We spent hours poring over them as kids – but the Argos catalogue took on all the status of a holy artefact during the Nineties. Here, stylist.co.uk editor Kayleigh Dray explores the unique relationship we all shared with that oh-so-glossy tome growing up…
Back when we were kids, Christmas was different in everyone’s house. There were those of us who tied knitted socks to the end of our beds, hoping to find a satsuma and a bag of chocolate coins hidden in the toe come morning. Other, greedier children decided to flog Santa for all he had by hanging huge pillow-cases up on Christmas Eve. Some penned polite little letters to the guy in red, accompanied by a mince pie, or a carrot, or both. Others left a healthy glug of brandy. Many sceptics confidently declared there was no such thing as Santa and lay awake fretfully, hoping that they weren’t wrong.
The differences didn’t stop there. There was the endless debate over when it was acceptable to dive into the pile of presents under the tree (before breakfast? After? Test resolve levels by waiting until after the turkey’s digesting in our guts?). There’s the controversial ‘Christmas dinner’ question, too: should it be served up at lunchtime, late afternoon, or (horror of all horrors) in the evening? Some watched the Queen’s speech, more crooned along to The Snowman, plenty got stuck into all the abject misery of EastEnders and a few families banned TV full-stop. Many clans fell out over a seemingly innocent game of Monopoly. Or Cluedo. Or Articulate. Or Charades.
In short, everyone did Christmas in their own way. The only consistency was – as far as I can see it, at least – the vital role played by the Argos catalogue.
Or, as I like to call it, the Argos Bible.
Yes, you needed to use all of your strength to lift it onto your lap, but there was something oddly reassuring about the sheer bulk of that catalogue. It could be used as a paperweight, or a booster seat, or a doorstop, or a handy step (as a small person, I utilised any and all tools that could assist any daring climbing escapades). During my wilder daydreams, I idly imagined myself using it to clobber any clumsy Home Alone-esque burglar who dared break into our teeny two-bedroom flat. And, yes, I sometimes used the tie from my mum’s raggedy dressing gown to lash it to my chest and fashion something not unlike a DIY bullet-proof vest: even now, with all the logic of adulthood at my disposal, I still suspect I was onto something with that. If any catalogue could stop a bullet fired at ten paces, it would be the Argos bible.
And those slick product pages took on god-like levels of importance when it came to writing up our Christmas lists.
The making of a good Christmas list is a very subtle art, with many dos and don’ts, but the biggest ‘do’ was that you had to use the Argos catalogue. Had to.
This meant that every year when November rolled round, my sister and I would trot into the living room, carefully tug it out from its home underneath the Yellow Pages and gently, reverently, lay it down on the living room floor.
Then, with our backs pressed as close to the gas fire as we dared and a sippy cup of weak tea at hand, we’d get down to that important business of Flipping Through Every Single Page And Scribbling Crosses Next To Our Favourite Things.
This was very serious stuff – and took longer than you might think. We didn’t allow ourselves the luxury of flipping straight to the toy pages, oh no. Instead, we kicked things off in the kitchen section: we’d coo over coffee makers, and vibrant Venetian blinds, and velour sofas. We’d cock our heads to one side and muse, for a very long time, over microwaves. We’d query the benefits of the two-slice toaster, when there was a four-slice one for the same price (in a fun primary colour, no less).
We didn’t have Netflix or social media. We didn’t even really have the internet, not properly, and definitely no mobile phones. There was no garden to play in, our tiny single bedroom was dominated by bunk beds, and we’d already read every single book and magazine in the flat. It was cold outside (cold inside, too, to be honest) – and our TV was only hooked up to the four most basic channels. We’d chopped the hair off our Barbies and were filled with regret. We’d watched our paltry video collection to death, including the Reader’s Digest video guide to Birds of the UK (on mute, so that we could perform our own ‘hilarious’ voiceovers).
With this background of boredom, we became incredibly talented at spinning even the dullest of things into something mildly fun. And mild fun was amazing.
But the absolute best part of the Argos catalogue was the toy pages. You know how exciting it is to see a famous person in real life? Well, it was just like that, because all the stars from our favourite adverts were there.
