With less than three weeks to go, it's doom and gloom in the high street as traders predict the worst Christmas for more than two decades. More than half of all retailers have said sales have fallen since November 2004. For every one of the past four months, sales have been the lowest - for each month - for 22 years. Nothing looks like changing in the short term.
"Have you been shopping lately?" one of my favourite columnists writes in a rival Saturday colour magazine, and each week she pays an anonymous visit to a high street chain, then writes a thorough report for readers. From Next to Laura Ashley, she seems to enter shops willing to buy, and generally leaves empty-handed, baffled by lazy, ignorant sales assistants, loud music, confusing displays and lack of direction. Sales now happen so often we shoppers are no longer enthusiastic about paying the real price for anything; and, with the internet, it's possible to purchase many electrical goods and gadgets with huge discounts.
How Christmas shopping has changed since our parents took us up to town to see the lights and meet Santa! Now you have to fight through crowds on the Tube or pay a fortune to park. Shops are laid out in ways that are not only convoluted, but also allow nowhere for the shopper to sit and rest. After an hour, you feel that four days in the jungle with Carol Thatcher and Cannon and Ball would be preferable to this retail assault course.
It's so much less stressful to click a mouse, enter your credit card details and wait for the goodies to be delivered to your door. There is no way back for the department store; ultimately they are the dinosaurs of the 21st century, the redundant fixture in any town centre. Soon shopping will have polarised into expensive one-off boutiques, restaurants and cafés in town centres, and out-of-town discount malls and supermarkets surrounded by massive parking. There will be no middle way in retailing.
Of course, the directors of John Lewis will be penning angry letters to me telling me they have had rising sales for six weeks, but they still have racks of discounted clothes, and if things are so hunky-dory why are their rivals, Selfridges, making this weekend a "20 per cent off" event for family and friends (that is, everyone). Even posh Liberty held a 20 per cent off evening last Wednesday for account-holders.
Retailers can moan about the long warm autumn which made us delay buying our winter woollies and coats, but that's only one of the reasons for the present slump. People are slowly beginning to realise they don't need to buy so much stuff. And, with rising transport costs, a record level of credit card debt, big winter fuel bills and council tax, there isn't the cash to do so.
I've noticed, too, that trendy friends have stopped buying presents, giving stuff from the Good Gifts catalogue, such as cows and camels for African villages instead. There are ways of letting people know you care about them that can benefit someone who has so much less. Suddenly the old idea of making a list of every relative and loved one and filling in an item next to their name seems so passé, so working class.
Let's be honest: we all want to pretend we're in the middle class these days, and a whole generation has grown up who treat Christmas gift buying differently. The days when dad got a pair of socks, mum talcum powder, your sister a bubble bath and Auntie Eileen toilet water have long gone. And what is the point of splashing out on a new party frock when the chances are someone in the office will be sick on it? I've noticed that glossy magazines are concentrating on the outfits you can wear to work then on to a party in. The old notion of going home to change is a non-starter when it's taken you two hours to get to work on public transport.
Sorry, Gordon, but it's enough to make me puke
If shopping doesn't cause domestic fallout, then Christmas cooking is guaranteed to cause rows, from how long to cook the turkey to whether the leeks should have white sauce or not.
Now Gordon Ramsay has entered the fray. On his television programme 'The F Word', he has the gall to claim that women can't cook. I'm appearing on it soon and we have already nearly come to blows over what exactly I'm allowed to create for dessert, because four guests in a row have beaten Gordon in the blind tastings (everything from bread and butter pud to trifle) and our man is feeling a little bit vulnerable.
Mr Ramsay's dead keen we should spend Christmas Day cooking goose with truffles, and conjure up caramelised swede and cardamon soup and baked alaska with Baileys. Not only would I puke if I had to consume all that rich food, but the strain of preparing it would ensure January would be spent at my local branch of Relate. If I want sex at Christmas, we'll be eating oysters, beef and no dessert. I challenge anyone to look seductive after eating Gordon's blow-out. It would be like bonking Mr Blobby.
Showtime #1: Drop the politics, Madge, and get yourself a life
'I'm Going to Tell You a Secret' was the title of the two-hour-plus "documentary" executive-produced by Madonna, which followed her on the 2004 tour. The title was an anomaly. We didn't learn anything about Madge that wasn't designed to flog masses of her latest album. This wasn't a documentary, but a marketing device, shamelessly employing her kids, her old man, and anyone she could drag in. It was 'folie de grandeur' on an epic level, Madge telling us she had a mission "to wake people up". She seems, like Bono, to have decided her mission in life is not just to sing, dance, write music and bring joy to people's lives as a brilliant entertainer, but to educate the uninformed (as she sees them) about war, the environment, religion and the need to vote. The problem with Madonna is that, like the Prince of Wales, she is surrounded by people too craven to do anything but agree with her. I applaud her talent as a musician but as far as politics go, she is still at the primary-school level. And Madonna lacks the sophistication to make herself likeable. Get a life, love!
Showtime #2: It's taste-free, sure - and audiences love it
'Little Britain' continues its glorious tour, and I caught the show in Oxford last week. It's a triumph, sold out more or less everywhere, and this audience was a broad cross-section of old, very young, middle class and blue-collar workers, students and teenagers. A panto atmosphere prevailed, and all the projectile-vomiting and urine jokes go down a storm. It's a taste-free zone and anything that can fill theatres up and down the land night after night gets my vote. I bet Johann Hari and all the Little Britain Hate Society aren't bothering to do a spot check on dubious jokes in pantomimes over the coming weeks. Matt Lucas and David Walliams are firmly in the tradition of Benny Hill, Dick Emery and Kenneth Williams, and long may they reign.Reuse content