A little choice goes a long way

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A FEW years ago, when Russia was still the Soviet Union and St Petersburg was still called Leningrad, a young Russian friend came to stay with us in London for a month.

Alexander had been abroad before, but only to East Germany. He had taught himself English by reading American thrillers and Westerns, which gave a raffish edge to his otherwise able fluency. We looked forward to showing him the fabled, long- dreamt-of West.

Before taking him to visit Oxford, Cambridge, Greenwich and other architectural marvels, however, we went first to our local Sainsbury's. We thought he would be thrilled. In fact, he wasn't at all; he was stunned, sobered and ultimately sorry for us. 'So much choice,' he said. 'How do you find time to think? It must take so long just choosing your food.'

In the Leningrad shops I had seen a few months before, there was no choice. If you wanted shoes, you bought what was on offer and counted yourself lucky. In the food shops, you queued for whatever turned up on the counter - tinned ham, pickled herring, gristly lumps of meat - and ate it with cabbage, pale tomatoes and mounds of potatoes. But the conversation - oh, the conversations we had over those meals were wonderful.

Since then, Russia has gained access to the West's bewildering array of choices. You can buy Yves St Laurent or Estee Lauder in Moscow and St Petersburg, and drive around in a flashy Mercedes without being a member of the elite. But the privileged few are as few under capitalism as they ever were under Communism, and not necessarily more deserving. Democracy is equated with choice, but choice in modern Russia comes from having money rather than freedom.

It is more than six months since I resolved to restrict my own consumer choice and stop spending money - time, perhaps, for a mid-term report. I have kept to it pretty well, paid off my accounts, and stuck the final Harvey Nichols bill for pounds 00.00 triumphantly to the side of the fridge. From now on, the savings should begin to show.

A brief aberration did occur around the time of the summer sales. I resisted for the first week, travelling everywhere by Underground so as not to be tempted. At the end of the second week, my nerve broke. I went into my favourite store and spent . . . very little, really.

It was interesting to see how far my scale of extravagance had shifted. Where I might have splashed out on a shirt marked down from pounds 200 to pounds 70, I now examined and rejected it, preferring to pay pounds 30 for something reduced from pounds 70. So yes, I broke my vow, but not by much - and, as a friend pointed out, there is all the difference in the world between spending money and replacing things.

But Alexander has been proved right: the real benefit has been in the freedom from choice. Should I buy this jacket or that one; these sandals or those espadrilles; should I order from my wine merchant's delectable list or go to Oddbins.

All these decisions have been absent from my life. Covetousness has tweaked at my chequebook, greed has whispered: go on, you deserve it. But I have found it easier to say no to everything than to decide which consumer desires I should gratify. And yes, it has saved time, some of which is now devoted instead to conversation.

Strangely, perhaps, I found myself wondering whether virginity might not be an easier option than sowing wild oats before settling down to marriage. This, after all, is what Asian matchmakers and Islamic protectors of women's 'virtue' always claim. If choice merely confuses us; if, as is bound to happen in a society where wealth equals desirability, young men and women are distracted by the outward show of charm or cars or credit cards, surely it would be better to defer to wise parental guidance? Isn't life simpler and happier for both sexes if they take one considered and lifelong partner rather than several short-term ones? The answer, I think, is that selecting a partner is more complicated and momentous than buying a winter coat, and the more experience one can acquire the more reliable and lasting the final choice will be. An unflattering winter coat is a mistake that one is saddled with for a couple of seasons; an unhappy partnership may last a lifetime, especially if the choice of husband or wife has been imposed by impressionable parents or marriage brokers.

Sexual freedom is not just a 20th-century extravagance: men have always opted for it. Women used not to have the same freedom because promiscuity meant pregnancy, and an illegitimate baby meant loss of status, with the burden borne by one rather than two parents. Today, the stigma no longer exists - though the burden is still carried mainly by mothers.

It is always tempting to hark back to what seems like the good old days of doing what you were told and being grateful for what you were given. But it is narrow- minded and simplistic to reject the vast choices that the 20th century offers - if still only to a few. Those of us who have them must justify our privilege by using choice in a moral way: I mean (pompous though it may sound) to do good, and not just for commercial self-indulgence.

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