Eight days in Devon and Cornwall, in the middle of nowhere, and I haven't bought a single thing. Not a sausage or a paper, let alone anything that might qualify as apparel. In London, I imagine, the sales flash and dazzle and people yearn for that special something that will transform their lives. In Cornwall we sit by the fire and talk animatedly of the differences between a Devon cream tea and a Cornish one. Purists turn their noses up at sultanas, it transpires. I put my neck on the line (I am among friends) and admit I prefer whipped cream to clotted, and the room falls silent. I hear myself descend in people’s esteem in great thuds, but it doesn’t matter. There comes a point in life where you no longer feel the need to pretend about your inclinations. I know my flaws. In my heart of hearts I have lottery winners’ taste, for when I see the house of my dreams, in my dreams, it is always white carpets and marble and old master paintings. That doesn’t make me a bad person. Does it?
I poked my nose into the Harrods sale before leaving town, for there was a black pleated chiffon Couture Couture dress with stiff frills at the neck and sleeves that I had been visiting regularly since the end of October, and I was wondering if I should take the relationship to the next stage. My plan was to waltz in on the first day, eat half a rose petal and violet ice-cream sundae at the Ladurée cafe and, fortified by the fairy food, fly up to the Contemporary Collections Studio on the first floor and scoop up the dress at a comforting 70 per cent off. I mounted the stairs with gleeful determination. The dress was gone, but I was very good about it.
My Cornish friends, gathered round the fire, are speaking wistfully about their new year’s resolutions.
“I’m not going to drink until February,” one says.
“I’ve given up the fags,” another sulks.
“I’m just not going to go to Trago any more,” a third offers. There is sympathy all round: “Just for January or for the whole year?”
“The whole year.” Everyone is impressed. “I’ve just had enough of it. You go in there, and then hours later you find yourself on the pavement and you don’t know what’s happened. It’s just so tempting. There’s tons of rubbish, but there are real gems to be had. And it takes you over. You start imagining your life in all sorts of new ways and you know it’s madness and you feel this kind of surge of emotion that directs you to do things you’d never normally do and before you know it…” Everyone nods. “Ah, the Trago trance,” someone says.
“What’s Trago?” I ask.
“It’s this very cheap, mock-Tudor department store that sells everything. It’s almost a kind of community: it has a garden with a river and cockerels and peacocks and strange statuary and two cafes and everything costs next to nothing and…” My friend stops talking. All are regarding my open mouth and my brimming eyes.
“Someone had better take her,” everyone agrees seriously.
My friend Louis volunteers his services.
My excitement levels are so high, especially after nine shop-free days, that I can barely speak in the car. I am doing the sort of calming exercises that they advocate in pre-natal groups. It feels like a crisis, but a good one, like falling in love or having your stitches removed.
I am dropped at the gates and directed to a meeting point where I’m to go in half an hour. And it’s all there: fishing tackle, carpets, curtain racks, the sort of greetings cards with messages so moving and insightful they could offer a busy person a year’s psychotherapy in one 20-minute session at the rotating stand.
There are old school exercise books and 600 different kinds of paint brushes, 10 pairs of Broderie Anglais-trimmed baby socks for £2.84, seven four-metre shelving units of chocolate boxes, 500 biscuit tins, mildly furred fake white peaches, highly-reduced inflatable Santa snowstorm sets …I breathe in very slowly and feel the familiar hungry stirrings. I do love the English countryside.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt