Scandinavian torture: Fear and loathing just off the North Circular

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The Independent Online
My wife is about to have a baby so I must go to Ikea with my mother-in-law to buy a cot. I'm delighted about the baby, my mother-in-law is a doll, the cot is something every baby ought to have. But must we really (I hear the whimper entering my voice), is there really no alternative, must we absolutely and without question buy it in Ikea?

Is it really so spectacularly cheaper? Don't we know already, in gruesome detail, what it is going to involve? You need something: a set of shelves, a couple of kitchen stools, a bathroom cabinet, a cot. The list is short and specific. Your home is already incredibly well furnished. Besides that particular item, there is nothing you need.

So you pile into the car and set off for the North Circular and follow it round and just in the nick of time you spot the little blue and yellow sign; a few mini-roundabouts later the big blue and yellow shed of the famous Swedish home furnishing company comes into view. You find a parking space and stride purposefully into the store.

Three hours later it spits you out again: sagging at the knees, dizzy, bathed in sweat, drunk on Swedish beer, festooned with paper bags containing energy-saving light bulbs, Chinese spice jars, a patent device for hanging pans on, half a dozen imitation designer lampshades, a stack of magazine holders covered in gaily-coloured dinosaurs, and pushing with extreme difficulty a Chesterfield sofa from the bargain section - only pounds 185] - balanced between two monster shopping trolleys.

Unfortunately the shelving/stool/cabinet/cot you went in search of was out of stock. Your journey has not merely been in vain: you have come home with so many incredible bargains that it has been an economic disaster.

It was a considerable time before my feelings about Ikea resolved into the fear and loathing with which I regard the store today.

At first I thought it was a very good thing. Habitat, the store which Ikea devoured a couple of years back, introduced modern good taste in furnishings to this country in the Fifties, but like the Elizabeth David cookery books with which I associate it, Habitat was aimed squarely at the upper-middle class, actual and aspirant. It was French, it was posh continental, it was colour supplement lifestyle, it was holiday home in Provence.

Habitat sold and continues to sell lots of nice things, but the store slotted into English society in a yukky way, marshalling modern design - a great leveller in the minds of its pioneers - to the service of class. Families in France and Italy bought furniture that was modern and stylish because it was modern and stylish. English families bought the Habitat sofa also for its social cachet; for the distance it allowed them to put between themselves and the patrons of Maples.

Established all over the globe, Ikea played no part in such games. Instead, it introduced fair-to-middling modern design - stunningly good by the standards of most English homes - to the general public, at irresistible prices. Ikea has thus done many British families a huge favour.

But the way the store is organised is a cunning piece of Scandinavian torture. Arriving, you climb the stairs, and the first thing to meet your eye is the licensed restaurant. It's quite a good restaurant, too, but you can't get at it. In fact, you cannot get at anything you want as you would in a department store, by consulting the store plan and making a bee line. Instead you must follow the meandering path from the beginning to the bitter end: past the sofa beds, the children's furniture, the plan-your-own-kitchen department, the mind-boggling variety of shelving systems.

Visiting Ikea alone, one might grit one's teeth, grab the cot and stomp past everything else to the checkout. But one is never, it seems, alone at Ikea. The purgatorial crawl must be endured. The inevitable questionable souvenirs must be collected.

There, at the end, are the victims of convenience shopping, Ikea style: the hapless old ladies, trembling under absurd burdens; the red-faced fathers, struggling to attach the roof rack they have been obliged to purchase to carry their stuff home; the wasted families gazing at each other with looks that say, can this be what life is all about?