Among the catalogue's other intriguing offerings were a documentary called Antique Farm Tractors, a boxed set representing the complete oeuvre of Don Knotts, and an interesting compilation entitled Nude Housewives of America (Vols 1 & 2), depicting ordinary housewives "doing their daily chores in the buff!"
And to think I asked for a socket wrench for Christmas.
My point is that there is almost nothing you cannot buy in this remarkable country. Of course, shopping has been the national sport in America for decades, but three significant retailing developments in recent years have elevated the shopping experience to a higher, giddier plane. They are:
Telemarketing. This is an all-new business in which platoons of salespeople phone up complete strangers at random, and doggedly read to them a prepared script promising a free set of steak knives or AM-FM radio if they buy a certain product or service. These people have become positively relentless.
The possibility that I would buy a time-share in Florida from a stranger over the telephone is about as likely as the possibility that I would change religion on the basis of a doorstep visit from a brace of Mormons, but evidently this feeling is not universal. According to the New York Times, telemarketing in America is now worth $35 billion a year. That figure is so amazing that I cannot think about it without getting headache, so let us move on to retail development number two: Outlet Malls.
These are malls in which companies like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein sell their own lines at discounts. They are, in short, clusters of shops where everything is permanently on sale. They have become huge.
In many cases, outlet malls are not malls at all, but rather whole communities that have been taken over by outlet stores. Easily the most remarkable of these is Freeport, Maine, home of LL Bean, a popular supplier of outdoor apparel and sporting equipment for yuppies.
We stopped there last summer on the way through Maine and I am still trembling from the experience. The procedure for a visit to Freeport is unvarying. You creep into town in a long line of traffic, spend 40 minutes hunting for a parking space, then join a crowd of thousands shuffling along Main Street past a succession of shops selling every known brand name that ever was or will be.
At the centre of it all is the LL Bean store, which is enormous. It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can buy a kayak there at 3am if you want. People apparently do. My brain is beginning to hurt again.
Finally: Catalogues. Shopping by post has been around for a long time, but it has proliferated to a degree that is just beyond astounding. Almost from the moment we arrived in America catalogues began plopping unbidden on to our mat with the daily mail. Now we get a dozen a week, sometimes more. Catalogues for videos, gardening implements, lingerie, books, camping and fishing gear, things to make your bathroom more stylish and convivial, you name it. For a long time I tossed these out with the rest of the unsolicited mail. What a fool I was. I now realise they not only provide hours of reading pleasure, but open up a world of possibilities I scarcely knew existed.
Just today, along with the aforementioned nude Macarena brochure, we received a catalogue called Tools for Serious Readers. It was full of the usual assortment of blotters and desk tidies, but what particularly caught my eve was something called the Briefcase Valet - a small wheeled trolley that sits about four inches off the floor.
Available in dark or natural cherry and attractively priced at $139, it is designed to alleviate one of the most intractable office storage problems of our age. As the catalogue copy explains: "Most of us are faced with the same nagging problem of what to do with our briefcase when we put it down at home or in the office. That's why we designed our Briefcase Valet. It holds your briefcase up off the floor, making it easier to insert and retrieve things as the day progresses."
I especially like those last four words, "as the day progresses." How many times have I got to the end of a working day myself and thought: "Oh, what I'd give for a small wheeled device in a choice of wood tones to save me reaching those last four inches."
The scary thing is that often these descriptions are written so artfully that you are almost taken in by them. I was just reading in another catalogue about a fancy kitchen accessory from Italy called a "porto rotolo di carta", which boasts "a spring tension arm, stainless steel guide, crafted brass finial" and "rubber gasket for exceptional stability" - all for just $49.95 - when I realised that it was a paper towel holder.
Obviously the catalogue couldn't say, "No matter how you look at it, this is just a paper towel dispenser and you'd be a sap to buy it," so they must try to dazzle you with its exotic pedigree and technical complexity.
In consequence, even the most mundane catalogue items boast more design features than a 1954 Buick. I have before me a glossy book from another company announcing with undisguised pride that their flannel shirts feature, among much else, gauntlet buttons, extra-long sleeve plackets, two-ply 40S yarn construction ("for a superior nap"), boxed back pleat, double stitching at stress points, handy locker loop and non-fused collar, whatever all that may be. Even socks come with lengthy, scientific-sounding descriptions extolling their seamless closures, one-to-one fibre loops and hand-linked yarns.
I confess I have sometimes been briefly tempted by these seductive blandishments to make a purchase, but in the end I realise that given a choice between paying $37.50 for a shirt with a superior nap and just having a nap, I will always go for the latter.
However, let me say right here that if anyone comes up with a Totally Nude Macarena Socket-Wrench Home Workout Video with handy locker loop in a choice of colours, I am ready to buy.
Notes from a Big Country, Doubleday, pounds 16.99.Reuse content