Can you really buy peace of mind in the high street? Geraldine Brennan heads home with a handful of 'relaxing' products to see if they can wash her worries away
At the busiest hour in the most unappealing patch of London's most stressful shopping street, I am standing elbow to elbow in a row of shoppers-in-headphones, all of us attempting to shake off our road rage. We are plugged into the listening stations in front of a bank of CDs. I am in the "relaxing", "healing" and "uplifting" section.
This is my third trip in search of instant karma. On the first visit I explored the "sounds of nature" section, in which wolves, dolphins, whales, sea storms and pan pipes evoked the contemplative elements of a thousand shampoo commercials. I tried to concentrate in a laid-back manner on The Loon (that's the North Atlantic sea-bird) but my eye kept straying to my neighbour's Celtic harp selection. On my return trips, The Loon had no takers and the staff were playing Enya's Greatest Hits - the acceptable face of New Age music.
Retail therapy now has an extra meaning. It's not just the act of shopping that's supposed to make us feel better - the goods themselves are presented as the means of healing wounds and soothing frazzled nerves. Luxurious packaging and "concept" presentation add to the sense of treating oneself, so that buying a scented candle achieves the warm glow of investing in a self-help book - without the bother of reading. To see if money could buy peace of mind, I took home a bundle of "feelgoodies", including those "uplifting" CDs.
To give the cry of the wolf a fighting chance, I abstained from coffee for a whole 45 minutes before settling down on my chaise longue. For the novice, the crystal pools and mystic forests of the relaxationNew Age genre can seem impenetrable. Those looking for meditative wallpaper sounds rather than the work of a particular artist are likely to be drawn to the under-a-tenner end of the CD racks, where brand names such as Reflection, Tranquillity, Harmony and Serenity proliferate. Composers have a low profile, and the results are likely to be what the Madacy Music Group (the Canadian label that produces the Serenity series) calls "beautiful music artfully mixed with authentic sounds of nature".
The Reflection series in the Harmony range from Music Collection International places more emphasis on the music, mixing Haydn's string concertos with birdsong to unintentionally hilarious effect in one title. The Tranquillity series in the same range offers creature comforts with titles including Cry of the Loon and Cry of the Wolf (pound;4.99 each from Borders).
Stress Busters from Beechwood Music (pound;4.99 from HMV) is a 20-minute canter through the genre's standard ingredients, with presentation blissfully free of soft-focus design and gobbledegook. If your dream rainforest contains ocean surf and dolphins, you'll be happy. Of the various howling wolves I auditioned, I preferred the one in the Madacy Serenity series (The Wolf, pound;5.99 from HMV), which I thought might be useful for a lesson (oh dear, I didn't mean to mention school).
I concluded that you have to be fairly relaxed before listening, otherwise the formlessness of the music induces annoyance rather than letting the mind run free. Most CDs last an hour or more, which seems a long time to spend listening to budgies having a bad hair day.
The CD I enjoyed most was Terry Oldfield's collection, Earth Spirit (New World Music, pound;10.99 from HMV), which comes from the "real music" end of the range. On the same shopping spree I bought Gorecki's Third Symphony and a BBC Gold cassette of the Julian and Sandy sketches from the classic radio series Round the Horne. Neither claimed to be uplifting, but one made me cry and the other made me laugh.
That's the background noise taken care of - what about a calm-enhancing smell? Don't be surprised that a Lavandula oficianalis candle in a frosted glass from Penhaligons at pound;10 (and that's a half-price offer) smells better than a lurid 70p job from the hardware shop. Joss sticks from a market stall are a better low-price option, but messy. The most attractive do-it-yourself room or bath fragrance - and the best long-term value for money - comes from the purest essential oils you can afford. To avoid the stress of shopping for them, try mail order. Star Child in Glastonbury (where else?) has a beautifully-produced catalogue that led me, gently and supportively, to another Nineties therapeutic industry - herb tea.
Star Child's fresh, pungent Peace Tea - camomile, lime blossom, lemon balm and lavender - costs pound;2.35 for 50g. On the label, alongside the usual sensible advice to consult a herbalist before using in pregnancy, appears the strange disclaimer: "We cannot accept responsibility for the personal karma and dharma of the user."
The brew is more interesting than the plain old camomile Peter Rabbit was put to bed with (now available in bags, recklessly without disclaimer, from any supermarket), and the prevailing lavender smell of the dry leaves disappears in the drink, leaving the lime flowers more prominent. I found the pot-warming, brewing and straining ritual more relaxing than dunking a bag in a mug.
The other prominent tea peacenik is Virgin. As well as running planes and trains for not-always-relaxing journeys, Richard Branson has set up Virgin Vie to supply soothing accessories for happy homecomings. Its Peace Fruit and Herb Tea costs pound;5 for 125g. It's not strictly stimulant-free - green tea, lemon grass, jasmine flowers and lemon peel - but delicious.
The teas are part of the Virgin Vie Living River range of pampering products "for the ebb and flow of your life". Confusingly, these include Peace Eye Tea which will, apparently, induce dreams of pine forests. They come with their own disclaimer: "I am not to be consumed. Remove contact lenses."
Virgin Vie also does stones. You can buy a pack of l5 pebbles to grace your own tumbling brook for pound;12, bigger stones to set scented candles inside for pound;15 and a pebble to hold a scented tea light for pound;10.
I couldn't face carrying pebbles home, but I did manage to pick up my personal diehard stress remedy - Martha Stewart Living magazine. Martha, the US answer to Delia Smith, never fails to say the right thing. And here it is in the recipe section: "Nothing puts life back into perspective like a good helping of Meat Loaf." Isn't he a bit loud for the "relaxing" CD racks?
THE PRICE OF A QUIET LIFE
peace Tea pound;5 for 125g (Virgin); pound;2.35 for 50g (Star Child) "Martha Stewart Living" magazine (US import) pound;3.4O. Or try "Hello!" at pound;1.35 Essential oils: Lavender pound;3.85 for l0ml Clary Sage pound;6.95 for l0ml (from Star Child) Julian and Sandy BBC Gold, pound;8.99 Star Child catalogue pound;1.50 from Star Child, Glastonbury BA6 9DU Virgin Vie catalogue from City Fields, Tangmere, Chichester PO20 6FP New World Music, Paradise Farm, Westhall, Halesworth, Suffolk IPl9 8RH Madacy Music Group, PO Box 144S, St Laurent, Quebec,Canada H4L 4Zl Beechwood Music, Littleton House, Littleton Road, Ashford, Middlesex TW1 S1W