With the passage of each year, the number of activities I genuinely enjoy shrinks alarmingly. These days only three things guarantee pleasure: filing, throwing things away and reading the Argos catalogue in bed. And the greatest of these is the last.
Once the telephone has ceased its clamour and the infants their wail, I draw up the duvet, select one section of the catalogue and assess the pros and cons of each item. I might size up the irons, say. I make notes, flick back and forward, draw up a shortlist. The extent of the Argos range is deeply satisfying. Twelve hundred pages bursting with things one couldn’t possible want. Fancy a non-electric head massager with copper prongs for £14.99? (Bafflingly, the people at Argos have called it an Orgasmatron.) Nine brands of foot spa, thirty-five different kinds of headphones, hundreds of arcane kitchen appliances, zillions of ‘storage solutions’, and a pair of furry slippers in which both feet go into the same hole. A dazzling new world unfolds in technicolour, all in contrast to my own, real little world, which lurches on, frame by frame, in disappointing sepia tones.
The information supplied is gratifyingly specific and to the point (‘Makes real candy floss in minutes. Dishwasher-safe.’) Neologisms are coined with sense and sensibility – ‘mousing’, for example, which is used to mean, ‘deploying a computer mouse rather than a keyboard’. And unlike Proust’s Duchess, the Argos copywriter is not immune to the poetry of the incomprehensible. A fridge with ‘a unique twin-cooling system that keeps food fresh’ (a standard requirement in a fridge, I would have thought), mysteriously also offers ‘a sophisticated lifestyle.’
With my Argos ritual I can get the whole family organised in no time. My only regret is that the pet section of the catalogue extends only to cats, dogs and fish (‘Radiator Cat Bed – Hangs on to Any Radiator. Fully Washable. £8.75’). If the company were to expand into rodents, I could tick off the guinea pigs as well.
Other catalogues lack the solidity of the Argos tome. Too much footling with style in place of substance, and a wilful avoidance of the mundane. Argos, sensibly, embraces the mundane: and what is more poetic than everyday life? The catalogue follows daily life minute by minute, from the electric toothbrush to the electric blanket. Anthony Powell once said that he would find Burke’s Bank Clerks more gripping than Burke’s Peerage. I like to think that he too would have enjoyed snuggling up with Argos.
At the end of each session, I make my choice. Then I can switch off the light, dreaming of piles of razor-creased laundry swiftly despatched with my new iron (‘Self Clean, Superior Glide, Anodised Soleplate. £64.50’). I only get round to making an actual purchase about once a year. But that doesn’t matter. My twenty minutes a day communing with the catalogue in my fantasy life fulfils my need for order and control.
Then morning comes, and the self-doubts, like homing pigeons, return to roost.