Growing up in York, I often used to come down to London on the train with my free first-class rail pass, which I owned by virtue of having a father quite high up in BR's north-eastern regional HQ. A communist at the time, I used to forgo first with great magnanimity, and sit in second.
London held lots of little shocks for me, and the first time I saw Harrods I was taken aback to see that it was not called Harold's. This is what I'd always thought it was called, imagining it to be owned by a man at the opposite end of the social scale from Harold, the filthy codger in Steptoe and Son - the ultimate Harold, you might say.
Today, I enjoy going there. The shop is so exuberant, and with its multiracial clientele, it isn't intimidating, in the way the shops in Jermyn Street are. But I always get lost. I have concluded that either Harrods is badly laid out and signposted, or I'm not wealthy enough to have become accustomed to the place. Or both.
The last time I was there, I was looking for a diary. I started on the lower ground floor, where the shop directory alludes to all sorts of departments described in the most mysterious terms: the Halcyon Gallery, Decorative Living, the Room of Luxury. I turned around and saw a sign pointing towards "Executive Leather", another fairly opaque designation, but with an excitingly erotic overtone. I walked past a great pyramid of jewel boxes - about a hundred, all displaying identical earrings, and . . . got lost. I doubled back towards the Harrods Bank, where one counter was labelled "Japanese Desk"; a number of women were sitting behind it, none of them even slightly Japanese-looking.
I headed towards the escalator. There are at least two escalator systems in Harrods, and many staircases, not one of them really corresponding with any other. After a while, I found myself on the toys floor, next to a teddy bear the size of a room and a whole Grand National of rocking horses.
Then a couple approached me. They seemed typical Harrods people, in that: a) they looked extremely rich, and b) the woman was dressed in a cowboy outfit while the man wore a tweed suit and cravat. Pointing at me, the man said to the woman - ominously and ironically - "This chap looks like he knows what he's doing." He then approached me to ask: "Do you know where menswear is?"
"What do you want exactly?" I said - because, knowing Harrods, menswear isn't necessarily kept in Menswear. He pointed proudly at his cravat.
"Another one of these," he said.
I was dammed if I was going to help promote the cause of the cravat, so I said: "Sorry, no idea." I then found myself in Decorative Living, a department that sold mainly mugs. Admittedly, they were decorated. A little while later, another mystery was solved when I fetched up in the Room of Luxury, which seemed to specialise in Louis Vuitton luggage.
I now needed a pee, and realised that a sign directing me to the "Executive Service Suite" could well be the Harrods way of saying: "This way to the bogs." I followed the direction indicated, only to see another sign promising "Luxury Washrooms". Were they one and the same thing? Certainly they seemed to lie in the same general direction. I kept on walking, arriving next at a sign saying "Weekend Room", and this indeed was the gents. I wondered at that euphemism: did it arise from the whimsical idea that very posh people relieved themselves only at weekends, as a sort of leisure activity?
Stepping out of the Weekend Room, I saw the strange couple again. "No, no," the woman was saying, "that's the Egyptian escalator."