Mary Dejevsky: It's fine to stand up to Tesco, but I know somewhere that ought to welcome it

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The Independent Online

Sheringham is a charming market town on the north Norfolk coast, and it is flourishing. On Thursday evening, it imprinted itself as the latest boy hero on the David and Goliath map of Britain when North Norfolk District Council voted 17 to 0 to reject Tesco's application to build a supermarket there.

The likelihood that other towns will take courage from Sheringham's example may be one reason why Tesco has been looking to expand further afield. And earlier this month it took arguably the riskiest of several sorties abroad, opening its first half-dozen convenience stores in the US south-west, an advance guard of a planned 200. Tesco's westward move followed the much-trumpeted arrival in London this summer of the upmarket US grocery chain Whole Foods Market.

Seen from the perspective of either country, it is not difficult to understand why an exchange of this sort ought to make commercial and consumer sense. I will never forget arriving in Washington DC as this paper's correspondent, checking into my self-catering "aparthotel", and setting off in pursuit of basic provisions. My ambitions were not high: some fruit, bread, eggs, cheese, perhaps chicken or meat.

Half an hour later, I had emerged from the downtown branch of Safeway – a brisk 20-minute walk away – with precisely nothing, and as near to despair as I was confronting the long queue for evaporated milk and lemons as an exchange student in the depths of Brezhnev's Russia. There was simply nothing on the shelves worth eating, not even by a hungry and undemanding Brit. Fruit and vegetables were non-existent or had seen distinctly better days. Everything else was tinned or processed. Bread was white-sliced Wonder Bread, and with the exception of malt loaf, there was nothing else. And the less said about hygiene the better.

I soon learnt that downtown was not the place to shop for food and that a car was a necessity. I also learnt that food shopping in the US is infinitely more socially stratified than it is even in class-bound Britain. Which is why Tesco's wide variety of basics, and its limited but decent range of fruit and vegetables – epitomised in its US brand name Fresh & Easy – ought to have Californians queuing at the door.

It is also why Whole Foods may have seen in Britain's new super-rich, and aspiring super-rich, a market demanding something more luxuriant and comprehensive than Harrods Food Hall or Fortnum & Mason. Personally, I found the showy opulence of Whole Foods stores in the US – frequented there by the equivalent of the Waitrose constituency – repellent and wasteful. Yet there was nowhere else for someone seeking something half-palatable to shop – no Tesco, Sainsbury's or Waitrose. I have the same reaction to Whole Foods Market in Kensington.

So I wish Tesco's Fresh & Easy well in its Californian adventure. But I wonder whether food shopping cultures are quite so transferable as Tesco and Whole Foods clearly hope. For all the talk of globalisation, shopping generally retains a national character. And the differences, in style and substance, are almost as great between individual European countries as between Britain and the US. Transplanting supermarkets, as Marks & Spencer found to its cost in France, can be a lesson in cultural specificity.

* More from Tesco. Evidence of friendly tension overheard among the youthful shelf-stackers a week ago, before that supposedly "crucial" match between Israel and Russia. "So who are you supporting?" threw out one. A blond lad, probably Polish, said, of course, he couldn't support Russia. His neighbour, probably a Muslim of Pakistani origin, said even more categorically that he could hardly support Israel, could he? They all had a laugh, before returning to work. Suddenly, the Tebbit test seems so last century.

My plan for Steve's future

The spectacle of Steve McClaren standing, dry and debonair, beneath his giant golf umbrella, even as his players drowned in the Wembley downpour against Croatia, was fast-tracked straight into our national hall of political infamy – and rightly so. There it will occupy an honoured berth, right up with the image of the then chancellor Norman Lamont proffering an overextended credit card a quarter-century before. At least, we might reflect with rueful hindsight, it was the personal details of the then chancellor that found a wider audience, rather than those of half the voting public.

And while McClaren, given his ample pay-off, hardly needs to worry about where his next credit-card advance will come from, his insouciant sub-brolly demeanour portends a profitable new sideline in rain-gear marketing. The Australian mac company Drizabone, imperilled by drought Down Under, and the embattled US label London Fog should be fighting for his services.

Meanwhile, whatever the fate of newspapers v broadcasting v the internet, the art of headline-writing is not dead so long as someone can dispatch the England coach with the valediction "Wally with a brolly".

It's almost as if the Cold War never went away

It seems nothing like a year since Alexander Litvinenko, the exiled Russian crime investigator, suffered an agonising death from radiation poisoning. All too predictably, the anniversary is being used to remind us about a new influx of Russian spies – up to levels not seen since the Cold War.

As though every which one of us was in danger from a malevolent emissary from the Kremlin, bearing a package of polonium-210 with our name on it. Oh yes, and the new head of MI5 recently said in a public speech that the need to curb Russian spying was diverting "resources" from dealing with al-Qa'ida. How convenient to have an old enemy to blame for your inadequacy in dealing with the new.

Now, it is possible that there are legions of Russian spies staking out Britain. But if there are, I suspect that it is their fellow countrymen they have in their sights. And while Russians here are entitled to expect the same protection as everyone else, this does not make every Londoner a target for the Russian successor to the KGB.

It is disingenuous for ministers to imply, as they have periodically over the past year, that every Briton is in danger because Litvinenko was a British citizen just like the rest of us. He had been a citizen for just a few days when he was attacked. To his Russian enemies he was still a Russian, and his shiny new nationality might even have increased his vulnerability.

To cast ourselves as the "good guys" here is also to stretch a point. Espionage is a reciprocal activity. Granted that we may be running short of home-grown Russianists and compliant Russians, the odds are that if "they" have multiplied their presence here, then "we" have also scaled up our presence there.

Remember the fake rock in Moscow, pictured, that British agents were supposedly caught using as a dead-letter drop? You may also remember that the story was not actually denied by British officials, merely ridiculed. Ditto the assertions by Litvinenko's alleged murderer, Andrei Lugovoy, that Litvinenko had been in the pay of British intelligence. Absurd, ridiculous, derisory, they said. Quite so, but that is not quite the same as a denial.

None of this makes his murder less heinous a crime, but it should prompt a certain caution about accepting at face value everything we are told.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

Deborah Orr is away

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