Editor-At-Large: Charity auctions; how to shop; big and brainless

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The scene is always the same, and it happens almost every night of the week. In a crowded room people squirm uncomfortably on small gold chairs, twisting in their seats to try and catch a glimpse of someone behind. About the same number of people stand drinking and chatting packed into the back of the room, and an

The scene is always the same, and it happens almost every night of the week. In a crowded room people squirm uncomfortably on small gold chairs, twisting in their seats to try and catch a glimpse of someone behind. About the same number of people stand drinking and chatting packed into the back of the room, and an

increasingly desperate posh man tries to goad everyone into paying attention, making pleas for quiet that go unheeded. Everyone is clutching a glass of champagne in one hand and a large cumbersome glossy brochure in the other. It's the modern version of Sunday school – the charity auction. Every week I hear the thud as another catalogue drops through the letterbox. My fax spews out daily requests for an item of clothing, or a photo to be donated to a worthy cause. And I'm not even famous. Can you imagine how much begging Tracey Emin or David Bailey get? Both are incredibly generous souls who regularly donate works to be sold at charity events.

But let's stop and think about the fact that one of the biggest growth industries last year was the whole business of charity. I'm not for one moment knocking worthy causes. But the charity auction has surely had its day as a fundraiser. They are two a penny, with increasingly ludicrous lots, relying on a drunken crowd's impetuous generosity when manipulated by the goadings of a professional auctioneer. They're not fun, they go on too long, the people who have donated valuable pieces of work and expensive jewellery or holidays can feel short-changed. The whole process can be too hit and miss.

The people who are really profiting from charity auctions are the makers of gold chairs, brochure printers, and PR companies. We are always hearing about how much was raised, but how often do the charities concerned send out accounts to the people who donated items, showing exactly how much ended up going to the cause concerned?

I'm not implying that there's any underhand business, but surely there's an easier and cheaper way to raise cash than this? To make your auction a success, you don't just need stars to donate lots, you need more stars to attend to feed the paparazzi so you can flog the event to OK or Hello!.

And who's to say that anyone will bid for a photo taken by the editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, of a pair of plimsoles or a snap sent in by Jeremy Irons (a nice chap but hardly Cartier-Bresson) of a tramp on a bench entitled "The Homeless in Pain"? A couple of weeks ago Nigella Lawson set a world record for cupcakes when a tray of them she'd baked sold for £1,500 in aid of the Lavender Trust. Last Monday at Christie's, an auction in aid of the Aids charities the Terrence Higgins Trust and the London Lighthouse raised £150,000 with a bizarre selection of items including the chance to have a portrait painted of your dog. The week before an auction at the Royal Academy of Arts attended by the former mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani raised £100,000 for the Twin Towers Fund by selling photos of celebrities by Eve Arnold and Patrick Lichfield. The list goes on.

Before Christmas I donated a £400 pair of glasses to a charity called Sight Savers in order to raise money for short sighted children in Africa. I haven't heard a word about whether the glasses sold, how much money was raised or even if one myopic toddler in Kenya has benefited by my feeble gesture. Truth is, if I'm concerned about children in the third world needing glasses, I should have sent money directly to the charity buying them and bypassed all the celebrity hype surrounding an auction.

How to shop

Last week I decided that my Katharine Hamnett jeans were too sad for even an after-dark biscuit run to the supermarket. There's a point with jeans when you just have to say goodbye. The crotch has sagged, they don't fit anywhere, and they're never going to wash down to an "interesting" colour. The only other workwear option in my wardrobe was a pair of the so-called ergonomic Levis with the twisting seams. They never did fit anywhere but I was too embarrassed when I bought them to ask why not.

The solution was to go to the men's department of Selfridges at opening time, select the best-looking assistant, take a comfortable seat and send him out to choose my new jeans. This way I would get top fashion styling by a twentysomething clubber without the aggravation of having to try and decipher hip bibles like Dazed and Confused or Sleazenation. I could tap into retail trends without the humiliation of a size eight female sales operative making me feel 120. Thirty minutes later I owned a "work-of-art" pair of straight-leg Evisu jeans (a mere £150) and some pre-wrecked soft and gorgeous Helmut Lang ones for £85. "Fashion victim" I hear you all cry... but what fun I'd had. And now I can go to the supermarket and the deli in daylight, proudly sporting legwear that makes me look thoroughly on-message.

You can't live in a fashion conscious village like Clerkenwell, London where architects and graphic designers are 20 to an acre, without considering these things. We just factor it in with the rent and the council tax. But now I have a dilemma – the cleaning or laundering of these new purchases. In the two years since I last bought a pair of jeans a revolution has happened. Welcome to the world of dry-clean only denim. Fabric that's been tortured and dyed to look so exquisitely ancient that a whirl around your spin dryer will cause it to disintegrate. Once jeans were made for men to round up cattle in, strike matches on their back pockets, and wear for decades while poking at hot metal in a steel mill. These days jeans can only cope with light cigarette smoke and a small amount of club-style perspiration. Dirt (as in heavy duty) isn't an issue. These garments are no more designed for the world of real work than Tom Ford's Gucci collection is for a regular day in the office.

My Helmut Lang jeans carry a large white card that says they have to be dry cleaned to preserve their "unique colour and texture". The label in the trousers says wash at 40 degrees. The Evisu jeans are even more confusing. The label says "machine wash hot" next to a symbol for a cold wash of 30 degrees. The shop assistant said it was best to dry clean them to keep the exact colour. "Or try that cold worn-once underwear setting" he added helpfully. So there you have it. Shall I risk a £235 disaster or resign myself to a £12 a week dry cleaning tax? The jury is out.

Big and brainless

Want to know what kind of art President Bush likes? Visit Tate Britain and see American Sublime, an exhibition of landscapes painted in America between 1820 and 1880. It's a good job the curators didn't hang any of the gallery's Turners alongside these epic renditions of the Mid West prairies and Niagara Falls. Where Turner takes you on a thrilling journey into the heart of his vision, painters like Edwin Church are content just to render the vastness of their native landscape and leave you to wonder at the sheer scale of it. The function of this art is to create a sense of history, give a new country a cultural weight. It's art as propaganda, and nowadays hangs in every Mid-West bank headquarters from Dallas to Oklahoma City. Even in 1850, those Yanks were a bit lacking in irony.

American Sublime, Tate Britain, London SW1 till 19 May.