Colm O'Regan: My childhood is full of happy memories hidden in an Argos catalogue

Colm O'Regan: My childhood is full of happy memories hidden in an Argos catalogue

My father went to London a few times in the 1980s to visit his sister. It was a very 1980s holiday. He went on behalf of the family.

But London was far enough. He brought back exotic items. Bank notes with the queen looking prim and official on them, as opposed to the collection of rakes and writers we had on our currency.

The queen was on the coins, too — a stern landowner next to our lovely little animals. My father brought me back a pen that had a digital clock on it. It was part of a craze for putting digital clocks on everything: Pens, rulers, other watches.

On another trip, he returned with a certificate from York Cathedral, thanking him for his donation of "one pound" to its restoration fund.

At Holyhead, on the journey home, a policeman asked my father for ID and the cathedral scroll was the only thing he had on him with his name on it. So he presented it to the puzzled rozzer.

And he brought an Argos catalogue. For years, before the shop itself arrived in Ireland, in 1996, we read the Argos catalogue like a book of fairy tales. A 1001 Arabian Nights, if on each night Sheherazade bought her husband a toasted sandwich maker or a Moulinex deep-fat fryer.

But I was interested mainly in the back of the catalogue, where the toys were. I spent hours gazing at things I would never own, my nose pressed up against the window of consumption.

You would think that is a bittersweet memory, that it is tinged with sadness. But I remember only that I enjoyed playing vicariously with the Lego and the Masters of the Universe figurines and Skeletor’s castle. Yes, I wanted them, but even just imagining having them was pleasurable.

It helped that the catalogues were in glorious technicolour. This might sound ludicrous in the 1980s. It wasn’t that long ago. But a lot of colour that we take for granted now wasn’t there.

We didn’t have a colour telly until 1987. Comics were mostly black and white. If there was colour, it was two-tone — pink or blue. Newspapers were all black and white.

Even in the get-it-once-a-year Christmas RTÉ Guide, when they were previewing the telly for the two weeks, only Christmas Day was in colour.

This isn’t some rose-tinted memory. I’m not arguing that people without a load of money have no business getting nice things. I’m waiting till my 50s for those columns.

I’m more interested in how a shopping catalogue was so memorable to me.

There’s science to it. In the last few years, scientists who study how the brain processes pleasure, and what makes us happy, have found an interesting thing about dopamine, the pleasure chemical in our brains, the one that makes us feel good. It had been thought that it was released when we received a reward — a biscuit, in any tests I’ve conducted — but that may not be the case.

Dopamine is the anticipation drug. You actually get happy when you anticipate or imagine the nice thing.

It’s why you get excited at online shopping. You know the thing is going to arrive. But even if you pretend you’re going to get it, the dopamine tap comes on.

Apparently, if you just imagine yourself eating chocolate, you can make yourself happier. This seems risky, so I’ve only done this experiment when I know I have  chocolate.

Either way, hold on to any Argos catalogues you have under the cushion of your favourite chair.

In the future, therapists will be prescribing them. 

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