Mega Monday: how was it for you? Did you, at 12.58pm yesterday, dangle your cursor over the "buy" button, joining the herd of sweaty-palmed British consumers who were predicted to spend a total £1.02m online in that single minute alone? I tried to. I wanted to. I landed on Amazon's homepage and looked at Bananagram games, which are supposed to be better than world peace, but I just don't know anyone who'd want this idiot's version of Scrabble – basically a bunch of letters in a bright yellow, banana-shaped bag.
It was a rare moment of clarity. In the past week I have felt like a white lab rat in a capitalist experiment. I have panicked that bestselling Christmas items might sell out, despite the economic evidence to the contrary. I felt bad for not buying a Kindle, when Amazon has so charmingly demonstrated its interesting features every time I open my inbox. I paid extra in a clothes store to have an assistant gift-wrap my purchase, only to watch on as he screwed up said purchase into an unsightly ball of white tissue paper and stuffed it in a big, branded box that I know I'll chuck away. I have lingered in a deliberately well-heated branch of M&S as it snowed outside, allowing my eye to be caught by pretty boxes of nuts and fruit. In short, I've fallen for every trick high-street retailers have conspired to play.
But the tactic that really has me in a frenzy of breathless festive spending is the oldest in the book. Not discounts. Nor artful window displays. It is the sound of pounding, mulled wine hangovers, of doorstep-thick slices of pub-lunch turkey, of inadvisable snogs and four pounds of extra fat on the midriff. For some reason, though I loathe them in any other context, I can't resist the effects of Christmas music when I'm shopping. La-a-a-st Car-eest-maass, I gaaave you my heaaart ... At our local Tesco, this and other literally unforgettable festive pop is currently playing at rock-concert volume. But it really works. On Sunday, as I rounded the potato display, I saw a couple rub noses and mouth the lyrics as they loaded their basket with smoked salmon. More dancing ensued in the tea and coffee aisle. I wanted to sneer, I really did, but the strange result of the mass hypnosis that Tesco employed – for any retailers out there, I believe it was the standard Now That's What I Call Christmas CD – was a 50 per cent increase in my usual bill.
The connection between music and consumer spending has been scientifically documented, notably in several studies carried out in the 1980s (possibly not coincidentally, since that's the era of much of the Christmas music you'll hear). Slower, positively associated music is proven to make shoppers not only linger, but spend more. As the sound of Noddy Holder or Mariah Carey reverberates in our eardrums, we suddenly think we're having fun, engaging in a leisure activity, rather than performing an expensive, tiring chore. The same studies showed that volume has a converse effect on how long shoppers stay in a store; therefore loud, Christmassy music from yesteryear is designed to make us grin like loons, march around the shop loading up our trolleys in haste, before we can have second thoughts about that third packet of bite-sized stollen cakes.
The soundtrack to spending is of course something online stores can't control. I might be browsing Net A Porter listening to Joy Division, which would make me buy nothing, and sob into my keyboard. As it was yesterday. Etailers can dangle pages of discounted Bananagrams and Black Ops games and Kindles, but without Noddy or George warbling in the background, the spell is broken.
No time for apologies in the Age of Cancellation
The season for giving and goodwill it may be, but this makes little difference in the Age of Cancellation. December is a busy time for the modern, smartphone-assisted phenomenon of summary plan-cancelling. There is the office party to cancel, lunch to cancel, shopping trips to cancel, drinks-because-we've-cancelled-each-other-all year, also to be abandoned via text message (only Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham tried to cancel Christmas itself).
There must have been an era, back when men wore trilbies and women never swore, when a date really was a date. Yet I can't say I yearn for those honourable days, because I too am a product of the Age of Cancellation, and reserve the right to convert a "running late" excuse directly into a "not coming" drop-out.
But did I wonder last week whether this Age has reached its darkest hour when I realised that I had silently cancelled plans without even informing the invitee – who also silently cancelled, neither of us informing the other. Text, social networks and email have made organising our lives highly provisional and at the mercy of fleeting convenience. Modern social lives have flexibility, but little sense of expectation or occasion. If Jane Austen were alive today, her novels would be thin indeed.
You can hardly call this lot 'snowed in'
In the middle of London, we had only a little snow on the ground for a day or two, so I have listened enviously to tales of being holed up at home, far from work or school, with only the contents of the freezer and a warm sofa for comfort. I know it's not really like that, and being snowed in is deeply frustrating. But the snowbound story that I like best was "Ice Traps Seven In Well-Stocked Pub".
According to the Press Association, since last Friday, a 20-foot snowdrift cut off a couple and five staff at the Lion Inn in Blakey Ridge, north Yorkshire. For the first two days, the seven "got stuck into the drinks", but managed to keep it together for six more days. They had wireless internet and TV; coal for the fires and B&B rooms to sleep in; they used metal beer trays to sledge on the drifts; and the landlord wasn't among those locked in. No wonder chef Daniel Butterworth fielded calls from volunteers "asking to be trapped in".