Up and down these streets at Britain's retail heart are pleading signs: Sale] Reduced] One third off] Over the past years the nation has developed Scrooge-like shopping habits, and Mr Clarke's 7p in the pound tax increase has done nothing to melt us.
Two ladies who looked as though they came from the shires walked briskly through Liberty, resisting all its lures. 'We ought to come in the sales,' said one to the other, 'and get some presents for next year.'
The Telegraph has been recommending readers to buy grandpa four old novels at 50p each. Even nobs and snobs' Harpers & Queen has been offering as cover bait 10 per cent off everything at Joseph.
With that dazed look common to shoppers concussed by Christmas, Kay Williams stood before a market stall display of pounds 2 reindeer antler hats. 'I want to go home,' she said. She and her husband, Lee, work in the retail business in Tonbridge, Kent, she selling jeans, and he trainers. 'The jeans have been selling OK but footwear has been terrible,' Lee said. 'People are bargain- hunting,' said Kay. 'I think they've got the money to spend if they want to.'
On the stall, next to Debenhams, Anita was selling what seemed to be the best Christmas paper offer on the street, 15 sheets for pounds 1. 'Money still seems to be tight,' she said. 'People are cutting people out, present-wise.'
There were cuts on every side. In the Discount Designer Shop in Bond Street - the very idea] - you could buy a bright green new Belville Sassoon ballgown in silk taffeta, a pure Sloane dress, ideal clothing for being thrown into a fountain or engaging in a bun fight, for a mere pounds 130. In Guy Laroche, across the road, there was a truly horrible velvet jacket with a diamante pocket design, down from pounds 595 to pounds 398. And there the jackets stayed, glaring, on their hangers.
The crowds were thick on the pavements, but thin in the shops - as though many had come more for the spectacle than for spending.
'I'm skint,' said Jackie Walker, of north London, sipping an orange juice near Bond Street tube station. 'I've spoken to my family. I've said, I'm not buying presents this year.' She had just bought her first flat. 'I don't want to pay Barclaycard for the rest of my days,' she said.
'Back to REAAALITY]' came a breathy female voice from the speakers above the Bankrupt Clothing Company shop. Shoppers fingered brushed cotton check shirts for pounds 4.99. There has been plenty of stock for such outlets in the past few years. In parts of Oxford Street, once Quality Street, prices are now as low as in the capital's street markets. There were padded check shirts and silk shirts for pounds 10, fetching bone china mugs for 99p.
In the Trio Crest shop, a mesmerised crowd gazed up at a salesman surrounded by 'liquidation stocks' of electrical goods. 'Mr India - could you squeeze in please?' he demanded, over his mike. 'Mrs Coffee Colour, over here.' But no one left outraged. They were too hopeful that they might receive a Game Boy pack for pounds 2, or a clock radio for 50p, which were being flung into the crowd with apparent abandon. 'Who'll bid me pounds 3 without knowing what I'm offering?' asked the salesman, and the entire crowd put its hands in the air.
In the basement of Hamleys, two weary women from Sidcup rested over a cup of coffee. Julia Presland had three children, from nine to seven months, and Janine Roberts has a six-year-old and a 14-month-and is expecting twins. In their bags were a set of Tinkerbell wings and a magic wand for Julia's three-old, and a pair of tinsel haloes for their own attendance at the Gary Glitter concert that night. They too were price-conscious. 'I like Liberty things, but it's too expensive for me,' said Julia.
By a stall next to Marks & Spencer at Marble Arch, Jo Wigglesworth from Hull was looking at men's cotton handkerchiefs, pounds 1 for 10. 'I was just saying to Eric,' she said, 'Quality Street here is 75p a quarter, and it's only 65p up north.'
The ghost of difficult Christmases Past are haunting Christmas Present. But perhaps the two men who stood next to Jo Wigglesworth indicate a different future. Malcolm Vaughan Thomas and Stephen Forrester had at their feet chocolate-and-Christmas-goody-stuffed bags. 'We're the organisers of the Girls' Day Out,' they said. 'It costs about pounds 1,000. A limousine picks them up at the station, we start at Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, they stay at Brown's Hotel, and then we go up to Edinburgh and shop there and stay at Gleneagles.'
They worked, they said, for a property development company in Staffordshire. They were looking for frames for a presentation ceremony. 'We call it the GDosh award,' said Mr Vaughan Thomas. 'The Girls' Day Out Spend per Hour. The winner will probably have spent about pounds 400 an hour. It's getting bigger and bigger] More people come every year]'
Then they turned back to their shopping, these two spectres of Christmas to Come - as Kenneth Clarke must hope. But even they were buying, for their GDosh award, from a market stall offering the cheapest frames on the street.
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