Well, IF shopping is the British national disease, as announced in last week's New Statesman, there are plenty of people out there suffering from it. Admitting that I was off to New York for the weekend, everyone seemed to know what I was going to do. Even the men rebuilding a house on our road. "New York, eh? Are you going shopping?" "I bet you're going shopping!" "Have a great time shopping", and so on.
Funnily enough, I wasn't actually planning on travelling 5,000 miles and crossing five time zones to go shopping. I live in London. Plus, I already have an overdraft and an, er, thrifty lifestyle. Plus, all the shops in New York are replicated in London. Yes, they are.
No, I was off to New York for an exhibition by the sculptor Jane South, a friend of mine from the age of five. I'm a fan, but sadly not a collector; her delicate wood and paper sculptures cost $10,000 a throw. Once I arrived, I wasn't desperate to whip my credit card into oblivion anyway, even though the exchange rate is 2:1 and shopping in America always feels like you are playing with Monopoly money. My unusual walletry restraint was caused by several phenomena.
First, the lack of cultural freebies. Let us consider the theatre. Not much state support, and certainly no Travelex-sponsored £10 nights to enjoy here. On Broadway, a ticket for a musical costs $110. (£55) "Anything cheaper?" I asked the box office. "Well, we have some seats for $85," was the reply. Even the off-Broadway show I went to cost $55, which is quite a lot for a play with a cast of two lasting 70 minutes. I didn't see anyone nodding off, however. Or walking out. Too expensive.
Similarly with visual art. In order to visit the Museum of Modern Art, recently refurbished with several hundred million dollars of private money, one has to join a long queue and pay $20 for admission.
At which point it's easy to feel all sniffy, and think fondly of Tate Britain, or the rest of our national galleries with their free admission. But paying $20 to see the Modern's stellar collection has several effects on the visitor. It makes you focus on the works. It also makes you far less critical of the surroundings, since every gallery is credited with the names of real people who have volunteered to stump up for them.
I know this makes a lot of people cringe, and I know that one person's philanthropy is another person's tax break, but these wealthy types could have given their money away to build something much easier than a gallery for modern art. Then, having already coughed up $20 for an entrance ticket, you don't really want to find yourself coughing up for anything else.
So, no post-cultural visit to the Museum Shop for the pointless haul of magnets, postcards and mugs with which I usually find myself burdened after a visit to Tate Modern. Someone at the British Museum once confessed to me that free admission was all very well as a first principle, but getting the most out of the public afterwards in a classic shop/café pincer movement was a rather jolly second principle.
Why do you think British galleries have such a plethora of vast, prominent and well-lit areas for buying absolute rubbish on your way out? Frankly, I'd rather spend $20 on experiencing something I know is a masterpiece than the same on experiencing a masterpiece of marketing. Give me Les Demoiselles d'Avignon over a Tate Britain eraser any day. I'm giving up Museum Shops forthwith.
All right, having been so highbrow, I'll admit I did spend a morning at the shops. And learnt that while New Yorkers may pay through the nose for culture, they certainly don't want to do the same for couture. The chi-chi shops around Fifth Avenue; Nicole Farhi, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, and the rest were almost totally empty. The hot option is now to go to Century 21, a giant emporia of designer bargains at Ground Zero, or Filene's Basement (same idea), or good old H&M where you can get heavenly lingerie for $6 and funky knitwear for $25.
Shopping for discounted clothes is not regarded as low-brow. It's smart. The Federal Reserve has put up interest rates 17 times in recent months, and Americans are famously not allowed to get overdrawn. I always suspected I'd have been better off growing up in the US.