With Fantasy Shopping, who needs a life?

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The Independent Culture
I WENT to bed with the IKEA catalogue last night, which is something that I often do when in need of a soothing end to the day. That's the sort of boring person I have become. I lie there at 10.30pm, thinking, "What a nice sofa [the Tulka two-sea ter in Biarp red]. Gosh, it's only £440, why don't I buy one for the sitting- room?"

And then I think, "Perhaps we should go and have a look at IKEA this weekend?" Even if we don't buy the Tulka two-seater, we could get a Herbert hall-tidy in natural solid spruce for only £33. It would be so handy to put things in; and while we're there,we could eat some Swedish meatballs at the IKEA restaurant. ("Shopping makes everyone hungry," it says in the catalogue - how very true - "so take time to sit down and enjoy a tasty meal.")

Towards the back of the catalogue, there is some stuff about how you can have a really enjoyable family outing to IKEA during its special Swedish week ("Make a note of the date now"), next to a nice picture of little Swedes picking buttercups in a field,and another one of grown-up Swedes dancing round a giant Maypole. The headline is: "Have a day out in Sweden. Visit IKEA!"

But I know, deep down, that I will not be celebrating Swedish week, nor purchasing a handy Herbert hall-tidy. I have, in fact, never been to IKEA, and I probably never will. It's too far to go; there's bound to be a traffic jam on the way and no buttercups when we get there; and despite the lure of the Swedish meatballs, the children would be guaranteed to misbehave.

If there was an IKEA mail order catalogue, however, I'd be in a spending frenzy. The Bjorkvalla chest of drawers, definitely! The Attraktiv 20-piece dinner service, yes! I want a lovely Swedish dream home where the sun always shines: just send it over, asap.

That is, after all, one of the points of buying by catalogue: you don't have to go shopping. You can simply lie in bed, point to a picture, pick up the phone, ask for your heart's desire, and 24 hours later it's yours, nicely packaged and delivered to the door like a great big birthday present. Yes, I do know that you have to pay for it, but not until several weeks later. That's why we love it: for if shopping is the nation's favourite pastime, mail order catalogue shopping - apparently worth £4.4bn a year - is its secret vice.

Take my friend Kate, who is a teacher, a responsible mother of two, and a catalogue junkie. She's nearly got the lot: Laura Ashley, Racing Green, Land's End, Habitat, Tridias - but the one that she's really pining for is the Next catalogue. "I used to have one," she told me yesterday. "And when I bought things it felt like I was getting something for nothing. Then the bills would arrive, and I always meant to pay, but I never quite got round to it. In the end, I was cut off." She paid her arrears, but Next never forgave her: so no new catalogue, ever again. "I tried applying under my partner's surname, and from a different address when we moved house, but it didn't work. Then I rang up and begged, but they still wouldn't send me one."

"You could order some clothes from someone else's Next catalogue," I suggested.

"It wouldn't be the same," she said mournfully. "I want my own. I like the way it smells, and the thickness of the pages, and the box it comes in."

I haven't got my very own copy of the new Next catalogue either, but I soon will. Last week I received a nice letter from Andrew Varley, the managing director of Next Dir-ectory. "Dear Ms Picardie," said Andrew. "AN EXCITING INVITATION... reserve your Spring/Summer '95 Next Directory now - and at the same time, why not enter our Free Prize Draw? You could drive away in a top- performing sporty Mazda MX5!" I like the sound of that, Andrew, I really do. And as you so rightly point out, spending £3 on my personal copy of the Next Directory is a bargain, because it means I can look at it whenever I want to. (You want that Floral Sprig sweater in the middle of the night? It's yours!)

In the meantime, I've borrowed the new catalogue from my friend Elaine. It's great: a glossy hard cover with tastefully blurred red flowers on it, just like your own special family photograph album. And inside there's pictures of the happy family you might be, if only you were wearing those "stylish yet practical" Next clothes. The women are tanned golden brown, with long blonde hair, and they smile at their serene children as they run along the beach together. Maybe I would look a bit like them if I too had a pair of Stone Easy Fit Jersey Trousers and a patch pocket on the back. Perhaps, if I bought a Black Halterneck Underwired Bikini, I'd also have a flat stomach. Or if my husband sent away for some Aqua Surfer Style Shorts (100 per cent nylon Tactel), we could frolic on a tropical island just like the jolly Next people, or even snog on the sand if we got really lucky and he slipped on a pair of Basic Zig Zag Stitch Shorts.

You don't get snogging and frolicking like that at the Next shop in your local high street, do you? No, just bawling children and push-chairs and grumpy men saying, "For God's sake, we can't afford to buy anything, so can we please go home right now?" And you know that you don't really want the Stone Easy Fit Jersey Trousers anyway, because who wants to spend £26.99 on something that makes you feel like a fat frump?

So why do we fall for the lure of mail order catalogues every time? It's the same trousers, but they look better on that smiley girl, and curiously irresistible. "Catalogues are for sad people who don't have a life," says my friend Elaine, and perhaps she's right. But I'd like to be more positive, and suggest that they represent the triumph of hope over experience. I'd like to, but I can't. !