babykins" in headlines). By repeating details of loving phone messages, the BBC, which should have been setting a benchmark for responsible journalism, seems no better than The Sun or the Mirror.
I imagine their public airing caused the couple embarrassment and rage in equal measure. On the same day, the BBC repeatedly broadcast extracts from a lengthy interview with Lee Rigby's parents in news bulletins, on the pretext that it was justified on the day his killers were sentenced. In fact, it was a shameless puff for a Panorama special that evening, and didn't add anything at all to our understanding of the case. The interview didn't contain a single element of news, unlike the controversial Today interview on Friday with Muslim preacher Anjem Choudary, which, though unpalatable, was perfectly justified. After all, the BBC has to broadcast differing viewpoints.
I'm not nearly as famous as Nigella, but all the tabloids regularly print bilge about me, to which I do not respond – the latest being that I'm due for the scrapheap because I'm too old, white and posh (ha ha). Sadly, BBC seems to be intent on sliding down this path of celebrity crap posing as news, and at the same time, shamelessly promoting its own programmes as news items in themselves. Neither is justified.
We could all do with harnessing the power of song
'Tis the season for glorious choral music, from The Messiah to the King's College carol service, both radio highlights in our house every year. I always have Bach's St Matthew Passion playing on Christmas Eve, and tonight I'll be singing carols in the local village church in North Yorkshire. Gareth Malone has turned the nation on to the joy of singing (although credit to Radio 3's excellent long-running The Choir on Sundays) and now my partner has joined the Chaps Choir, based in Islington, made up of about 50 fellows of all ages, shapes and sizes. Last week, at a sold-out concert at the Union Chapel in north London, they supporting the Choir with No Name, whose members are drawn from the homeless, and "those on the edge of our society". It was a joyous evening, which shows how ordinary people can raise your spirits, without a single sniff of celebrity culture.
The oldest choir in Britain must be in St John's House care home in Kirk Hammerton, near York, where the average age of a singer is 91. They've made a CD and swear that singing is rejuvenating. The Choir: Sing While You Work final is broadcast tonight on BBC2. Let's hope that even more folk will discover the healing power of singing in a group. It might reduce the NHS bill for antidepressants.
Swinging, but shady, Sixties
The best orgy on the West End stage takes place in Andrew Lloyd Webber's entertaining new musical Stephen Ward. The night I went, there was a collective sharp intake of breath as a male "slave" – naked except for an apron – crawled across the stage. Charlotte Spencer as Christine Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge, who plays Mandy Rice-Davies, lift the whole evening with their enthusiastic and energetic performances and remind us just how young the two girls – not women – at the heart of the Profumo affair really were. On the other hand, all the men involved were utterly creepy.