Thomas Sutcliffe Column

For a brief moment the hole in your life takes the precise shape of a purchasable item

It used to be said that every home in America possessed at least two books - the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. While the former offered poor homesteaders the consolations of the life hereafter, the latter beguiled them with the prospect of paradise on earth. Sears-Roebuck was an early version of virtual reality, in which that damp little soddie on the plains could be imaginatively transformed into a palace of late- Victorian technology - crammed with Galvanized Ice-boxes and Patented No-Snag mangles. Not much of the pioneer spirit is detectable in my North London house but we appear to share that passion for the consolation of catalogues. The magazine rack groans beneath a 2ft pile of the things - offering everything from stacks of spotless white linen (dream on - the other day our three-year-old told us to change the sheets) to sun- dappled lake-side cottages on Lake Winnipesaukee ("use of owner's boat by arrangement"). My wife is the heaviest user of these items (she is confident that she would cruise Mastermind if permitted the 1996 Ikea Catalogue as her specialist category) and chief provoker of their almost daily arrival. But I'm not immune to their charms myself. My personal vice is a catalogue for professional chefs, which allows me to dream about the someday possession of a pounds 107 stainless steel mandolin or 90 yards of catering muslin.

It seems that magazine publishers have now become alert to this free competition for their readers' time - at least in the male section of the market, which has always recognised the allure of expensive commodities. Two new magazines - T3 and the bluntly named Stuff - have dumped all those time-wasting interviews, fashion spreads, reviews and reports in favour of unabashed cargo culture; page after page of desirable knick-knacks and gadgets, a masturbatory feast of consumer arousal. Sears-Roebuck was once called the "Rosetta Stone of popular culture", the notion being you could decipher through its pages an entire lifestyle. And something similar would be true of most modern catalogues - even though most of them target their audience more narrowly than a Hunt Ball committee. It is also true of these magazines, which evoke their ideal reader with a Dickensian richness of detail.

The unacknowledged ancestor of both magazines (rather more embarrassing than the man-about-town of Esquire or GQ) is the Innovations catalogue, but there's no doubt that they have come up in the world. Look closely at the Innovations booklet and you sense an ideal reader hoping to rescue his world from imminent collapse, rather than someone fantasising about an enlarged life. Hobbling along in their orthopaedic stretch footwear, aching joints encased in Copper Comfort support bandages, they fret about unwanted nasal hair, leaking pipes and unsightly brown stains in their lavatory pan. Their wardrobes are damp (Coat rail dehumidifiers), their chairs scratched (Furniture retouching crayons) and they can't get even get the vacuum nozzle under the sideboard (Ten-piece nozzle extension kit) to clear the drifts of dog-hair. But buried in this dismal evocation of a life under repair there are hints of larger aspirations, something grander than preventing skin from forming on your gravy. Does the arthritic pensioner live a secret life after hours, clipping his walking stick to the handy table-top Cane Holder before disappearing into the dark with the night vision goggles and satellite navigation device?

Both those objects also feature prominently in T3, a technophiliac publication intended for the devoted acronym-spotter (the title itself is a compressed acronym for Tomorrow's Technology Today). Despite its defensive references to "geeks" and a certain convivial matiness in the small print captions, T3 is clearly aimed at the sort of man for whom a great day out would begin and end on Tottenham Court Road. When you turn this magazine sideways to scan a double-page spread you find yourself examining the sleek curves of a pounds 30,000 pair of speakers. And the objects here are not means to an end, whether it's peer-group respect or bodily sensation or sex. They are the end itself: "What terrible experience is traumatic enough to take away any man's love for his black boxes," the editors ask a reader who has written to complain about his relapse into technolust. Women feature only as things that might appear on a screen - in digitally enhanced definition (a porn video is used to test a new Toshiba VCR) or in 3D ("Impress your mates with girls leaping out of your telly," reads the caption, firmly establishing T3's gender priorities).

Stuff is altogether more practical about its desires - and considerably more fun. A sort of Which Behaving Badly, it incorporates many of the cutting edge gizmos included in T3 but adds consumer tests which imply that its readers might actually step outside now and then. A new "fumble- free" condom is given a bed-test and there is a jokey comparison table for top-shelf magazines, including a "Pay then Scarper" index to measure the embarrassment-quotient of each publication.

Both Stuff and T3, though, testify to the unique consolation of unfulfilled desire - the momentary delusion (which all catalogues permit) that the hole in your life isn't shapeless and shifting but bears the precise dimensions of some purchasable item - the world's smallest camcorder, say, or the world's most advanced mobile phone. This is, of course, a delusion that would never survive actual possession but in most cases, fortunately, that moment is unlikely ever to be reached. Browse through the catalogues or Stuff or T3 (if you don't get out much) and you can warm yourself on your wishes for ever

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