From dry pasta to cardboard coffins: where it pays to buy basic

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Any Italian knows that unless Nonna made it with her own bare hands this morning, unfilled pasta is best when dried, packaged and stored in a cupboard. Those bags of “fresh” pasta in the supermarket chiller cabinet are the worst of all worlds. Claggy, eggy, pricey and wholly incapable of not scrambling a carbonara, bagged fresh pasta tricks the consumer that they’re elevating the quality of what is infinitely more delicious at 60p. Besides, one has no wider than a three-second window to remove from heat and strain before chiller cabinet pasta transforms from inedibly raw to waterlogged mush. Foul.


I’m sorry to trigger collective heart failure in Crouch End, but sourdough is overrated. While I’ll concede there’s a time and a place for posh bread (warm and crusty with cheese, for example), we’re fooling ourselves in thinking there’s an artisanal loaf for all applications. For toast, it must be cut uniformly to avoid inconsistent browning and scorching, then arranged, Tetris-like, to avoid the ends poking out of the toaster like sharks’ fins, or falling into the abyss, rescued only by electricity-conducting tongs. That’s before the large, wasteful holes in its flesh leak out half the butter. In contrast, Breville-shaped, white, thick, “plastic” sliced– all consistent surface area and uniform squareness – offers a perfectly golden base for baked beans, the ideal grease-sponge for fry-ups and the only acceptable captor of chips. For these, accept no substitutes and save your dough.


At the risk of sounding like your local Ukip candidate, fancy tea like Earl Grey (bubble-bath water), green tea (raw fish), fruit teas (essentially hot, weak, blended Ribena) and herbal varieties (identity theft – tea should sue), does not comfort the grieving, calm the anxious, cushion the blow, ameliorate the suffering and fuel our nation’s everyday discourse. For all that, we reach en masse for bags of rich, malty, builder’s brew.


For most of life’s occasions, a cheap Curlywurly, Whole Nut or Twix is precisely what’s needed. Most unforgivable of all are the disingenuously priced wannabes – the Yankee Candles of chocolate – with their wilfully unappetising stuck-on petals, sea salt and chilli flakes wrapped round a revolting gooseberry or prosecco centre. Pass me a Tunnock’s and leave me in peace.

Pot noodles

Posh pot noodles – who knew? They’re suddenly everywhere. Hip noodle bars are branching out to our supermarket shelves and trying to make respectable what has been doing perfectly and unpretentiously fine since 1977. While the original Pot Noodle – made not in Asia but in the south Wales valleys – is arguably the nation’s guiltiest, and tastiest, pleasure, it is also inadvertently at the cutting edge of modern lifestyle. All varieties are vegetarian (that savoury “meat” flavour is actually soy and vegetables) and many of them – including Brazilian BBQ Steak and Beef & Tomato – are 100% vegan. They should just rethink the plastic pot.

View image in fullscreenThe real thing: ‘Artisanal cola? No one wants that.’ Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

Body lotion

Anyone with dry, rough, cracked, itchy limbs knows that what dry skin needs is unctuous, no-nonsense, fast-sinking grease – and lots of it: your Neutrogena, Vaseline, Nivea, E45, Palmer’s and Superdrug. Most spendier, lavishly fragranced versions are best saved for special occasions and sex (assuming they’re not one and the same thing).

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Despite costing 500 times more per glass than tap water, there is no evidence whatsoever that bottled water is any better for our health (it actually contains less calcium and magnesium, on average, than tap). And yet, unfathomably, some 8m plastic bottles of mineral water are bought each year in the UK, many of them on the baseless and marketing driven assumption that when it comes to simple hydration, you get what you pay for. Truly, future generations will think we lost our damn minds.

Leopard-print coats

I have spent my entire adult life amassing a permanent collection of no fewer than 13 leopard-print coats, and have bought and sold very many more. What I know for sure is this: the lower rent the brand, the better. Leopard fur is meant to look brassy 1950s barmaid, not well-bred debutante. It should be rebellious, sexy, rough round the edges, fake and worn with attitude – think Christine Keeler, not Lady Astor. Spendy brands attempting to get in on the action are like an Etonian performing grime: it’s just embarrassing for everyone. Stick to charity shops, eBay and high street chains.

School Uniform

Do people still iron? If they do, they’re paying too much for school uniform. Everyone with an urgent understanding that life is indeed finite are at George at Asda, Tu at Sainsbury’s, Peacocks, Morrisons or Aldi, buying cheap kecks that emerge from the dryer or radiator as though from a Corby trouser press. Sturdy, mass-market school shirts have permanently stiff collars, creaseless torsos and Teflon coating that is seemingly invincible against ketchup, while those from specialist school shops are pathetically feeble and impossibly high maintenance in comparison.

View image in fullscreenSpray it don’t say it: ‘Expensive hairsprays don’t have that same irresistibly heady, solvent, girls-getting-ready smell of good times incoming.’ Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer


Elnett, Bristows, Silvikrin, Shockwaves – the best hairsprays are on the high street. Ditto dry shampoo. Locking down a style takes far too much mist to justify paying for big ticket canisters; and besides, the expensive ones don’t have that same irresistibly heady, solvent, girls-getting-ready smell of good times incoming.


I love a designer label as much as the next fashion fan, but can we all agree that people in high-fashion trainers look staggeringly naff? Fashion designers should no more be making trainers than Nike should be diversifying into formalwear. High-end labels should stay in their lane and not get involved unless bringing something unexpected to the party (a wedge heel, for example). But classic-shaped, pre-distressed tennis shoes, costing £600 for no more than a fancy logo on the side? The very definition of try-hard and a clear indicator of having way more money than sense.

Micellar water

People who spend £30+ on what is essentially face detergent: you are being robbed.

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Gold hoop earrings

When it comes to gold hoops, one should go big or go home. There’s nothing cool about tiny demure gold sleepers – one wants whacking great shower curtain rings à la J Lo or Sade, and with no fancy deviation from a plain, classic halo shape that, frankly, any fool could design. No casual observer would ever know a Tiffany hoop from an Elizabeth Duke, so get down to Argos for the most bling for your buck.

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Not every family can accommodate, or be approved for, a rescue pet. But if you get the chance, why would you opt to buy a pricey pedigree? Mixed-breed dogs and cats live longer, are less likely to become ill, are worth nothing, are rarely stolen and, if rescued from a proper charity like Dogs Trust, the RSPCA or Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, guaranteed not to be funding an unethical, torturous puppy mill imprisoning forcibly overbred mothers. For a couple of hundred quid, you’ll get a properly looked after, microchipped, immunised, neutered pet, and most importantly, the satisfaction of knowing you gave an animal a loving home and a fresh start. And you won’t have to name them Sureshot Viking Fauntleroy of Sporle.

Scrabble sets

Don’t mess with design classics. The original and beautifully simple Scrabble board, designed by architect Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938 and barely changed since, does not require reimagination. The addition of a lazy Susan is the only modification of possible worth; faux-mahogany presentation boxes are bulky, limited-edition foil-stamped sets are pointlessly spendy, and even the non-slip plastic grid takes away your ability to straighten up letters in one part of the board in order to distract your opponent from the fact you’ve accidentally played GUAGED in the opposite corner.

View image in fullscreenDaily grind: ‘American diner-style filter is the best.’ Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

Coffee makers

My Nespresso machine sits in the corner for months at a time, waiting patiently for me to have a party and the sufficient lack of wherewithal to make espresso martinis without it. The rest of the time, I use a cafetiere, in-cup filter or old-fashioned stove top pot to make an infinitely cheaper and superior cup. Fancy barista espressos are overrated. American diner-style filter is the best.

