Natasha Walter: Shopping has become a patriotic act of resistance

'Would you rather buy a pension that might simply melt away, or a Prada handbag in mint green?'

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For months, commentators have been frightening themselves and their readers with tales of the clouds gathering over the British economy.

For months, commentators have been frightening themselves and their readers with tales of the clouds gathering over the British economy. Over and over again we were told that the events of 11 September had destroyed the tourism industry, had shaken our faith in the future and had made recession inevitable. The wings of the rampant consumerism that makes our economy so buoyant had been burnt, and we were told it would take a long time to recover.

In the end it took British shoppers three months, more or less, to pick themselves up and start over. Those doomy commentators were, it turns out, unable to predict the lure of the £50 reduction on that fake shearling jacket in the Next store in the Meadowhall Centre in Sheffield. Or the 40 per cent discount tag on a pair of chestnut suede high-heeled boots in Donna Karan in Bond Street. Or three nights for the price of two in a cosy hotel with fourposter beds near Truro. The experts may now feel a mite wrong-footed – though they are still holding out for a full-blown recession this spring.

Where did this sudden spree come from? Even before Christmas big stores were talking about a month of takings that were 5 per cent, no, 8 per cent, no, 10 per cent, up on this time last year. And then on Wednesday, when the sales started, we heard the crazy tales of thousands of people who were prepared to queue in the cold from 2 o'clock in the morning, to get their hands on that half-price cashmere sweater in Marks & Spencer or that discounted extra-fluffy duvet in John Lewis. And then shop managers were talking about takings being 10, no, 12, no, 15 per cent up, as people snatched up the said sweaters in armfuls and spent thousands of pounds on already stressed credit cards and staggered off, bristling with carrier bags.

Sensible, really. After all, who knows, al-Qa'ida might, even as we queue, be preparing to hold to ransom international stocks of cashmere and goosedown, or planning to unleash bombs on Old Bond Street even before you've wrestled the fur-lined Joseph trenchcoat into the safety of your shopping bag. Hurry!

Sorry, it really isn't a laughing matter. Not at all. Shopping may be in, but jokes are still out. This is serious stuff. The fact that the British people have decided to shop their way through war and recession is not, after all, a sign of our eternal frivolity. What, you thought that people who were prepared to lose a night's sleep queueing in front of the doors of a shopping mall in Essex in order to snap up an evening dress boasting a £30 discount were doing it in a lighthearted spirit?

On the contrary, their behaviour is proof – as if proof were needed, in these patriotic times – of their amazing courage. Not even the deaths of a few thousand New Yorkers and a few thousand Afghans can dampen that courage! As one psychotherapist, Philip Hodson, said last week: "Not only were we used to two world wars but we have lived with the IRA for 30 years. There is something about us which has always been phlegmatic. The Americans, on the other hand, lost their emotional virginity on 11 September. We cope by underplaying things. We do not howl and shriek and go into excesses of bereavement."

Of course, er, most of us weren't bereaved – and most of us have only been affected by the war on terror by watching pictures on our television screens.

But what the hell! Doesn't it show off our phlegmatic temperament wonderfully if we don't howl over those pictures, but instead stride out to buy even bigger, better television screens to beam them even more clearly into our sitting rooms?

The simplest and dullest reason why we are shopping now is that a lot of us have a bit of cash around, and no idea what to do with that cash except go shopping. The much-touted recession may be just round the corner, but many people in Britain haven't been touched by it yet. And who wants to save for a rainy day when interest rates are this low? An understandable fatalism seems to have infected quite a few people in Britain. Indeed, the collapse of Equitable Life might well have had more effect on British shopping habits than the war on terror. After all, would you rather buy a pension that might simply melt away, or a mint-green Prada handbag that will always be with you?

And whatever the reasons for the unexpected spree, in the present climate there are few attempts to present any alternative values to this ever-growing love of consumerism. Now that the Cold War has been relegated to ancient history, who is putting their faith in any system but straightfoward capitalism, reliant on constant material growth? The new anti-capitalism, that seemed to flare up with such hope a couple of years ago, has now been sidelined in the media's renewed adoration of all things American. In the face of terrorist attacks as well as a potential recession, who wants to question the allure of anything as fundamentally Anglo-American as those gleaming, scented shops, filled with bargains? Commentators on the right and on the left have lauded the very act of shopping as the ultimate resistance to the glowering misery of the fundamentalist.

Frankly, what better way of showing your adherence to Western values is there, other than camping outside Selfridges in order to get your hands on that dinky Vuitton bag, down 50 per cent? What do you mean, you don't need it, or you can't afford it? Your country needs your credit card!

n.walter@btinternet.com

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