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25 November 2020

Every trip to Waitrose is a lesson in humiliation, but I keep going back for more

As I try to cut back on household expenses, I consider seeking refuge in the Co-op, where there are no tubs of fancy mayonnaise to taunt me.   

By Nicholas Lezard

It seems as if I have come full circle, in one respect at least. Readers with long memories may remember that when this column started, it did so with a howl of despair that I was unable to afford the fancy mayonnaise – the stuff that did its utmost to taste like the real thing – in Waitrose. (I have tried a few times in my life to make real mayonnaise, and each attempt has ended, in one case literally, in tears.)

For the ten years I lived in the Hovel, the nearest – indeed only – supermarket within walking distance was Waitrose, and my trips there were almost always exercises in humiliation and panic. The worst times were during the fortnightly shops with my children, and the crushing, soul-destroying fear that I would not have enough money to pay for their traditional Saturday night pizza and their Sunday roast. The best times were when I saw Paul Weller in the queue, and I’d say, “Look, that’s Paul Weller,” and they’d say, “Who’s Paul Weller?” (Not that I have anything against Paul Weller, except the Style Council.)

[see also: In lockdown, video calls taunt me with showcases of other people’s homes]

Then my days in the Hovel came to an abrupt and painful end, and I spent the next three years dotting between mainly Brighton and Scotland; and so the Waitrose days were over. My default supermarket, whichever side of the border I was on, was the local Co-op, and as you probably know, the Co-op and Waitrose are two very different beasts. One does not, for a start, feel ashamed of oneself in the Co-op. There are no tubs of fancy mayonnaise laughing at you from the shelves; nor is there any chance of seeing Paul Weller, or indeed any other pop star from past or present, in the queue. One finds the essentials there, and that is enough.

But now I am trapped once again in the costly orbit of the ’Trose (as an ex used to call it), and, unhappily, at the most financially precarious time of my life (or suffering what a friend of mine delicately described as “a certain level of economic challenge”).

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As Heraclitus said, one never steps in the same river twice, but there are some continuous elements. The fancy mayonnaise, endorsed by, if memory serves, Delia Smith, may have been discontinued, but there are other products to pass over with regret. The cheese section is particularly painful, but the worst is the cassoulet, because it tries to make me think it’s affordable. A friend of mine unfriended another one on a social media platform because she said that finding forgotten tins of cassoulet from their last holiday in France was a great way of feeding oneself during a lockdown food shortage. I understand the outrage, but I have a fondness for cassoulet, and you don’t get cassoulet in the Co-op but you certainly do in Waitrose, where it teases me with its price tag of £8.50: “Go on! You know you want me! Stretch it out over two days and that’s only £4.25 a meal!”

[see also: When the underbelly of Brighton reveals itself, all I have to keep me safe is a kebab]

Of course, and as you might have guessed, the real household expense here is wine. The Co-op would often have an offer on a drinkable wine, but even the deals in Waitrose are eye watering. I should really drink a lot less than I do, but I gather that people over 50 are drinking too much in lockdown and who am I to buck a national trend?

“Go back to the Co-op,” I hear you cry. But it’s not that simple; and life doesn’t work like that. For the truth is that while the Co-op is more democratic, and I have developed a kind of tender, sentimental relationship with the animated woman on the screen by the self-service checkouts, I cannot prise myself away from the fancier supermarket. Twice in my life I have managed to wangle a business-class freebie on a plane; when I next had to fly in economy it was like a punishment.

But Waitrose here, clad in architecture of quite astonishing brutalism, stands on what is possibly the grungiest street in Brighton. The homeless line the pavements, every other shop is a charity shop, and even the Christmas decorations have a cheap and tawdry air. There are, for one stretch of the road, one-word slogans that are supposed to have a seasonal feel. Did I really see a sign that just said “SPARKLE”, or was that a (Waitrose) cheese dream? Another says “BELIEVE”, but believe in what?

[see also: An expired laptop is yet further proof that Fortune’s Wheel still has me in a spin]

So I potter around the stacked shelves, looking for bargains. Their bog-standard smoked streaky is on offer at £2 a pack. There’s a deal on nine-packs of loo roll. This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? I wonder when the last time I bought a nine-pack was. I always think that buying things in bulk is tempting fate – that I’ll die before I get to the last roll. Why I should consider this to be ignominious I don’t understand, but there it is. And I do buy it, in the spirit of one who believes that the best way out of a recession is to spend. I just have to believe

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump