The Shops, by India Knight

The author's lifestyle on a plate
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The Independent Culture

"This is not a shopping guide," says India Knight in her introduction to The Shops. "It's a book about shopping - a sort of Joy of Sex for shops, with fewer beardy, tumescent men." There are not, in fact, any beardy, tumescent men in what the jacket bills as an "essential guide-cum-memoir", though there is a surprise appearance from India Knight's father's penis.

"This is not a shopping guide," says India Knight in her introduction to The Shops. "It's a book about shopping - a sort of Joy of Sex for shops, with fewer beardy, tumescent men." There are not, in fact, any beardy, tumescent men in what the jacket bills as an "essential guide-cum-memoir", though there is a surprise appearance from India Knight's father's penis.

"Seeing your father's penis peering out of a photograph is perhaps best avoided if you are a sensitive adolescent," she observes drily, after describing her stepmother's casual revelation, over a leather-bound photo album, of a shared enthusiasm for "swapping" and "swinging". This small digression, thrown into a section on "looking better", is entirely characteristic of Knight's idiosyncratic approach and her extraordinary background.

"Please don't misinterpret this book as some sort of creepy guide to gracious living," she pleads, but it is a request at least partly doomed to fall on deaf ears. With tips on "where to get your brows done and why you should", it's hard not to feel that what one is being offered is India Knight's Life on a Plate - or at least her lifestyle. And what a seductive life it seems to be.

If Knight does not aim quite at an Alain de Botton type meditation on shopping as existential quest, she does offer a range of musings on shopping as pursuit, or recreation, or happiness. Memories of childhood feature prominently in fuelling her passion, beginning with the purchase, aged six, of a tartelette citron at a patisserie in Brussels. "'You mean we give you a few coins and the lovely thing becomes mine?'" is how she sums up this life-changing epiphany. In a Brussels supermarket, aged five, she remembers amusing the queues by wailing " Maman, maman, on a oublié le caviare." It was a childhood of feast or famine, caviare or sardines. It was also a childhood of spectacular eccentricity.

It is the glimpses of this childhood, and the characters that make up the extended Knight clan, that are most engaging: India's visit to her dying father, memories of her stepmother's constipation and shopping trips with her mother to Brent Cross. All these are interspersed with chatty tips on "dog things", "bras for big bosoms", farm shops and karaoke, much of it presented in themed boxes which testify to a lifetime's gruelling research.

If the eyebrow threading and spa treatments imply the pricey self-indulgence you expect to find in colour supplements, they are at least partly redeemed by a raft of more endearing qualities. Knight is very keen on "big fat dinners". She spends much of her time in "fleecy pyjama bottoms", but has firm recommendations for "pants of steel" to wear under something a little more glamorous. She loves Argos as well as Harvey Nicks.

In her eagerness not to appear too earnest, however, she slips into a style that at times verges on laziness. The result is mildly amusing and mildly charming, but will irritate the hell out of the many people who believe that writers inhabit a cosy, North London world of bijou delis and smart boutiques. On the evidence of this book, they do.

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