The Times, 7 July 2007


When I tell you I’m scared of spiders, I mean that I would move house if a large one appeared on the ceiling (leaving by the window if necessary); I’m uncomfortable with vine tomatoes, because of their spiderish leaves; and, the minute I’d stopped hyperventilating and crying, I would cheerily punch in the face anyone who told me that a spider was more afraid of me than I am of it. Given the disparate sizes of our respective brains, and the fact that I am using so much of mine to fear it that I have temporarily forgotten how to reverse park, that is blatantly not the case. This has been a great trial to me lately, given the propensity for advertisers to use close-up pictures of tarantulas at any opportunity, or news editors to illustrate a story about bugs with a picture of a bug (most memorably for me, a piece on the BBC’s website about how arachnophobics could soon be cured by an injection. Who do you think might be interested to read that? Arachnophobics, perhaps? What don’t they like to be surprised by? Yup – a big picture of a spider).

So I like to think I know fear. You can perhaps, therefore, imagine my bafflement on Wednesday, when I saw a headline which read ‘Ever had a panic attack in the jam aisle at Tesco? You’re not alone.’ I’d never really considered that people might be afraid of jam. Not jam with spiders in it, you understand, jam in general. But then, lots of people fear buttons, which are at least as benign as jam, and much jauntier on a cardigan. Still, if you were afraid of jam, you would surely eschew the jam aisle. I don’t waltz into the bug house at London Zoo, after all. There are almost certainly bugs in there.

On closer inspection, it turned out to be the range of jam which was distressing people, rather than the jam itself. Tesco apparently sells 154 kinds. And that’s before you have to cope with 38 types of milk (although at least one of those is banana milk, which isn’t milk at all, but Satan’s saliva). Too much choice apparently gives us what psychologists term ‘consumer vertigo’, and, rather than pick a perfectly nice apricot preserve off a shelf, we prefer to roll about in the aisles, moaning wordlessly. You don’t see much of that in Waitrose, though, probably because they can all afford therapists. To be fair, if I stopped eating cherries, which retail for approximately £8 each (rounded down), I probably could too.

Psychology professor David Shanks explains: ‘We feel bad that every time we do make a choice, it seems that we are missing out on other opportunities. This makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied with what we have chosen.’ Are there really people whose sense of personal adequacy is predicated on their grocery-purchasing skills? I hesitate (briefly) to sound like a school dinnerlady from the 1980s, but there are children starving in Africa, you know. It really isn’t difficult - just pick up the damned condiment, put it in your basket and move on. If the toast then tastes of sawdust and baby’s tears, get a different one next time.

I can’t deny that I find it easy to make decisions, primarily because I lack the imagination for regret, or might-have-beens. It’s rare for me to begin a sentence with the words, ‘If only…’ and even rarer for those sentences not to end, ‘…everyone else wasn’t so annoying.’ I think I may not even be capable of a pensive look through a rain-splashed window. It’s almost medical. It is inconceivable that I would walk down a supermarket aisle and feel oppressed by the range of jam. I walk down the aisle and think ‘Mmm, jam.’

In Ancient Rome, when a general celebrated a Triumph, a slave used to sit beside him, muttering ‘Remember you are mortal’. Perhaps Tesco could employ someone (for money, obviously) to do a similar job for their bewildered clientele. Whenever a customer looks like he is about to collapse from the pressure of choosing between 107 types of pasta, the perspective-giver could say something like ‘That one’s nearest,’ or ‘Don’t you want to get home in time for The Simpsons?’ If anyone spends more than two minutes deciding on the relative merits of two interchangeable items, they have their shopping impounded, and are forced to go and buy eerily soft onions from the local 24 hour shop. Decision made.