What is it about bloody Waitrose? Don’t get me wrong. I love Waitrose. I worship at the altar of Waitrose. I am Waitrose. Cut me and I bleed Waitrose. (Or Tropicana Sanguinello, at least.) But I also hate what Waitrose represents: stuffy, snobby, stuck-up middle England obsessed with getting its hands on the vermicelli nests, profiteroles and artichoke hearts available in the “Essential” range. (And, yes, it usually is England, although there is a handful of outposts in Wales and Scotland and none in Northern Ireland.)
Waitrose represents something significant about being from here. According to a Lloyds Bank study, living near a Waitrose boosts the value of a property by nearly £40,000. This backs up the much-vaunted “Waitrose effect”: being near the hallowed palace of consumer greatness increases the value of a house by 10% compared to other houses in the area. Full disclosure: I do not live within walking distance of a Waitrose. Yes. I know. I should cower in my sackcloth. I am cowering in my sackcloth.
Waitrose means so much to a certain sector of society. I’ve spent the past six months going around the UK touring previews of my Edinburgh show Be More Margo, based, of course, on Margo Leadbetter from The Good Life, who would be now the ultimate Waitrose customer. Although in her day she favoured Fortnum’s, especially at Christmas time.
We know that Margo Leadbetter would have shopped at Waitrose. She would have kept that card in her rattan handbag and brandished it proudly to get her free coffee and newspaper every day
I have been asking audiences to answer the question: “What’s the most middle class thing you’ve ever seen or done?” Whether in Leicester or Loch Lomond, half of the answers always referred to Waitrose, whether grassing up a toddler having a tantrum because they’ve been denied a second packet of snacking chorizo or overhearing someone saying “Quinoa for both houses, darling?” The ability to shop, slightly shamefacedly, at Waitrose is the definition of being middle class.
There’s something really uncomfortable about this that plays into the post-Brexit narrative. Because the appeal of Waitrose is about the haves and the have-nots. The Telegraph already ran an article saying how fabulous it is that Theresa May shops at Waitrose because now it gives us all permission to shop at Waitrose. Because supposedly we don’t need to be afraid of being snobs or of choosing the best for ourselves. But the thing about “having the best” and “spoiling yourself” (which is what Waitrose represents) is that it requires a point of comparison.
Perhaps this is the ultimate qualification of Britishness: “If you could afford to shop at Waitrose, how would you feel? (a) Happy. I’ve made it in life! (b) Happy but neutral. (c) Guilty. I mean, do I really deserve this? And what about the people who can’t shop here? Oh God, this is excruciating. Where the hell is the discounted Prosecco?” If your answer is (c), you are truly British. Put that on your citizenship test.
We know that Margo would have shopped at Waitrose. She would have kept that card in her rattan handbag and brandished it proudly to get her free coffee and newspaper every day. She would have bought Prestat chocolates, Gordon’s gin and Waitrose own tonic water. But underneath her smug joy at shopping in “the right place” she would also have felt bad and perhaps bought some Waitrose Essential custard creams for Tom and Barbara.
Viv Groskop’s Edinburgh show Be More Margo is at The Stand from 4-28 August: www.edfringe.com.