SOME PEOPLE in my road resent the endless tide of leaflets that washes through our letterboxes, and keep special bins by the door to put them straight in. Me, I chuck the pizza menus away – but I do enjoy laughing at the various local PR publications that slither on to our mat.
My top favourite is of course Greenwich Time, the council’s ridiculous propaganda newspaper - still doggedly insisting that putting the Olympic equestrian events in the Park will "transform" the sporting prospects of the borough’s kids, with a horse in every council flat.
But I’ve also got a real fondness for our two glossy local free magazines, Meridian and The Guide, with their articles by estate agents (“contrary to the doomsayers, the market remains surprisingly buoyant”) and glowing reviews of bad restaurants (“my companion’s garlic bread was delicious.”)
This month, inevitably, they’re both full of Christmas shopping baloney – Anthea Turner’s Yuletide organisational tips, that sort of thing - although I’m afraid Meridian has slipped up a bit. “With the twinkle of Christmas lights, the golden glow from the shops and the bustle of excited shoppers, Blackheath Village looks magical and very Christmassy at the moment,” writes Nanette Fielding on page 16 of the latest issue.
Alas, the magazine containing this charming description of Blackheath Village came through my door on December 3rd – in other words, three days before the Blackheath Christmas lights were switched on.
I, too, started my Christmas shopping even more prematurely than Nanette started writing her PR puff, though not yet at any of the chi-chi outlets advertised in Meridian or The Guide. No, I’ve been to - ahem - TK Maxx at the Peninsular Retail Park, Charlton.
Like some ultra-respectable Cabinet Minister secretly drawn to rough sex, I always feel, as a certified member of the West Greenwich bourgeoisie and campaigner for small shops, slightly guilty about my outbreaks of rough shopping. For the Charlton Peninsular Retail Park could not be further from the platonic middle-class shopping ideal.
As you probably know, it’s basically a strip-mall, a dozen big-box outlets strewn around a chaotic car park without any pretence of design, civic amenity or indeed anything other than the naked maximisation of profit. You won’t see Christmas lights, twinkling or otherwise, here – Christmas lights cost money.
My ex-colleague, the retail design guru Mary Portas, has brilliantly expressed her total contempt for TK Maxx, with its higgledy-piggledy racks of T-shirts and complete lack of style, display or taste. She is, of course, right – but I confess that that’s what I like about it. I’ve always enjoyed rummaging through street markets, and TK Maxx is a bit like a street market with a roof on.
Just like a street market, there is, these days, a fascinating mix of people. Most of the customers once seemed to be Poles and Lithuanians, plus a sprinkling of eccentrics like myself, but now they have been joined by a certain quota of credit-crunch refugees.
Just like a street market, most of the shopping niceties are missing. There are very few mirrors. There are supposed to be changing rooms, but whenever I go they always seem to be shut. So if you are trying on a shirt you do sometimes find yourself doing it in the middle of the shop (this only works for men, obviously.)
While doing this, rule number one at TK Maxx is to keep track of where you have put the clothes you came in wearing. The place is so chaotic that last time I was in there, someone picked my North Face jacket off the rack where I’d dumped it and took it to the till to pay.
Rule number two is that when you are looking through what actually is for sale, look everywhere. As in normal shops, they are supposed to sort the stuff by size and category – but the size labels always seem totally random and there are so many people going through the clothes that lots of things get put back in the wrong places.
The only strategy is to treat the job like, say, the Parachute Regiment clearing an enemy trench – methodically hose down each aisle, one at a time, until you are sure there are no cut-price Adidas T-shirts left alive.
Also rather like a combat zone, you have to block out the ceaseless aural shellfire from TK Maxx staff making announcements to each other over the in-store Tannoy (the Lewisham store seems much worse than Charlton, for some reason). Then, of course, there’s the 20-minute wait at the till.
If you can overcome these obstacles, however, the actual merchandise can be quite good. Much of the stuff is quite well-known brands - though often, admittedly, failed experiments by those brands which have bumped up against the limits of even British taste (I saw a pair of Puma trainers my size: the only problem was that they were in bright lime-green camouflage stripes, presumably so the wearer could take up a position in a tub of guacamole and not be noticed.)
If you are patient enough, you will usually come out with some small and quite acceptable, if not quite the very latest-model, designer trophy for yourself or a loved one: a Calvin Klein shirt or a Ted Baker jacket, perhaps, and for about half of what it might cost new. But I’ll be back in Blackheath Village next weekend: rough shopping is fun, but like rough sex, it’s a quick date, not a love affair.