There was Baby All Gone (“she loves cherries from a jar”), Mr Frosty (“he makes treats for everyone!”), Action Man (“the greatest hero of them all”), Dream Phone (“who who who’s got a crush on you?”), Polly Pocket (“Pa-la-la-la Polly”), Buckaroo (or, to use his full title, Buck-Buck-Buckaroo), and all the rest. They were all there at our fingertips, to pore over and dream about. To carefully consider the cost of. To tot up the figures on a separate piece of paper (see, we were learning mathematics and budgeting, while having fun at the same time!). To weigh up against one another, in a bid to secure the best (and most likely) combination for Santa to sort out.
Why were we so intent on streamlining our dreams/greed and coming up with an affordable Args gift scheme? Well, because we knew our parents wouldn’t be able to pay for everything we wanted, and we knew they had some sort of deal with Santa, although we were hazy on the details: they sent him money, maybe, and he’d deliver their shopping for them? It made sense to us, almost – and why shouldn’t it? Our vision of Santa was, essentially, the blueprint for all the ASOS, Amazon, eBay and other online stores to come.
Of course, Santa couldn’t rely on vague descriptions. He needed Argos product codes and page numbers. He needed them in advance, so that he could make sure they were in stock – and, if they weren’t, that there was time enough to order them in.
He also needed, we learned quickly, us to check and double-check said codes; one number out of place could spell the difference between a Sky Dancer and a smoke alarm. “It was very confusing,” Santa wrote peevishly in his letter that year, “but luckily your mummy and daddy were able to help me figure it out. Make sure you tell them thank you.”
Once, we dared to wonder aloud why Santa preferred to shop in Argos than, y’know, use his own elf-staffed workshop. We were swiftly informed that the elves had branched out: they made toys for Argos, now, as they recognised that Santa could only keep them in employment for one month a year. Argos, on the other hand, sold toys all year round. It was a smart choice – and one of the first things to show us the importance of putting our own needs first in the workplace.
Well, maybe. Then again, that might be hindsight talking: I’m trying to find nuggets of wisdom in my childhood obsession with catalogues. “Oh, Argos taught me all about budgeting,” I declare, to anyone who will listen. “And attention to detail, and realism, and self-love…”
Needless to say, I was devastated when the Argos catalogue was quietly scrapped from stores* in England and Scotland earlier this year. I understand that we’re living in a digital age now. I’ve done my best to get on board with the changes that come with it. I no longer mind (mostly) that books have been swapped out for Kindles, phone calls for WhatsApp messages, blind set-ups for dating apps. That takeaway menus are obsolete, and your pizza is just a click away. That instant in-office messaging has rendered face-to-face communication with colleagues completely unnecessary. That every single news bulletin, good and bad, can worm its way into my phone at any time of day.
What I can’t get on board with, though, is the death of the take-home Argos catalogue. The communal ones in the store just aren’t the same. You can’t doodle on the front cover, or scribble in them, or pen thoughtful notes to your loved ones in them (e.g. “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, I WILL BE GOOD FOREVER IF YOU BUY ME THIS!!!”). You can’t run with it to wave that must-have item under your mum’s nose, because the communal Argos Bible is nailed down to the worktops.
Yes, the Argos catalogue as we knew it may be history – but it’s History with a capital H. I bet they’ll have them in museums, someday. They will be curiosities, rarities, oddities. They will be artefacts of a bygone era, a source of puzzlement to future generations, and I will be proudly telling everybody gathered around the exhibit that I used to have one in my actual home. That I am an Argos kid.
And that degree of smugness, my friends, is the sort of Christmas present money just can’t buy.
* Since publishing this article, Argos has reached out and reassured me that all of my fears are entirely unfounded.
“I just wanted to let you know that the removal of catalogues was a trial in a very small number of stores and customers can still get takeaway catalogues in the majority of stores, so least you can still get hold of one.”
Brilliant. This means that, yes, we can all run out and bagsy one (or 20) modern-day Argos Bibles for ourselves right now. I know what all of my friends are getting from me for Christmas this year: their very own piece of goddamned history. Happy holidays!