The Things That Shaped Our Year: Conspicuous Consumption

From the death of Diana to the birth of Dolly, and from the rise of Bridget Jones to the fall of the Spice Girls - our writers choose the 10 people and events which made 1997 so special
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It Started with the rumours. Did you hear the one about the three businessmen who went out to dinner and paid pounds 13,000? The actual meal at Le Gavroche in Mayfair cost a mere pounds 220 - it was vintage wine that really put a strain on their gold cards, including a bottle of burgundy at nearly pounds 5,000. The three men had one glass each, then gave the rest to the waiter to enjoy.

That was flash enough to impress even the young traders who could be found guzzling champagne in City bars again this year. The really big earners were still at their desks, mind you, as this time round the silly money was confined to an elite group of slightly older traders, usually survivors of the Eighties boom. A pounds 1m pay package was nothing unusual; others got more.

The difference between this year's boom and the one in the Eighties was discretion. Lavish spending had been going on, in private, since the end of the recession. But only after New Labour got in and the feel- good factor came back (unless, that is, you were a single parent) did it become public again. Inevitably, this started in London, where gossip began to include moans about how expensive restaurants were always full, and how difficult it was to get a box at the theatre, darling.

Suddenly there seemed to be money everywhere: in the City, in the arts, sport, the media, advertising, the computer industry and the law. It was OK to display your wealth if you did it with compassion, like the computer businessman who gave each member of his sales force a brand-new BMW for every 25 contracts he or she landed.

As Tony Blair invited his showbiz friends to Downing Street, or entertained the French with the help of Sir Terence Conran, unofficial Minister for Taste, it was clear that money was chic, and nobody in government was going to question the unequal distribution of wealth. Neither could the rest of us - not while we all had a (very remote) chance to join the party, as one of the 450 new millionaires created by the National Lottery.

Porsche and Mercedes cars were selling at a pace not seen since Mrs Thatcher's heyday, it was revealed (one Porsche salesman in Cheshire took orders worth more than pounds 1m in his first two weeks). It was the same story at Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Those who wanted something faster went for ex-RAF fighter jets, sales of which soared.

Meanwhile, estate agents talked of "a new age of grandeur" as Aubrey House, one of the most expensive homes in London, was sold for pounds 20m - even though it needed restoration. A fund manager bought Culham Court, an 18th-century house on the Thames in Berkshire for pounds 12m - almost twice the original asking price - after a bidding war. Sales of art and furniture, Georgian silver and fine wines were very healthy, as the nouveau nouveau riche filled their new homes with investments. Extravagance was disguised as taste, and the greatest sin was to be vulgar. As one agent specialising in prestige homes said, "Nobody wants to buy a grand house and live in it with G-Plan furniture."

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