The new boss of Marks & Spencer, Marc Bolland, responded to customer complaints about the difficulty of navigating the stores by sending scouts incognito to buy 10 specified items within an hour. They all failed. I'm not surprised, but it's not just our M&S. I take my own Marc Bolland test every week or so – except that mine has around 20 items and it's called a shopping list.
It's an unusually efficient trip when I don't have to ask at least once where to find some utterly basic item, such as flour or ground coffee, or eggs. A few weeks ago, I stood nonplussed in the (relatively small) Sainsbury's City, having walked the aisles twice in quest of breakfast cereal. With those huge boxes they sell it in, you would have thought it would have been hard to hide. But they had managed just that, by consigning it to a corner the "wrong" side of pet food. If you weren't on the prowl for Whiskas, you weren't going to find it.
As it was explained to me, (I had the nerve to ask), head office had told them to make room for "non-food", such as crockery and saucepans, so they had moved the cereals to where the detergents had been (I couldn't find those either until I chanced upon them next to – you'll never guess – ice cream.)
The navigational nadir among my local stores is a cavernous Sainsbury's near Victoria Station, branded a Sainsbury's "Market". I don't know how many more of these "concept" stores there are, but I go in there only if I'm after something the smaller store doesn't stock, and even then I regularly dump my half-filled basket at the exit in frustration, so long have I spent wandering and so fruitless the search. Every visit, I cross paths, often several times, with would-be shoppers despairing of finding the most elementary things, or wringing their hands at the lack of price labels – even as stickers scream two for one or second one half-price. It's a jungle and a mess.
The idea, apparently, was to replicate a "market", by having "islands" of produce that look a bit like stalls. The impression is pretty, but it's not what you go into a supermarket for. I always shudder to think of the wastage levels in the fresh food sections, even as I marvel at the regular disappearance of English muffins and Continental blend coffee. I suspect that if the store were more logically organised, its turnover, if not its profits, might soar. If Justin Green wants volunteers to run his own Marc Bolland test here, I'll happily join the queue.
Then again, if Bolland really does rationalise his stores, he might soon find himself at odds with what I understand has been a basic principle of supermarket geography. You're not supposed to find things too easily, lest you neglect the tempting – and pricey – novelties the marketing people want to put in your way. It's a bit like those pesky internet pop-ups, or a more discreet version of the Ikea one-way "maze" model. They don't want you to buy eggs and milk, they want you to buy some new-fangled extra-dark chocolate biscuits and super-organic low-fat farm-fresh yoghurt, with a higher mark-up and a mysteriously absent price tag.
Hard stuff that presidents usually keep hidden
With George Bush, an avowed teetotaller, you knew where you were: for all the gossip about his occasional lapses, it was orange juice or alcohol-free beer. With Barack Obama, well... The day after he had clearly relished a pint of draft Guinness in Ireland, he offered this aside during his acclaimed speech in Parliament. "As I said the first time I came to London as President..., the days are gone when Roosevelt and Churchill could sit in a room and solve the world's problems over a glass of brandy – although I'm sure Prime Minister Cameron and I would agree that some days we could both use a stiff drink..."
I practically jumped out of my skin when I heard that. I doubt you would ever hear a US president, or any American politician with a career still ahead of him, make any reference to strong drink in the United States – unless it is referring to a relative going into rehab.
So heavy does the shadow of Prohibition still hang that any suggestion you might need "a stiff drink", even occasionally, risks creating quite the wrong impression. Obama's quip is evidence either of the US getting over its Prohibition hang-ups, or – more likely – of the European sensitivities that make him suspect to right-wing Republicans even now.
Does classical music really need this kind of makeover?
Casting around for something to watch on TV on Sunday night, I alighted on the Classic Brits – the awards that used to be the Classical Brits, for performers of classical music, but now, I'm not quite sure. I stuck it out long enough to see Myleene Klass give a couple of giggly presentations; I winced through some MTV-style videos and was introduced to a bunch of tenors called Il Divo. Then I gave up.
I'm not averse to popularisation: widening the audience for opera and theatre by beaming live performances into cinemas or piazzas is a delightful adornment to public life. But the Classic Brits was something else entirely: the elevation of showmanship and hi-tech trickery above all else; easy listening played by and for beautiful people. Even junior members of today's star-struck pop generation might, I suspect, demand something more when they grow up.
Alas, the pop makeover of classical music has even reached high-culture France. The intellectuals' newspaper, Le Monde, did its best to report objectively this week on the industry that, it said, was growing up around "branding" of classical music stars: the tie-ins, the videos, the product placements, the computer games, the apps, the "concept albums". But the reporter could not quite conceal her distaste. Neither, I have to say, can I.