Catalogues are the bane of old people’s back bedrooms.

Catalogues mean that old ladies’ back bedrooms are stuffed with dreadful things which they haven’t bought, they’ve acquired. Free gifts. Old ladies send for catalogues full of ghastly clothes and items which are supposed to make life easier, and they get freebies,  like folding steps and pink kettles and thin tin pans. Old ladies are exploited. They are targeted and exploited because they want to look nice, they want value for money and because they can’t get around like they used to do.

Allow me to illustrate. Purely fictional, of course.

Here’s Florence, at home. Think rose geranium lipstick, April Violets scent (smells rather like dolly mixtures), neat perm, pastel paisley patterned dresses with zips up the front, sore feet in slippers, handbag crammed with her buildingsocietyaccountbookspensionletterspursetabletskeysandawhitehanky tucked behind the sofa.

Florence, 91, can’t get out much, unless her neighbour takes her to the Co-op, so she relies on catalogues. She takes the Daily Mail, or the Express, and these booklets drop out like a shower every weekend. They sound prestigious because they have names which echo French, or they sound reliably Scottish. She sees that their company address is in Guernsey, but it has no significance for her.

Florence needs a new summer skirt for a 90th birthday party, so she looks in the catalogues and sees garments displayed prettily on bright 40-something models with impossibly blonde hair, bright teeth and candy pink lips. She chooses a skirt in what’s described as this season’s peppermint, and laboriously writes out a cheque for £20, and gets the neighbour to post it. Eventually the skirt turns up. The sizing is wildly inaccurate, and it’s not short, it’s down to her ankles, and they hadn’t got any more peppermint (did they ever have any?), so they’ve sent shocking pink and hope she’ll be delighted. It hasn’t got the soft, loose texture she was expecting, either; it’s nylon, which she never wears because it makes static with her tights and that sets her arthritic knee off hurting.

So she sends it back. A few weeks later, she gets a contrite letter from the catalogue company, who assure her that her £20 will be kept safe as a credit against a future purchase. They’ve overlooked that she paid postage as well. She really wanted her money back, but is frightened to phone Guernsey in case it costs too much, so she puts up with it. When the next edition of the catalogue comes, she’s assured that she’s a valuable customer who’s been singled out for a £2 credit voucher and a free gift. So she sends for some navy trousers, which cost £24, plus postage, so she sends off whatever they’re asking for and when the trousers come, they’re too long, and they’d sold out of navy, so they’re sending olive green, but there’s an extra special free gift to make up for this.

Florence is by now too worn out by the whole thing to send the trousers back, so she makes do, and buys a cardigan to match from another catalogue. The freebie is a travel kettle, made in the ROC by a peasant in a sweatshop for two pence a day. The plastic casing is so thin that it’ll dissolve with heat, the electrics are dodgy, the switch doesn’t work properly and the flex is too short, and anyway,  Florence doesn’t need a kettle, so she sends it to the Methodists’ jumble sale.

At the Methodists’ jumble sale, Florence’s kettle is lined up with Doris’s CD case, Maud’s garden trolley, Betty’s Take That picture frame, Winifred’s pink radio, Mary’s pocket camera, Millie’s electrical thermometer, the other Florence’s sat-nav, Robina’s battery-operated record player which is supposed to play 33s, 45s and 78s (batteries not included), Nellie’s set of non-stick pans, Emily’s special-pan-to-fry-bacon-without-any-fat, Ellen’s battery-operated CD player (batteries can be obtained from our catalogue, p 72), Minnie’s cassette recorder, Martha’s portable telly and my mother’s rickety folding three-tread steps. All catalogue freebies. All completely useless.

They’re all made to a standard of cheapness and awfulness which is way below that which I could have imagined possible. Many of them are positively dangerous, with not even a passing resemblance to UK safety standards, they disintegrate in assembly, and they look ghastly. They don’t work, but then you wouldn’t expect a free telly or sat-nav to work anyway. The mobility and disability aids are simply shocking. They’re complete rubbish and they’re going out to old ladies all over the country. Old ladies who’re being exploited because they can’t fight back. They send these objects to jumble sales because they’re a generation that can’t abide waste. Yet even if something is sold at the jumble sale, the waste of precious resources has already happened.

After one episode, I recovered £25 for my mother, who sent for a CD case from one of these outfits to save carrying round jewel cases. I took one look at it and forbade her to use it because the harsh slots would wreck her CDs. Oh, no, we don’t do refunds… You will do, or else… We’ll credit your mother with a bonus of 2€ (euros?? – to an elderly person who has never spent a euro, a euro is a meaningless sum of money, it could mean ten pounds for all she knows)… . Come off it. Now send. … They sent. I bought her a CD case from a local shop for £5.30 and gave her £25 back.

I have no reason to suppose this is untypical, though there are some good companies out there. What should happen is that older people feel able to buy confidently from a catalogue, that what they see is what they will get, that what they get is only what they have ordered, and that what they are sent is absolutely safe for people whose mobility or vision is not what it was. Everyone likes getting a parcel. It ought to be reliably pleasurable every time.