My experience of the Co-op began the minute I could be trusted to go to the shops. Mum taught me our "divi" number, as that was where we bought most of our supplies. It's still imprinted on my mind – 354735. Sadly, visiting my local Co-op in Yorkshire has become a dispiriting experience; the charming small premises were closed and a larger characterless box opened around the corner. The stock seemed to have mysteriously shrunk apart from the space devoted to booze, frozen food and magazines, which is huge. I can't find any "local" produce, in an area renowned for meat, pies, jams, and delicious cheese. In short, my Co-op could be in Barnsley or Bradford, just another convenience store with little in the way of cleaning products or shoe polish. Why does the Co-op want to emulate Tesco? It's not just the grocery sector (where sales have flat-lined, hit by Aldi and Lidl, and profits for 2013 are predicted to be "grim") that's suffering, the Co-op Bank has a massive £462m shortfall.
The chief executive Euan Sutherland has to sort out its finances in the wake of the Paul Flowers scandal, when it appeared that someone with minimal banking experience (but an alleged taste for recreational drugs) had been appointed chairman. Sutherland is asking the public for advice, spending £100,000 on what has been described as "the largest piece of research and engagement in history" … an online survey that will run until 24 March. It took me 20 minutes to complete and seems more bothered with funding clubs and yoga classes than the lack of cashiers and paltry stock in the stores. I was asked to describe the Co-op in one word – after pondering on "lacklustre" I chose "directionless". I wish the Co-op would stop agonising about whether to support political parties and focus on its core business, retailing. Even so, there's a lot the main parties could learn from this survey before they write their manifestos.
I enjoyed the new production of 1984 at the Almeida theatre, although it felt a bit like a school outing to the production of a set book – so many of the catchphrases have been filched by media types including yours truly, they've lost their shock value. I wonder what Big Brother (the telly version) devotees would make of this enterprise? It's beautifully executed, but is the message still relevant? Orwell's nightmare of constant surveillance has come to pass; we are filmed every minute, on public transport, driving, shopping and on most high streets. Mobile phones have replaced cameras as we spend more time recording each other (and ourselves) than enjoying primary experiences (like sport or art).
An even more insidious form of surveillance has arrived: Google glasses, which allow wearers to browse the internet and record what's happening around them. A few thousand people have paid nearly £1,000 for a prototype of the device, and they have already been nicknamed "glassholes" for creepy behaviour. Google has issued an "etiquette" guide, suggesting that wearers ask permission before recording others, stating that "standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends". It's too late to get bothered, we lost our privacy years ago. Google glasses are the ultimate gadget for sad nerds.
Fiennes on fine form
The latest Wes Anderson film Grand Hotel Budapest was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and opens here on 7 March. Ralph Fiennes is on top form as Gustave H (above, right), the hospitality industry's most eccentric concierge, for whom nothing (including sexual favours to old ladies) is too much trouble. The film is sublime, but I can't reveal any more, and in case critics at the screening I attended were tempted to record anything, all our mobile devices were collected and sealed in bags. Afterwards, we handed in numbered tickets to claim them back. A bit annoying, but maybe West End theatres should adopt this tactic, as modern audiences seem to think it's OK to text and read emails throughout a performance.
Wes Anderson has said he was partly inspired by Stefan Zweig's tragic novel The Post Office Girl, set in 1926, but only published in English in 2008. It tells the story of a humble clerk invited to stay in a grand hotel by her aunt, visiting from America. When the girl's true identity becomes known, she gets sent packing in case the Aunt's true background is uncovered by the snobbish clientele. I can't recommend it enough.
The servant problem
One in four households now has servants, paid to carry out tasks we haven't the time or can't be bothered to do, according to a survey. Since the recession, more homes have three or more generations living together. In spite of this, more homes now hire in labour than in Victorian times; in 1870, one in six homes had paid help.
So who are all these modern-day servants enabling us to emulate the toffs in Downton (below)? According to Frank Field, who advised David Cameron on poverty, they are immigrants willing to work for the minimum wage who have no qualms about doing menial tasks. The Home Office admits the number of Brits taking lower-skilled jobs has been falling over the past decade, while the number of foreign nationals has risen. If the servant class is a buoyant jobs market, how do we encourage young working-class Brits to change their mindsets?
Frank Field says it's hard to justify paying benefits for an indefinite period if they live in an area where there are plenty of jobs. Why not redesign the last couple of years at school for non-academic kids, preparing them for work, teaching social skills, mentoring them and showing that the minimum wage is just a starting point. Cutting off benefit sounds brutal, but unless there's a radical rethink, foreign workers will soon take all these jobs. Young people need training to be ready for work, and it's got to start at 15 or 16 if we're keeping them at school until 18.
Bernie's a Vlad fan
Bernie Ecclestone is not a man I'd like to meet in a lift. He might be short of stature, but he's big on bigotry, having once described Hitler as a man "able to get things done". Speaking to a news channel about the first Sochi Grand Prix, to be held in October, he agreed with President Putin that homosexuality should not be "publicised to an audience under the age of 18" … adding "if you took a world census you'd find that 90 per cent of the world agree". Do the Formula One directors not find Mr Ecclestone's opinions as repugnant as I do?
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