Fifty years ago, when almost everybody still claimed to believe in God, the monarchy and the flag, there was a well-understood hierarchy that extended even into the slightly naff business of department-store retailing. There was Gamages on the borders of the City of London, which catered for the better-off proles and the hard-up lower-middle classes. Further west, on Oxford Street, there was Selfridges,which catered for the middle-middle classes. And then there was the unchallenged emporium of the upper and upper-middle classes - the mighty Harrods in Knightsbridge.
Hardly anyone was in any doubt about which of these vast shops the English class system required them to use. And if some upstart got it wrong, either from ignorance or impertinence, the staff quickly put them right, with that curious combination of obsequiousness and contempt which once was a speciality of the English servant classes. Indeed, in those days you could get the full forelock-plucking treatment at Harrods without actually having any money whatever. All you needed was an authentic upper-class accent, preferably with an apparently "good" address. Thus a friend of mine managed to have her bread delivered every day on the strength of her woof-woof voice and her 17th-century house in Highgate Village. She bought nothing else from Harrods, yet the discreet but instantly identifiable green van still purred up to her Queen Anne doorway every morning.
But then, looking after distressed gentlefolk was part of the function of places like Harrods in those days. The mind boggles at the economics of it, but it helped to lubricate the English class system until long after its sell-by date. Yet the sheer idiocy of it, in terms of the balance sheet, almost certainly contributed to the downfall of such places as Harrods, and their takeover by people like Mohamed Fayed.
Fayed has no time for being discreetly obsequious to English toffs in this way. If he wants to give alms to impoverished members of the English upper classes, he prefers to do it by way of the kind of presents - a weekend at the Paris Ritz, let us say - for which he can extract a quid pro quo. Moreover, it is done with an Egyptian bazaar-trader's natural ignorance of what used to be regarded as the rules. There is a total absence of English hypocrisy, meaning that he gets it wrong even when he wants to be discreet. Thus a boxful of lobsters once found its way into the boot of Virginia Bottomley's ministerial motor-car while she was inside the shop talking to its proprietor. Just how the Harrods security men opened the saintly Virginia's boot isn't entirely clear. But such a trivial challenge would present no problem to people who had cracked open a safe-deposit box belonging to Tiny Rowland. Needless to say, the unsolicited gift was wholly counterproductive.
However, it would be highly unfair to give the impression that it was Fayed alone who launched the degentrification of Harrods; he simply speeded it up. He bought the place in 1985 - for cash, as he boasts. It was the House of Fraser, a slightly
department stores, which originally got it from the owner who had made it into England's grandest shop. Don't forget that Fraser's takeover produced almost as much hand-wringing among the great and the good in 1959 as when the "phoney pharaoh" finally got hold of it 25 years later.
But there is no denying that Fayed took to the job of vulgarisation with manic zest. No one who knew Harrods before Fayed can fail to shudder at what it has become - not even if they detested the loathsome snobbery of the original version. That certainly was my experience recently, when I visited the place in order to see how it was celebrating its 150th birthday. I hadn't been there for at least 40 years, and even then my dealings with it had been pretty limited. As far as I can remember, they consisted of buying a couple of suits and a very fine Bluthner piano. The suits went to a Labour Party jumble sale decades ago. The piano is still with us, my wife's pride and joy. Being possessed of a fairly neutral accent with (I think) just a trace of a socially acceptable Scottish intonation, I got through those early visits without being subjected to the ritual humiliation by a snooty doorman. But I didn't like the place, and never went back. After my more recent expedition I am now quite decided that I won't return.
Vulgar - or perhaps I should attempt to say "vulgah" - is the only possible word for it. That atmosphere is established as soon as one steps through the main doors. The first thing you see is a vast gilded statue of some weird figure from a pharaoh's tomb, dominating a room appropriately called the " Egyptian Hall". Round the walls are reproductions - or are they send-ups? - of reliefs from other Egyptian tombs. But at the far end are two objects that sum it all up - two sphinx-like figures with faces that could only be the phoney pharaoh himself. They are both grinning, and quite right, too.
Next on the route are the food halls, which are not so much vulgar as simply astonishing in their shameless luxury. Round the walls are little snack-bars with counters and stools, selling everything from oysters to Spanish tapas and French cheeses. There is also a sushi bar, where the raw fish is served by ladies in golden kimonos - though happily not on their knees. Down the middle are the retail food stalls, where the sheer variety of meats, sausages, pickled and fresh fish, baby vegetables and ready-cooked dishes like Indian curries and Mediterranean salads is mind-boggling.
As a lifelong foodie with the waistline to prove it, I confess that I liked that bit. But I would have liked it better if it hadn't been for the customers. Indeed, the customers are at least half of what's wrong with the entire shop. A few of them are there, like me, just to goggle at the ghastliness of it all, and to express astonishment at the prices; they are the ones in ordinary street clothes. The real customers - the ones clutching those coveted green and gold carrier-bags - are togged out in the ridiculously expensive casual gear that nowadays proclaims wealth more clearly than a Savile Row suit. Almost the only people wearing traditional business suits are the sales staff. But it isn't just their "respectable" dress that identifies them; it is also because they actually smile now and again. It makes them stand out amid so much scowling greed.
Fifty years ago, a well-cut suit such as those worn by the shop assistants, men and women alike, would have been the uniform of the kind of people who can afford to buy the goods they are actually trying to sell. Now the equivalent uniform is a nasty leather bomber-jacket, half a stone of heavy gold jewellery and far too much make-up. The accents, far from being Oxbridge, are mostly not even English. I had expected American voices to predominate, but I was wrong. The Middle and Far East contributed a substantial share of the background noise.
What these customers were there for, one must assume, were items such as the child-sized working model of Mummy's Land-Rover at a mere £12,000, and a plastic version of Daddy's Ferrari, complete with umpteen gears both forward and back - a bargain at £40,000-odd. If you have ever wondered what all those City bonuses are being spent on, look no further than the Harrods toy department.
But I experienced one serious disappointment, and it must be faithfully recorded. Like many people's conceptions about the way wealthy people live, I have long cherished the conviction that the stinking rich flock to Harrods not just to buy their caviar, but also to find the gold taps to fit on their mother-of-pearl baths. Alas, it isn't true. When I visited the bathroom department in search of gold taps, I was told firmly but politely that they did not sell such things. Indeed, they don't sell baths at all. The assistant clearly regretted disappointing me and offered me an alternative address with an entirely straight face. One up for Harrods, I thought.
Happily, another of my favourite Harrods legends turned out to be true. Yes, they really do charge £1 for a pee - or they try to. I discovered this on my way to the shop's in-house pub - the Green Man. A gents' was just outside the door and I went in. I was stopped in my tracks by a smartly dressed man who asked whether I had a Harrods charge card or a receipt for at least £100 of purchases. Otherwise, he said, my Jimmy Riddle was going to cost me a quid.
I replied that I was going into their pub for a drink, and they could hardly expect to charge me twice for the same pint, once on its way in and once on its way out. He conceded that this was reasonable, and said he would let me have my pee on condition that I brought him a chit for it, which I could get at the bar after I'd finished. I did as I was told, then drank my pint. But by then I felt it might be wise to have another little tinkle before resuming my tour. The young woman behind the bar didn't even blink when I asked if I could have two pees for one pint. "Of course, sir," she replied, and handed me another chit. One up for Harrods again. But I still won't be going back.