When I am in my seventh age – lean and slippered pantaloon and all that – and dandling my grandson on a trembling knee (more of which later) and he asks, “What did you do in the war, grandpa?”, I shall point a bony and shaking finger at the objet d’art in pride of place above my mantel.
There before the infant gaze will hang a limited-edition, hand crafted, bone china plate entitled, “Did you whistle?”. It is decorated with the portrait of a black labrador, head cocked on one side, pheasant corpse in mouth, brown eyes lit in slavish obedience. It is the work of J Pennyforth Cooper, a name which, dropped in circles where labrador portraitists foregather, is sure to provoke a hushed reverence and a lengthy dribble.
I shall explain that back in the dark, autumn days of 2001, when the storm clouds gathered over the UK economy, and the nation hovered on the brink of the War against Terrorism, the then prime minister Tony Blair invoked the bulldo
g spirit that lay dormant, but ever ready, in the heart of every true Brit. In a rallying call to the nation, he urged upon us that it was our patriotic duty to Shop for Britain.
“We shall shop in the high street,” he said. “We shall shop in the malls. We shall shop in the street markets. We shall shop in Marks & Spencer. We shall never surrender.”
But, as I shall tell my grandson, by now rapt and agog for tales of hand-to-hand combat in the front line of check-out and till, they also serve who sit and shop.
Though it is now a cause of some amusement, the Home Shopping Guard, of which I was a proud member, sat steadfast and resolute in our armchairs, thumbing, ever vigilant, through small ad and catalogue, never counting the cost in wear and tear to eye and thumb.
It was not that we shirked duty in the front line; should recession invade our shores, we were ready to repel it with credit card and cheque, and if necessary, small change; we would fight to our last penny. It was more a case of that sorry, familiar story of the spirit being strong, but the flesh weak. Though it comes hard to admit it, we left the front-line combat to those valiant, battle-hardened veterans, the grannies. They don’t come tougher or more determined. Casting aside the discomfort of fallen arches and shrugging off the disability of failing eyesight, they brought to the fray a lifetime’s experience. With elbows sharpened in many a sales melee, the First Batallion of the Bargain Hunters were no match for the enemy, who retreated in disarray at the first salvo.
But a skirmish at Tesco, though valuable to the war effort, needs to be supported by heavy artillery, which is where we home shoppers came in. A packet of Hob Nobs is all very well, but when it comes to giving recession a run for its money, it’s limited-edition china that counts. That and a couple of books from a mail order company called the Bristol Group whose advertising copy gripped from the outset. “If you have trouble falling asleep or sitting because of uncomfortable sensations in your legs accompanied by an irresistible urge to move, you may be suffering from Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS).” And, “My neighbours laughed when I sprayed my grass with beer… But they’re not laughing now – I have the best lawn for miles around.”
In normal circumstances one might have hesitated before ordering Stopping Restless Leg Syndrome and Garden Magic , £9.95 each plus p&p. But those were far from normal times. It was war, and duty called. Besides, to buy both volumes was a way of killing two birds with one stone: should restless legs strike, what better way to employ the surplus energy than to step outside and unsteadily spray the lawn with beer?
Recalling those times, I shall fix my grandson with a rheumy eye and, with the lack of originality excusable in the dotard, wheeze in a piping treble: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We spent until we dropped. We consumed with a determination that united the nation. The moment hostilities began, old enmities were forgotten. The fat cats previously scorned and hated for running companies into the ground and walking off with millions; the victims awarded thousands in compensation because someone touched their knee and called them “pet”; the guinea hunting doctors; the cowboy builders; the painted courtesans thronging Bond Street’s emporia; the property developers in the oyster bars; the celebrities in the beauty parlours; all stood shoulder to shoulder with ordinary folk in the great patriotic spend. Never in the history of human conflict was so much spent by so many. And house prices continued to soar.”
“It must have been very exciting, grandpa.”
“It was, my boy. To spend and not to count the cost. To consume cream teas, and not to count the calories. To drink fine wines, to speed off on bargain breaks to BrontÃÂ« Country, to stock up on gas masks, all for the wellbeing of the nation.”
“And did it frighten the terrorists, grandpa?”
“Come, come, my boy. Grandpa’s legs are getting restless, and it’s past your bedtime.”