I once went to a wine-tasting on the theme of plonk versus vintage. We were given pairs of ostensibly similar wines in a blind tasting and asked to identify which was the rough stuff and which the ‘fain wain’. We worked our way through reds, whites and roses of both new and old worlds, dessert wine and bubbly, and in each case, the wine of which I said, ‘Ooh, this is nice; I bet it costs a bob or two,’ turned out to be the cheapo one, right down to the last glass of Kangaroo Tail at £5.49 from Netto or some such. So there I was, not a discerning drinker at all, just someone with an unerring penchant for economy class.
Sad to say, this preference for the downmarket reigns supreme in many other areas of my life. You can keep your lobster and oysters. Give me cold burnt white toast with masses of salted butter any day. Fine dining makes me nervous – I’ve never quite recovered from going to a high-tone restaurant and somehow managing to flick a buttery knife into my handbag, which I found funnier than anyone else present, even though they were my nearest and dearest.
I think this predisposition may be genetic: one of my ancestors was indeed a rag picker. Her son rose to dizzy heights of bourgeois prosperity as the owner of a cement works at the height of the Victorian building boom, only to lose it all later. It was the received wisdom in my father’s family that bananas were only good for you if they were cheap.
But cheap needn’t mean second-rate. My most admired piece of jewellery is a necklace I bought for 10p from a jumble sale – ethnic, with small ovals of lapis lazuli radiating out from a chunky chain. And from Matalan I once bought a winter skirt made from exquisite grey flannel that has worn as well as anything from Jaeger.
Not all my penny-pinching purchases have been so successful, though. The beautiful pale green canvas Biba boots I bought from the bargain basement in Arding and Hobbs were so narrow I was never able to do them up – but then I’d only spent 50p. A cheap wheely suitcase put me through half an hour of slapstick as, one after the other, the handle refused to collapse, then snapped on one side, placing too great a strain on one of the wheels, which then sheared off.
On the plus side, devotion to finding the cheapest option can often stimulate very eco-friendly make-do-and-mend creativity. As an impoverished student I used to cut the legs off tights laddered above the knee to recycle as pop socks, with an elastic band for a garter. And by cutting the toes off those pop socks I fashioned a pony-tail tamer (i.e. like a long, tubular elastic band) to do the work that would now be done by tongs. So as natural resources recede and we have to start being green whether we like it or not, I reckon I’ll adapt better than most.