Washing-up liquid

What is the point of poncey perfumes for plates? You’re paying for either a costly but ephemeral hit of scent, or for your dinners to taste like lavender. Washing-up liquid should smell as God intended: either of pungent lemon, Original Fairy liquid, or that delicious cheap fake-apple stuff you get from a cash and carry. Paying for added peony, cedarwood or pro-vitamin B5 (you think I’m joking) is a madness. And aloe vera for a dish? It has an egg stain, not nettle rash.

Reading specs

Opticians: please forgive me when I tell people that designer specs and state-of-the-art lenses are very often a total waste of money. I have several friends who’ve ditched their prescriptions and declared their lives changed by a few quid spent in Boots on a pair of generic reading glasses. As a bonus, the reliable ugliness of the £5 chemist-bought readers should also stop the longsighted but absent-minded from forgetting to remove them before going out in public – an act that would have saved me from tumbling down an entire flight of stairs and into A&E.


It is a fact that the more expensive the toaster I’ve brought into my house, the worse performing and shorter living it’s ultimately been. The more a toaster resembles a vintage winnebago, the less likely it is to deliver toast that is neither pallid nor charred. Conversely, the cheap toasters of the Russell Hobbs, 1970s Generation Game conveyor belt variety, are capable workhorses. In. Toast. Pop. Not a wifi-enabled bagel function in sight.

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House plants

Cockroaches, Keith Richards and Ikea houseplants. Only they will survive the no longer inconceivable nuclear holocaust. Mass produced, jolly, vernal and hardy, they defy both nature and nurture and just keep growing. Cacti aside, I’ve somehow killed everything more expensive in days.


The impulse to honour someone with an ornate casket is understandable, but surely if someone wants to be buried, their desire is to return to the soil as soon as possible, not to keep it at bay with cherrywood and brass. An eco coffin of seagrass, bamboo or cardboard is a gentler, less wasteful option and perfectly respectful to the environment and the deceased. The latter would almost certainly prefer the money saved to go behind a bar, to toast their excellence at the wake.


Artisanal cola. No one wants that. They want the slightly hurty, punch in the back of the throat, hangover-busting fizz of proper Coke or Pepsi. The overly herbal, unpleasantly medicinal, uncaffeinated, half-arsed sparkle of folksy organic farmers’ market cola does nothing to ease tiredness or malaise. It exists purely so middle-class parents can buy their kids a coke without the shame and social exclusion of The Real Thing.


Ever tried to write your Christmas cards with a fountain pen? You’ll still be wafting in February. A humble quid’s worth of Biro just gets stuff done – no fuss, no frills. Mmmm… the shortening vein of ink in its hexagonal plastic coating, the musical blowing through the lid, the satisfaction felt when one’s fingernails grip the coloured plastic plug to ease it in and out of the pen’s stern, all while one should technically be working. Pure stationery porn with which no costly writing instrument can compete.


I have been obsessed with beautiful, glossy, aspirational magazines since childhood, worked on them since the 90s, and feel fiercely protective of their future. But give me a long train journey and I’ll grab the new issue of Closer faster than you can say Harper’s Bazaar. No upmarket glossy calms my blood pressure and improves my overall mood like Take A Break, That’s Life! and Pick Me Up! Even when skipping past the Kardashians and Love Islanders (no judgment, just no idea), there’s stacks of salacious gossip and delicious brain dessert inside. Go on – ask me for my top tips for kettle descaling, or literally anything about the Brazilian Bum Lift. I’m ready for you.

Christmas crackers

By all means, go as luxe as you like with Christmas presents, but know that no one ever looked to a cracker for an inspirational quote and nickel-plated money clip. The joy of wrestling with children, parent or spouse over a paper-covered toilet roll is that the stakes are so pointlessly low. What should fall on to the lunch table and into the gravy spill is a crap joke, fleetingly amusing trinket and a tissue crown so oversized as to later obscure napping eyes during Call The Midwife.