Terence Blacker: Whatever happened to the dirty weekend?

The pressures and pleasures of shopping are what keep many couples at home
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In these rough, tough days, a person can become hardened to the news that yet another beautiful and beloved part of life in the past is now in precipitate decline. Nightingales, British athletics, decent TV drama, the fiction of Martin Amis: sometimes it seems that, as soon as one learns to treasure something, it begins to dwindle away.

All the same, the news this week of the latest casualty of the modern age has come as something of a shock. Apparently, the dirty weekend is dying.

Your reaction, like mine, will be that there must have been some terrible mistake. Even at a time when people are overfond of work, jobs do not always impinge on the weekend. Television can hardly be to blame - only a masochist would choose to stay in to watch the mindless pap churned out on Saturday nights.

As for dirtiness, we are supposedly obsessed by it. Never has the culture been more preoccupied by misbehaviour in its many and various forms. It surely cannot be true, that while we think, watch, discuss, write and possibly even dream about sex, we are too bone idle to go away for a weekend and actually do it.

But that, it seems, is the case. Today's important survey, conducted among 2,795 people by none other than Teletext Holidays, provides a depressing insight into the life of the average British couple. Of those interviewed, 79 per cent believed that their relationship would benefit from a weekend away together, and more than half would welcome the opportunity to take one. Yet more than a quarter of those questioned had never actually been away together and another 16 per cent had been homebound over the past five years.

Even if one suspects the motivation behind this survey (a holiday firm was hardly going to suggest people spend less time away), its conclusion and prevailing tone of wistful, helpless whinge seems authentically British. It appears that many of us really do sit together, gloomily watching Channel Four's Top 50 Sexiest Scenes of All Time, wishing we were somewhere romantic but unable to do anything about it beyond ticking a box in a survey.

Predictably, most of those questioned blame what they call "the pressures of modern life". What are these pressures exactly? Overtime? Unlikely. The family? There is nothing particularly modern about that. Is it possible that the stress is at least partially the result of that great new addiction, shopping?

For suddenly we are drowning in retail. During the reign of Mrs Thatcher, the privileged majority was first given a taste of consumption as a source of pleasure and status. Now spending money has entered our arteries and become a basic need, a central part of our leisure time. We work to consume. We talk and read about it endlessly. What used to be a tiresome necessity now helps define who we are.

The pressures and pleasures of shopping are what keep many couples at home over their weekends. Their retail addiction is justified and stimulated everywhere they look. Lifestyle journalism dominates newspapers and magazines, gingering up an unsatisfiable yearning for every kind of product and exploiting feelings of jealousy and a longing for status in their readers; money-obsessed programmes, revealing how to make cash from antiques at car-boot sales or from buying and selling houses, crowd the early evening TV schedules.

There is a fantasy at work here, one that suggests that buying the right products will provide not only social position but domestic contentment, and it is that dream which for many couples has turned shopping into an addictive leisure pursuit. When the think-tank Demos asked people in Cardiff, Preston and Swindon to name their favourite public place, it was somehow unsurprising to read that Preston's car-boot sale area came top of the survey, followed by the café at Swindon's Asda store.

So it is unsurprising that our social agenda is increasingly shaped by large shopping chains and their suppliers. Lords Sainsbury and Haskins are close to central government. Other high priests of consumerism can preach the new gospel - the best deal for consumers, the highest reward for shareholders, growth at all costs - without any wider questions about the quality of life being asked by ministers, planners or commentators.

Once this creed of untrammelled capitalism is accepted without objection, the only way forward for the retail business is towards the big, the cheap and the profitable. What small post offices and independent chemists have discovered in the past, for example, book publishing, along with its readers and authors, may soon be learning, too.

This week, the ruthlessly profit-oriented Waterstone's will gobble its smaller rival, the Ottakar's chain. The result, a near-monopoly of the retail book business, will effectively give a small number of turnover-conscience business types the power to decide what can, or cannot, be published profitably - great news for those who like their bestsellers widely available and at the cheapest price, but potentially less choice of reading and an impoverished culture for the rest of us.

The more we are seen and treated as units of consumption, the less individual we become. As this shopping revolution puts greater power into the hands of retail entrepreneurs, the lifestyle boom - or, to put it another way, "the pressures of modern life" - will tighten its grip. One day, the loss of a few dirty weekends will seem the least of our problems.