In which I'm free

Printed 03/02/11.

You know you're getting  to A Certain Age* when you stop 'going shopping' and just start 'going to Debenhams'. When the terrifying urban jungle that is the high street starts overwhelming you, when you've done one this-way-that-way pavement dance too many with pedestrians as you charge from shop to shop, when you need the reassurance of knowing there's a cafe where you can have a nice cup of tea and a sit down just an escalator ride away. That's when the department store comes beckoning from the shadows.

"Come to me!" it whispers in your ear like a slightly seedy Auntie, as you lie supine on the floor of the River Island changing room with a taffeta playlist stuck halfway over your head. "I have everything you need. Don't waste your precious energy gadding about like a fool - within my doors you can buy a pillowcase, some pants and a teacake in 20 minutes."

Until now, I'd never fully understood the appeal of the department store. Much in the same way that those massive buffet restaurants who serve every cuisine are basically always delivering quantity at the expense of quality ("Lasagne and pad thai on the same plate, mmmm a taste sensation"), I'd assumed department stores always just covered every base, weakly, instead of selling one thing really damned well.

Guarded by their army of terrifying make-up ladies (original skin tone unknown) department stores felt to me as a teenager like somewhere you would always leave having purchased a towelling dressing gown, no matter what you originally went in to buy.

But no longer. Now, I get it. The Are You Being Served fantasy suddenly makes sense to me. Department Stores are like tiny, complete little worlds. Their appeal lies in the idea that if you got locked in for the night, everything would be perfectly fine! You'd eat all the toasted teacakes in the cafe, sleep in the beds, and spend the rest of the time trying on beachwear in a hilarious filmic montage. When those people got stranded in the snow last year and were invited to spend the night in a nearby John Lewis, my Mum rang me up in the throws of absolute jealousy and wonderment - and it was then I realised the truth. We would all, really, just like to live in a department store.

Which one, though? In Worthing you basically have Debenhams or Beales, with the slightly depressing lesser option of BHS if needed. Debenhams is the shinier of the two, more in touch with the outside world, but Beales has a homespun charm that can't be matched.

In London, meanwhile, the department store provides a invaluable port in the Oxford Street storm. There's Debenhams and John Lewis for sales shopping that starts on cocktail dresses and will always inevitably end up at control pants, House of Fraser for pretending to be a young urbanite who goes to drinks functions (instead of a young luddite who goes to Nandos for a treat) and then, the Grandaddy of them all - Selfridges.

For years, I was as intimidated by Selfridges as everyone else. It's posh! It has Fendi handbags! It has people who can afford to buy Fendi handbags! Am I even allowed in here wearing jeans? But then I uncovered its secret. The great equaliser.

Here it is: it has a Topshop. And I can afford Topshop! It's right at the back and you have to walk through a load of mortgage-defying stationery to get to it, but it has one, and thus, I have as much right to shop in Selfridges as every Arab Sheikh and his wife. "Don't mind me," I silently say, as I trot past the Cartier and through the millionaire's bedding section. "I am just a simple gal, on my way to Topshop."

"But if we happen to get stranded here for the night, don't think I'm not going to town on the Chanel."

*For many people, that Certain Age is somewhere in the midst of mortgage repayments, parents' evenings and menopause. In my head, however, it's about 26.