Snobbery on the high street

The idea of the man behind Top Shop taking over M&S struck many with a kind of shuddering horror

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If you go into either of the Oxford Street branches of Marks and Spencer, on any day of the week, you will always see quite large numbers of foreign tourists - often from the Middle East or Asia, but frequently, too, from Europe. Many of them are buying not just one or two items from the clothing department, but 10 shirts, several pairs of trousers, piles of sweaters, jackets and suits.

If you go into either of the Oxford Street branches of Marks and Spencer, on any day of the week, you will always see quite large numbers of foreign tourists - often from the Middle East or Asia, but frequently, too, from Europe. Many of them are buying not just one or two items from the clothing department, but 10 shirts, several pairs of trousers, piles of sweaters, jackets and suits.

For many visitors to London, their trip offers an opportunity to stock up on clothes from Marks and Spencer. It's well known among organisers of international conferences that when visiting dignitaries and officials are found to have sloped off after lunch, it is almost certain that they will have gone to the Marble Arch branch of M&S with a long list of demands, compiled by their spouses and children.

To understand the appeal of Marks and Spencer to the visitor, it's necessary to have lived and routinely bought clothes abroad. Even in Italy, it seems as if one has a choice between cheap, ugly, badly-made clothes, and highly expensive, elegant but often also badly-made clothes. I may be wrong, but it appears very difficult to buy good-quality, elegant staples at a reasonable price - plain cotton shirts, plain woollen sweaters, socks which don't fall apart within a week. In short, to the Englishman abroad, there always appears to be an M&S-sized hole in the market.

I suspect that many people use M&S in the same way that I do, for the unremarkable basics of your wardrobe. From time to time, too, you may be tempted by one of their more adventurous lines - I personally very much like their Autograph range, though sometimes feeling that it is a little ambitiously priced for an M&S suit. But in the main, it seems an excellent way to pick up well-made, conventional things at surprisingly low prices - last winter, I grew suddenly tired of my old dinner suit, which was going green round the lapels, and bought a new one from M&S. It was so cheap that one didn't worry about buying something which one only wears, probably, two or three times a year.

The recent corporate history of Marks and Spencer suggests, however, how difficult it is for the company to decide what, exactly, it wants to be. The curious feature of the shop is that different parts of its operation have very different atmospheres. The food department, on the whole, is generally viewed as tending towards the extravagant. Everything is excellent quality, but it somehow isn't a place where anyone would routinely do their food shopping - the wide range of ready meals, the emphasis on the glossy beauty of the raw produce, ending up being fairly expensive.

The home-furnishings department, on the other hand, has somehow failed to take off among the middle classes - you never hear anyone boasting about their M&S sofa in the way that people boast about the incredible cheapness of their IKEA kitchen. For some reason, this department seems doomed to naffness, and the recent attempt to move wildly upmarket with a minimalist design store in Gateshead was an obvious and immediate failure.

The clothing departments, really, have become strangely confused; it is as if it has been trying to appeal to everyone from the Sloanes who buy their joints of beef from the King's Road branch to the students who splash out on a cheap print to brighten up their rooms. The clothes are still well-made and well-priced; but a lot of the lines are full of weirdly eccentric designs which could appeal to nobody, and over-ambitious mock-Italian pseudo-elegance. The staples are still there; but sometimes there is a sense of a company trying anything, and seeing what will work by trial and error.

That has been a fairly widely-held view recently, and has led to an upheaval at the company itself. Philip Green, the man behind Top Shop and Bhs, mounted a takeover bid for Marks and Spencer. He revealed his hand a little early, allowing the new M&S chief executive, Stuart Rose, to unveil his plans to turn the company round. Rose plans to shed some of the company's odder excursions, including the Gateshead furniture store and the financial services offshoot, and to return the company to its core values, whatever that may mean. That was enough for the company's shareholders, though, if they have any sense, they will soon appreciate that the company has to keep pace with changing taste in ways which may not please everyone.

The passionate debate over the future of the company has been highly conspicuous, and cannot quite be accounted for by the size of the operation. The takeover bid has been a regular feature on the BBC television news, for example, in a way which may seem a little unusual. Why does Marks and Spencer seem of vital importance in a way which companies of a comparable size do not? Why, too, does this particular attempt to take over M&S seem to be a "good story", one with some kind of hidden implication?

As often in English life, there is a subtext of class here, and the idea of the man who owns Top Shop taking over Marks and Spencer struck many observers with a kind of shuddering horror. It was much like the reaction when Macdonald's was rumoured to be interested in Prêt à Manger, a raw class response. Mr Green's other business, Bhs, is a familiar and a successful presence on the high street, but it has a very different customer base from M&S. The divisions of English life are such that it would never occur to me, if I needed some new underwear, to go and look in Bhs. Almost certainly, their clothes are perfectly fine, but as a middle-class person, my habit, extended almost to an unthinking duty, is to go to M&S for such things.

Top Shop, too, is a very successful business, and in recent years has done a roaring trade in clothes which look as though they would fall apart before you tired of them. After a long dull period, it seems to have been revitalised by the challenge of Zara, the Spanish shop which sells very cheap imitations of very current fashion, the sort of clothes to wear to half a dozen parties, if that, before throwing them out. The idea of the man behind Top Shop, with its noise and confusion and general slapper-like atmosphere, taking over the solid decencies of M&S awakens an atavistic class response; it just can't be allowed to happen.

This is absurd, of course, and there's no reason to suppose that M&S under Mr Green would have been taken downmarket; it is just irrational English snobbery. But the other reason why the whole episode seemed of vital importance is that the shop seems the epitome of ordinary English taste, and one which touches the lives at some point of an enormous range of English people. Mrs Thatcher said that "everyone" bought their knickers there; if that is no longer true, it certainly has a very wide appeal.

Other prominent institutions offer a fantasy version of Englishness, or an aspirational one. M&S is obviously very unlike Harvey Nichols or Top Shop or Habitat. Those shops, like most shops, offer an idealised version of what we might like to become. M&S, in a good period, is the shop where the nation buys its knickers, and where you see the nation's tastes as they really are. A social history of England, for instance, could usefully trace the nation's cautious acceptance of the exotic by investigating the growing popularity of individual lines in M&S's clothing and food departments. It doesn't surprise; but it is one of very few shops where you are rarely disappointed by your purchases once you get them home.

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