Sarah Sands: One last splurge before our frugal new lifestyle

We're loading up at the sales because the spending spree is over – unless you're a foreign visitor

Sunday 03 January 2010 01:00

As I peered down the Harrods escalator at the makings of a crush on the floor below, my daughter rang me from Westfield. Although she is of the MTV generation that sees shopping as the highest vocation, she was startled by the crowd's hysteria and concerned for children in pushchairs in the midst of it.

This was not just sales enthusiasm. There is an apocalyptic feel to our mass movement to the shops. The motorways have been fairly empty, except for snaking tail backs at turn offs to the big shopping centres. Why are we behaving like citizens of collapsing communist states?

Retail figures for the Christmas period show that Marks and Spencer is heading for its first sales growth for more than two years, Ocado had an almost 50 per cent rise in sales and credit card purchases were up by 2.4 per cent. Analysts ought to examine the psychological effect of a one-day closure of shops. It is such an unnatural state that our brain connections start tripping and we suspect that shops will simply run out of stuff. The survivalist instincts are sharpened further by the bad weather. On a grim evening last week, I felt compelled to head for Tesco and found it full of other mad people stacking trolleys as if there were no tomorrow.

Our frantic and irrational behaviour stems from our difficulty in picturing what tomorrow will look like. Gordon Brown talks confidently of "shared prosperity", but we have a gut feeling that everything will be slightly worse. The Government tells us that it can spend its way out of this crisis but we look at our own finances and think that can't be right.

The mini spending spree in the sales is because we don't intend doing any more of it this year. Everyone I know is deleveraging as much as they can. I am about to move house in order to reduce my mortgage, a decision that is at odds with my congenital housing boom optimism. Unlike Gordon Brown, I suddenly feel uneasy about very large amounts of debt.

It is rather like global warming. We know that our own personal husbandry will make no difference to the vastness of the problem but we like the idea of having some control over our destiny. Last year's public deficit was £178bn. We will not return to the normal 40 per cent of GDP for at least 20 years. Yet we are all shaving off what we can from our credit cards and buying cheaper lavatory paper.

A YouGov poll the other day claimed that only 20 per cent of Britons believe that their income is enough to be comfortable, compared to 37 per cent 10 years ago. Many are bracing themselves this year for pay cuts or worse. A television advertisement for hair dye does not make a pitch for youth or sexual attractiveness, but depicts a daughter encouraging her professional, middle class and middle-aged father to dye his hair in order to impress at a job interview.

Where is this shared prosperity? There is money in London but much of it is foreign. Hotels such as Claridge's need the business of men such as the charming Hannibal Gaddafi, whose wife required hospital treatment for a broken nose after an unexplained incident during their stay in a £4,000-a-night suite. The queues outside Gucci and Harrods in the sales are swelled by Japanese tourists. Universities depend on the custom of foreign students including, unfortunately, the would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

I am delighted that foreigners wish to spend their money in London but it has created a poor-relation complex for the cash-strapped British. Taxes will have to rise and services must be cut. Everyone, except the Government, will be looking for ways of spending less. The reason we eat, drink and make merry now is that ahead we see death by a thousand cuts.

Class act: Comical Keira is the real thing

The critics have been a bit faint in their praise of Keira Knightley in the West End production of The Misanthrope. This was followed by a Radio 4 discussion of whether audiences were tiring of film stars appearing on stage. Damian Lewis, claimed with impressive old-Etonian confidence that it was he, rather than Keira, who was the star of the show, so celebrity was not the overwhelming draw. When I went to see the play last week the audience spoke more of Knightley than Lewis – she has the better lines and delivers them with style. Indeed I wonder whether critics are so keen not to look starstruck that they have been harsher on Keira than the rest of the cast. I believed in her character as the spoilt American celebrity. She had resonance as well as wit and I really could not tell which way she would jump at the end of the play. Famous actors and actresses add to that lustre of a show, so long as they can act. Keira Knightley can.

Hallelujah! Handel is a star

A careworn Radio 3 producer phones me. He has orchestrated a group of advocates to speak for the composers Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn for a New Year's Eve lark, before a public vote. But alas! Handel's champion has cried off. No! Handel consigned to oblivion because nobody will defend him. I rush in horror to the studio, but need not have worried. This is the season when choral societies across Britain have been singing their hearts out in the "Hallelujah Chorus". Handel is the rightful winner.

Why older women are kept off air

The BBC is accused of bias against older women. Why is it that they seem to prefer perky presenters who are easy on the eye rather than women who have had a bit of experience of life and show gravitas? The answer is the novelist P D James. Look what happened when they allowed an 89-year-old a free run on the radio. As guest editor of Today , she took on the director general, Mark Thompson, and left him stuttering and helpless. It was a glorious performance. Surely she has won the right to front Newsnight now?

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard

Janet Street-Porter is away

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