Those whom the gods wish to make mad, they first make rich. Howard Hughes became a recluse whose endless days were spent growing his hair and toenails and dreading the invasion of lethal bacteria. Lord Northcliffe, his life’s work done in the creation of the Daily Mail, spent his last days on the roof of his house at 1 Carlton Gardens raging at the moon and loosing off a revolver at phantom assailants. In our own time, Michael Jackson vents his self-destruction on his own face.
It is not often recognised, however, that madness may invade not just the soul of individuals but also of corporations. Consider the case of poor old Tesco. I use the word “poor” in a figurative sense. For, as we all know, the company is fabulously wealthy. It recently declared a stonking pre-tax profit of &£1.7bn; it takes &£1 out of every eight spent by UK consumers and its sales work out at &£63,900 a minute. But for all that worldly glory, there is something disturbing in its behaviour.
Let us study the case notes. Tesco alone among the retail giants pioneered nude shopping. For one night a week at its Hastings store, the windows were blackened out and naturists, equipped with plastic aprons, set about the task of replenishing their larders. It was not surprising that Tesco consulted retail psychologists, nor, in the light of subsequent events, was it unexpected when the store announced that its shrinks had advised it to reduce the size of melons to keep pace with the current fashion for smaller breasts.
We began to fear the worst when the supermarket announced it was subjecting cream cakes and custard pies to ballistic tests after a new craze for cake throwing had raised concerns for safety. And when a few months later it appointed a poet in residence, we raised our forefingers to our temples and made that familiar circling gesture that denotes a deficiency of marbles.
Until recently, all went quiet and we took comfort in the thought that Tesco was either in remission or had recovered its senses. But then came the devastating news that it had suffered a relapse and was to introduce a shopping trolley designed to help customers burn calories while buying the weekly groceries. The idea has a drooling, childlike simplicity. The trolley is designed to make it hard to push, so shoppers straining to get the thing moving will increase their heartbeat and exercise muscles in their legs, arms and stomach. Shrieked frustration may also exercise their vocal chords.
Tesco says it introduced the trolleys in response to customers’ concerns about health and fitness. We do not know which customers expressed these concerns or to whom. It is safe to suppose, however, that they were not the customers who buy Pepsi by the gallon and crisps and pizza in industrial quantities. If any concern was expressed, it is most likely to have come from pencil-thin, angst-ridden members of the middle classes who might take comfort in the masochistic pleasure of pushing a stubborn trolley, but do not need the exercise.
(As an aside, I wonder if the demand that Tesco claims to have received for health and fitness is the same kind of demand that the BBC suddenly claims to have detected for more news, arts and public service broadcasting. How, one wonders, does this demand differ from the previous demand for endless hours of broadcast rubbish, which the BBC always insisted was there?)
At any rate, shoppers at Tesco might be well advised to approach their future visits to the store with some caution, for it is well-known that monomania, once it takes hold, can become a far-reaching. Should the company conclude that its keep-fit trolley is a success, it might move on to devise other means of keeping its customers in trim.
Why not, for example, equip the stores with exceptionally heavy doors? It might it be an idea, too, to site car parks a mile or two away from the stores. Inspiration could be found in the agility tests used to put dogs through their paces at Crufts. Supermarket aisles could be equipped with low plastic tunnels through which customers might scurry on all fours to reach the deli counter. Ladders, seesaws and hurdles would add much to the shopping experience. I was going to suggest that Tesco could introduce a form of hide-and-seek, putting items on shelves where one might least expect to find them, but it is already doing that.
A final suggestion: why not dispense with plastic bags at the checkouts while also forbidding customers to bring in their own bags? To struggle from the premises with only one’s arms to support the weight of the weekly shop may be relied upon to tone the muscles.
The truth is that Tesco, because of its fabulous success, is displaying disturbing signs of megalomania. It sells us food, clothing, music, books, newspapers and financial services, and plainly believes that there is no limit to the ways in which it can run our lives.
Forget about the Orwellian nightmare of an all-powerful, all-reaching State machine; think instead of a world in which we all wake up each morning and pay homage to our great provider, benefactor, and comfort in need, Big Tesco.