There are times in a woman’s life when only Marks and Spencer will do. When you are facing a boring Saturday night in on your own and feel that a chicken jalfrezi and a lemon pudding are exactly what you need. When you want to buy a pair of cheap tracksuit bottoms but can’t bring yourself to go into an actual sports shop, where they will laugh and point and say ‘Exercise? You?’. And above all, when you need to buy new underwear.
I remember telling my mother at the age of about ten that my aim in life was to be able to afford Marks and Spencer food all the time. I haven’t achieved that yet, so I still think of M&S as treat food. I went through a fairly long infatuation with those steam cuisine meals – there was one with chicken in a mustardy sauce, leeks and potatoes – when I lived in Brixton (before Sainsbury’s Local opened) and was working long hours. More recently, I couldn’t embark on a long train journey without buying a tub of greek yoghurt with black cherry compote from one of the Simply Foods that have sprung up in every station in the country. But, all along, it’s been mainly about the curries and the various puddings. They have the best flavoured yoghurts; the best summer pudding (unless you’re going to make your own); I’m not sure I ever had that much parodied chocolate melting middle pudding, but I’m sure it was up to scratch. Prepared food over here – with the noticeable exception of Trader Joe’s – is generally of such a low quality that it makes me hanker for M&S more often than I would have expected. In particular, the only puddings you can really get in the shops are ice cream, cake and pie – none of the mousses, tiramisus, trifles or sponge puddings that the shelves of all British supermarkets overflow with.
The clothes are more hit and miss. I used to think you could rely on M&S for all the basics – the black cardigan, the vest top, the dressing gown – and you’d know that they were well-made, classically styled and not made in a sweatshop. They wouldn’t be rock-bottom cheap, but they’d be reasonably priced. The sweatshop issue now seems a bit murky (though I’m definitely not singling them out as being any worse than anyone else on the British high street), though they have other good ethical credentials like the Plan A green campaign. Marks’s ability to deliver the staples goes up and down: I bought my last couple of boring cardigans at Gap instead. As for quality control, last year I got a military style jacket and the buttons fell off within a month.
But then, as I said, there’s the underwear. Ever since I was humiliated, in my first year at high school, by my mother yelling ‘DID YOU SAY 32A, DARLING?’ across the shop floor, to the amusement of two girls in the year above, I have associated bra shopping with Marks. (The tights are unbeatable, too.) You can rely on them to have a hundred colours of bra for those occasions when you know your strap is going to need to co-ordinate with your sleeveless dress. There will be bras made of cotton, cheap twinpacks in boxes, extravagant-but-actually-only-£30 bras in lines called ludicrous things like ‘Ceriso’, t-shirt bras, strapless bras, sports bras, and there will be the comforting realisation that the colour coding of the sizes is exactly the same as it was when I needed that 32A. I’ve flirted with other retailers – Debenhams, La Senza – but I always came back. Until I was stranded across an ocean and doomed to enter the dim and sickly fug of Victoria’s Secret, only to find everything was itchy, nothing fitted, it all cost an arm and a leg and I was more homesick than ever.