Around 6.30 last Sunday evening I took a call on my mobile. Within minutes I had passed responsibility for dinner preparations to my visiting sister, forsaken my (as yet unsipped) glass of wine, and set off through the end-of-weekend traffic to an address at the unfashionable end of Chelsea.
The hurried assignation was not as untoward as it might seem. It was to pick up a piece of furniture. The phone call, from the auction house, was to say that my absentee bid, submitted earlier in the week, had – confounding my expectations – been successful. Such news brings a certain small sense of satisfaction. It also threatens a storage charge if you don't pick your purchase up pretty smartly.
My late maternal grandmother, I'm told, was a demon at auctions, and I am a novice. Perhaps, though, there is some genetic inheritance. I always bid low – except on one occasion, when I really wanted a particular picture – and treat the whole enterprise as more akin to a lottery than a sale. If my number comes up, that's terrific; if not, it was not intended to be. I never bid without seeing the item and physically measuring it myself – the size on the ticket is not always accurate; furniture, especially, looks smaller on the internet pictures than it is in reality, and the colours may not be very true. I have my self-imposed rules.
An auction is a pleasing process from many angles. Setting aside those notorious auction "rings", it is open to all and thoroughly transparent. It is also a more formal way than a bazaar of establishing a price on items whose value is uncertain. It was entirely in the order of things that auctions gained popularity in Russia in the months and years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So closed had the Soviet economy been, that producers – and many artists – had little idea of the value of their goods on the wider market.
Early on, I attended a very strange auction in Yakutia in the Russian far north, mostly of artefacts made from mammoth tusk. Only the most spectacular pieces sold – but many more transactions were negotiated afterwards in the corridors. Even then, I suspect that the Yakutia authorities would have been disappointed if they had been intending to find a whole new stream of state revenue. The appeal of carved mammoth tusk was probably not as universal as they hoped.
But the appeal of auctions also has its limits. At the end of last year, the pioneering auction website, eBay, announced that sales on its website at fixed prices had outnumbered auction sales for the first time. That disclosure was a landmark of a kind. There comes a time when the goods on offer are too standard or the competitive interest too low to justify the whole hassle of reserve prices and bidding. It is why, at ordinary consumer level, bargaining has largely been replaced in the developed world by fixed prices, and why auctions – while diverting for amateurs like me and allowing us something akin to a periodic flutter – will remain the preserve of specialist collectors and professionals.
Why can't Americans cook more like us?
It's not Meryl Streep's fault that she is fixed forever in my psyche as the dutiful wife in The Bridges of Madison County. But this many-spangled star, who has just won a Golden Globe for Best Actress (musical or comedy) and been nominated for Best Actress in the Baftas, does seem to excel in roles that point up the cultural divide between the two sides of the Atlantic.
Her latest honours are for playing the American cookery writer Julia Child in Julie and Julia – a film I had steadfastly avoided in the cinema, but was compulsory fare on a recent flight. Why, I wondered, do so many American women make such an inordinate fuss about cooking? Why are they so formalistic about it? Why do they so often treat a dinner party as a competitive enterprise and clear days for preparations? Why are they so unwilling to improvise? Why do they take it so seriously?
Julie and Julia was drooled over in the US as "one of the gentlest, most charming American movies of the past decade" ( The New Yorker), "a consummate entertainment" ( LA Times), a film that "proceeds with such ease and charm that its audacity... is easy to miss" ( New York Times). Well, I certainly missed it. But, you know, cooking really doesn't have to be such a self-conscious palaver.
An evening walk on the not-so-wild side
Headlines were made this week when the Natural History Museum decided to disqualify the winner of its 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize. After representations by compatriots of the victorious Spanish photographer, the judges agreed that the rare Iberian wolf pictured vaulting a gate at night was most likely a tame creature, if not actually trained to jump gates.
But their decision only highlights the growing difficulty of distinguishing wild from tame. Earlier this week, I was walking down a side street in Kensington in the early evening when something like a large dog, not on a lead, crossed the road in front of me. Scarcely had it padded into an alley, than someone called out: that's a fox, isn't it? Which it was. Not exactly your handsome, red, brush-tailed country specimen; it was greying, distinctly mangy and limping.
I had seen foxes at dusk in London's nigh-deserted Docklands, even one that seemed to fancy it was guarding the entrance to the Limehouse Link tunnel. But in central Kensington? At least the sight of a fox here was unusual enough for passers-by to draw each other's attention to it. The distinction is still such that there's still a frisson when the countryside comes to town. For how much longer?
* Anyone who professed surprise at the rise in the UK inflation rate last month – from 1.9 to 2.9 per cent – has not been to the supermarket recently. Maybe it was the snow, or higher fuel prices, or an effort to compensate for discounting before Christmas. But fruit and even seasonal vegetables seem to me to have risen sharply. Prices of other staples are also noticeably higher. My overall bill has risen by around 20 per cent. On this evidence, I fully expect another rise in the inflation rate for January.Reuse content