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Shop talk with Prêt-à-Portas

It was Napoleon who described the British as "une nation de boutiquiers".

My kids as a rule don't say the cutest things, but the weirdest. As a result, I've learned to strip-mine ruthlessly their inchoate brains for ideas - which is why, presumably, they can't wait to leave home. My youngest is still only ten, so he can't get away, and I'm glad of that because he's proved especially helpful in furnishing topics for this column. Yesterday morning, on our way to his school, as the bus grumbled along the Wandsworth Road, I asked him if he could come up with anything for this week's Madness of Crowds. He thought for a second or so, then said: "What about all those shops that open knowing that they're going to have to close down again?"

I knew what he was referring to right away - the melancholy sight of "closing-down sale" stickers blazoned across shop windows, behind which lurk uncoveted stock - but I cavilled at the way he put it. "I don't think they know they're going to have to close down," I said. "On the contrary, I think each new shopkeeper believes devoutly in the likelihood of their success."

There is, it seems to me, a great pathos in the lunacy of the wannabe shopkeeper. In essence, the condition of the retailer is the closest any human being gets to inhabiting the ecological niche of the Venus flytrap. Like the carnivorous plant, the human must remain immobile, seeking only through subterfuge - bright colours, teasing scents, pleasing goo - to lure the prey. Even once the meaty treats have snuck inside, there's no guarantee that the poor mites will end up drained of their fiscal blood, because it takes so damn long to close those leaves/sales.

Smells like team spirit

Whenever I've had a friend who's opened a shop, I've observed the same insensibility creep over them as they realise that the only thing they've sold is themselves, downriver. Even before the collapse of the pyramid-selling scheme that was New Labour economic policy, chest-beating was already under way over the decline of the British high street. Previous governments have brought in dashing outsiders to advise on media, health and science but, as far as I know, Mary Prêt-à-Portas is the first retail guru to go to Westminster for a song (or possibly a fat consultancy fee).

Prêt-à-Portas's conclusions were deliciously loopy: in a retail environment in which a third of businesses were "failing or degenerating", the solution was to appoint "town teams"; laws on market traders should be relaxed and parking charges cut. Put simply, the only way to prevent the madness that ensues with the crowd's departure was to drag it back again.

The one thing Portas wouldn't counsel - oh, no! - was a moratorium on ex-urban shopping centres. (Nuking the internet wasn't tabled at all.) This is a bit like a consultant on hungry Venus flytraps recommending more insecticides. But you can hardly blame Prêt-à-Portas. This particular liquidation sale has been going on for a very long time.

Lost cause

After all, it was Napoleon who described the British as "une nation de boutiquiers" and, by the time we reach 1910, we have these prescient lines about them being penned:

Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses, which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned. The secular development of transit and communications has made the organisation of distributing businesses upon large and economical lines inevitable; except in the chaotic confusions of newly opened countries, the day when a man might earn an independent living by unskilled or practically unskilled retailing has gone for ever.

Step forward H G Wells (The History of Mr Polly), on the money as ever. We've talked about cognitive dissonance - or psychosis-lite - in this column before but no condition warrants this designation more than that of the consumer who believes passionately in the knock-down prices afforded by “the secular development of transit and communications" and equally devoutly in the socially cohering charms of ye olde mercer. No condition, that is, except that of the ye new olde mercer himself (or herself), who sets sail against the wind of change with only a sheet of plate glass as a means of propulsion.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt