This has been a bad day on-line: it started with an invitation to see "gallons of teen pee", which was unusual even by the standards of pornographic spam. Then the mail service at Pipex suddenly buckled, and I had no e-mail at all for about six hours, followed by an unsolicited offer to make money fast and two earnest messages discussing the interior plumbing of Saab cars. These last I deserved, because I had subscribed to a mailing list about Saabs while wondering whether to buy one or not and I still gain nuggets of information from it.
But the real horror came last, when my nine-year-old daughter announced that her best friend needed an obsolete Beanie Baby for a birthday present and I promised to find her one on the net.
The first stop was the official Beanie Baby website, which claims over two billion visits. This is more likely to be 1,000 maniacs visiting two million times each than the other way round. There are many things wrong with the human race, but I cannot believe that 40 per cent of the people now alive are interested in Beanie Babies. For those lucky readers who have never found one, I should explain that they are small, brightly coloured and loosely stuffed furry animals, made in Indonesian sweatshops and marketed with American know-how. You cannot even eat them, and they smell terrible when cooked. Each has a name: Magic the unicorn, with a lurex-wrapped horn, is about as tasteful as they get. Small girls love them. There have been several thousand different models made, which means that no one can ever have enough.
The official site is hideously coloured and contains exhaustive lists of every Beanie Baby ever stuffed. These are divided into "active" and "retired"; the "retired" ones are the subject of a huge market, as I found as soon as I set out in search of Nanook the little husky. On the Ebay auction site, there were 593 people advertising Beanie Babies; several of them seem to have made Beanie Baby trading their full-time business. Another site offered a Collectors' Guide to Beanie Babies, a book which contains colour photographs of many hundreds of stuffed animals and which has sold three million copies. This statistic is enough to make anyone who has ever written a book put their head in a blender.
In Georgia there is a Beanie Baby stock exchange, where you can bid for any number of them and sell your own. After the page has loaded, displaying the prices, which run as high as $800 for a truly desirable stuffed animal, synthesised muzak accompanies your perusal of the price list. I think that hell must be a lot like that, only more immersive. Somewhere I found a man in Llandudno auctioning a mint set of 12 Teeny Beanies, as given away, he said, in a recent McDonald's promotion. Several shops in Holland offered a sale of Beanies around Europe; and in Ireland, Erin the green Beanie was being offered as the prize in a competition. I even came across a tie-dyed Beanie Baby named Garcia.
Somehow this seemed to me even more depressing than the offer of gallons of teen pee. I like to think of myself as broad-minded, but the discovery that there are people who will build their lives around either this or collections of Disneyfied stuffed animals proves that there is something ineradicably futile about the human race. Next time someone asks you what the Internet has done for humanity, tell them that it has brought the market in Beanie Babies to a perfection undreamt of in more backward ages.
Progress continues. It's not just the giant superstores, or even the American small businesses, which have taken to the net: indeed the Americans still don't understand abroad quite right, and one firm quoted $32.95 shipping to post me an $8 bear.
Within an hour of entering the global virtual hell that is a Beanie shopping mall, I had found a shop called Huggables in the agreeable Georgian town of Wisbech - not the most obvious home of e-commerce. I had to buy an extra Beanie to make up the minimum order, but any moment now Nanook the little husky and Ewey the lamb will pop through the real letter box to join our little family, though of course Nanook must go on into the wider world to be with Eleanor and her new friends there. It's so exciting! I must just remember not to call her Nanookie the eskimo, after the lady who some years ago emerged from layers of greasy sealskin in the winning entry of a New Statesman competition for anaphrodisiac sex scenes.