Tomorrow, I'll head out and do my bit to help save the economy. I know current wisdom has it that anybody with sense and a Wi-Fi connection does their sales shopping online, and preferably on Christmas Day. That's just too easy. Where's the fun in bargain-hunting without the thrust and parry of real elbows on the shop floor?
To all the cynics who suggest that retailers simply inflate prices before Christmas in order to make fake discounts later; or who urge us to carefully check prices of that Cuisinart ice-cream maker on a dozen different comparison sites before buying; who ask whether we really need that twelfth long-sleeved black T-shirt, even if it is virtually free: to them I say, you're missing the point.
The January sales are a game of skill, a challenge that requires both self discipline and physical endurance. So before I set out for London's West End, I've made myself some guidelines. I can buy anything I like, except:
1. A cape. Nothing is more pointless than the trend purchased at the end of the season, and doubly so for the cape, since it was a trend that nobody wanted even back in August. Which means the shops will be flooded with them. Avoid. Same goes for aviator jackets, ubiquitous in September, which will still make you look like a low-rent female version of Biggles. Fashion people will advise you to "go for investments" which means: neutral-coloured, still expensive, and probably sold out.
2. Anything not VAT-able. The extra motivator this year is the rise in VAT on 4 January to 20 per cent. A whole 2.5 per cent. Not much of a difference, if you're simply out to buy a DVD of The Hangover, but quite a chunk if you're browsing at Manolo Blahnik. Nonetheless, avoid children's clothes and non-luxury food: it's bargain toxic!
3. A flat-screen TV. I already have one, and it doesn't need replacing. This simple mantra is one of the hardest to remember when you're in the heat of a transaction. Something isn't cheap if you've already spent the money on it. Come on, woman, keep your head.
4. A Mulberry bag. Or any other blue-chip brand attracting large and aggressive crowds of eager tourist shoppers. Mulberry is at that critical place in its history where the maximum number of possible people on the planet regard it as an exclusive, hard-to-find item. Add to this a heavy discount and a night spent queuing, and the Mulberry concession starts to resemble a pitch invasion. By the time you or I get there, the pickings will be few and marked "heavily shop-soiled".
5. Things that don't fit. Shoes that pinch, dresses that ride up, silk blouses cut so close to my underarm that I'm left with welts: these mistakes I have made, many times. At the sales, without a mirror or even changing room at hand, it is almost impossible to buy a pair of trousers that isn't blighted by what the French call le sabot de chameau. If in doubt, ignore rule No 3, and buy another long-sleeved black t-shirt.
Careful if saying hello to countryside passers-by
You know you've left the city when strangers actually say hello as you pass on a path. While walking in the countryside over Christmas, I took part in this tradition with gusto. "Hullo!". Look, I'm not ignoring you! For all you know I could be a pervert or mugger and yet you're still saying hello! It felt good. Well, it felt good for the first dozen times. On Boxing Day, on a popular stretch of river path crowded with families in polka-dot wellies and dogs and prams, the effort to greet each and every walker began to remind me of a speed-dating event.
I noticed that the locals tend to distinguish the time of day, saying "Good morning" or simply "Afternoon". We visitors are simply glad to be allowed to join in. It's not as easy as it seems. You've got to get the timing just right. The trick is to make eye contact with the advancing walker when they're still more than two metres away. Let them get any closer and the courtesy will be bungled, causing the other walker to start in alarm, grin manically, or worse – not reply at all, making one feel quite invisible. That, I can get back in the city.
The 'New York Times' loses its romantic touch
The world's most risible announcements page has been exposed. I mean the weekly Vows section of The New York Times. This is where the rich and privileged in American society list their academic and professional accomplishments with breathtaking immodesty, boast about their wealth, and then show photographs of their expensive society weddings. But now a Manhattan power couple has brought shame upon the Vows page. Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla were both still married to other people when they met.
In sympathetic tones, the article reported how the pair had tried to resist their attraction at first, before inevitably giving in to fate and leaving their spouses for a second marriage (in the presidential suite of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, since you ask).
Cue hundreds of outraged comments on the normally sedate website, accusing the newspaper of allowing the couple to "whitewash" their "messy" story and condoning "homewrecking". Didn't the Times realise this was at least one section of their esteemed organ in which truth should never be allowed to interfere with vulgar fantasy?