Editor-At-Large: We are a nation of puritans now, not shopkeepers

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The Independent Online

"Bloodbath on the high street", screamed a newspaper headline last week. It was not a horror film opening nationwide, but the day Woolworths – facing bankruptcy – was offered for sale for £1 and Marks and Spencer tried to woo back customers by offering 20 per cent off a range of merchandise. At this rate, should we expect every high street to consist of boarded-up shop fronts by the New Year? Yes, people have less money to spend, but some sections of the media seem determined to ramp up the current financial difficulties to the point where the once pleasurable act of spending is cast as the eleventh deadly sin.

First we were told to junk plastic bags to save the environment: now I see the day when anyone carrying purchases is treated like a smoker – the ultimate social pariah. Owning up to spending money on something that didn't have a reduced sticker on it is soon going to be considered as foolhardy as smoking crack.

We seem to have moved very swiftly from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of discount shoppers, to a nation of people too embarrassed to admit they enjoy buying anything at all. We're giving up shopping just as we gave up gas-guzzling cars. If you don't boast about patronising Lidl or Netto, you're simply not on-message. If you're not turning your old clothes into rag rugs or swapping clothes with your mates, you're a social cripple. Every day I read about making jam, growing vegetables, bartering ironing for meat.

I admit, some aspects of consumerism had got out of control: the sight of middle-aged females fighting over tops in Primark and flimsy Kate Moss gear in Topshop was a bit depressing. How many sequinned cardigans and fringed suede boots do you need? Every time we stuffed ourselves, drank too much and expanded a bit around the waist, there was always a cheap clothing outlet to cover those guilty extra inches.

These purchases fed low-paid Third World workers, but did not do a lot for our economy. Be honest, we were buying too much crap. Shopping for un-necessities had become our drug of choice. But now the pendulum has swung the other way, and every time a shop goes bust because of our new puritanism people lose their jobs and town centres start to die.

The day of the bloodbath headline, the retail entrepreneur Philip Green was on the radio moaning about all the talk of doom and gloom. Later, the retail sales figures for October were released, and guess what the headlines were in the financial pages? "It's not all that bad on the high street!" At exactly the moment when the banks started to unravel, sales were only down 0.1 per cent on the previous month. In retail terms, sales of household goods were down 3.2 per cent, with clothing and footwear down 1.5 per cent, but food was up 1 per cent. John Lewis, the barometer for middle-class Britain, reported that, although business was difficult, it wasn't catastrophic.

So, how to get through Christmas in the new moral climate, when savings must be made? All the supermarkets are competing to offer the cheapest Christmas dinner: Asda and Tesco are promoting yuletide feasts for under £8. Not to be outdone, Delia Smith has turned to Sainsbury's for the ingredients for a dinner costing just £8.70 – but, pork rissoles with mash followed by spotted dick? Far too unhealthy. Most supermarket offers are cons, pure and simple. Buy wisely, cook well, and you'll still have a delicious Christmas. But don't stop shopping.

Extreme sport Go play on the race track, says Mrs E

Proof that motor racing is bad for your judgement: the Formula One boss, pint-sized Bernie Ecclestone, has just been dumped by his long-suffering wife, Slavica, after 24 years of marriage. As a six-footer myself, I always think far too much is made of disparities in height – just look at Sophie Dahl and Jamie Cullum. When you're a tall woman, it's sod's law that what you fancy generally comes in pixie size.

More interesting, too, than the near-three decades that separate glamorous Mrs E from her irascible hubbie was the news that she liked to do housework and refused to buy a dishwasher. Clearly a woman with sensible values. But when your bloke reaches 78 years and finds the roar of engines and the smell of burning tyres more interesting than the sound of your seductive voice and your classy perfume, it's time to move on.

While Mrs E is expected to end up with a sizeable chunk of her husband's billions, Madonna and Guy's divorce reached court last Friday, and it seems Guy has decided not to trouser any of her cash. Mind you, I'm sure he's been given the large properties in London and Wiltshire, so he's not exactly slumming it.

My 20-year crawl to the desert island

For years I've grovelled to Radio 4 to be asked on 'Desert Island Discs' – it's a fabulous programme, full of surprises. I didn't really qualify (not old or heavyweight enough) during the Roy Plomley years back in the early 1980s. Then I was told that Sue Lawley, his replacement, loathed me. Finally, the charming Kirsty Young took over in 2006 and I was cautiously hopeful.

Sadly, when my book came out this year, my agent was told "we don't have people on plugging things". Funnily enough, a friend was on a month or so ago, which just happened to coincide with the publication of his memoirs. Luckily, he put in a good word for me, and you can hear the end result this morning on Radio 4.

I'm the first person who's chosen a record because I hate it. And although they censored me describing a record as "the one I bonked to throughout the Seventies", I think I still manage to get the message across. Unless, post-Brand/Ross, I've been sanitised.

King of Pop vs the sheikh

With Michael Jackson expected in the UK this week to give evidence in the High Court, expect Harrods to open its Christmas grotto in the small hours of the morning so Wacko can have an audience with Santa.

The case has been brought by the son of the King of Bahrain, who claims he entered into a $7m (£4.7m) contract with Jackson, who failed to record songs composed by him. The sheikh also says that he lent Michael $1m and wants it back.

The troubled star has been facing money worries on all fronts. Maybe he should sign up for a season at the O2 and ask fans to bring presents – that way he won't have to shop for Christmas.

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