"THIS is for these guys," bellowed Goldie Hawn, directing the crowd's attention to the giant fibre-glass elephant she was standing on, "these wonderful creatures in Asia that need our help." Below her, on the pavements of Knightsbridge, people nodded thoughtfully. "We are the highest of the animal kingdom," she continued. "We have a mind and heart and a conscience and this is what this is all about. We know how to help and this is what we're doing today."
But at that moment the clock struck nine, Captain Peacock unbolted the door, and the mob stampeded past Goldie and her glass- fibre friend, scattering the Dixieland jazz band and the Highland pipers in the rush to be first to the china department. The 1997 Harrods sale had begun.
Goldie's right. We must be the highest of the animal kingdom, for no other species observes the ritual of the post-Christmas sales. The hyena hunts, but he does not bargain-hunt. A pack of hyenas does not come across a young antelope and tear it apart simply because it has been marked down to £29.99.
Why only humans bargain-hunt is hard to say. Ms Hawn's beloved Asian elephants never forget: maybe the memory of some grisly experience at Bourne & Hollingworth in 1928 has put them off the whole business. By contrast, we never remember, and each year we're back for more, ecstatic at snapping up the set of heated hair- rollers with built-in CD player for £12.50 less than the full price in the knowledge that it'll help off-set the cost of the car being clamped.
The January sales originated in Parisian department stores a century and a half ago. Today, many other countries have them: in America, all the most honoured days in the calendar - Presidents Day, Memorial Day - have been appropriated for Massive Store-Wide Clearances.
Since the collapse of communism, sales have even arrived in the understocked emporia of Moscow, where every check-out line is for nine items or less. But only in Britain do they have their peculiar intensity.
After suffering the traditional English Yule, through Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Christmas Bank Holiday Tuesday, the First Wednesday Before Thursday, slumped in front of the big seasonal movie (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) and Channel 4's Lesbian Christmas, besieged by carollers baying "Feed The World", giving up on charades after Granny takes 25 minutes to mime Two Little Boys, your average Briton begins to get a little stir-crazy. The idea of two nights of physical discomfort camped out on Oxford Street and being used as a urinal by passing derelicts has a beguiling, liberating aspect it might lack at other times of the year.
Of course, not many bargain-hunters actually do queue up 48 hours in advance. Don't be disheartened if you find the pavements a seething tide of humanity. Many are just there in the hope that their amusing queue costume will get them a spot on Newsroom South- East ("And finally, the January sales begin tomorrow. And outside Marshall & Peabody there are no prizes for guessing what Ron from Greenfield Park is hoping to get. That's why he's dressed as an 84- inch Nicam digital stereo holographic TV").
The exception is Harrods, where - if you take a close look - most of the queue are all too obviously agents of MI6 dispatched by Prince Philip to prevent the heroic Mohamed Fayed from continuing his courageous expose of the British Establishment. Fortunately for Mohamed, most of these Government agents are repulsed by the ladies of the ground-floor parfumerie department spraying everyone in sight ("Don't fire until you can hit the whites of their eyes").
A few highly trained professionals do make it through: the all- time record for the dash from Harrods' front door to the china department is held by a Taunton accountant, Ian Birch, who in 1988 just beat Mr L Christie of Ladbroke Grove to come in at 13 seconds. It should be noted that, to be eligible, the journey has to be incoming: many shoppers have wandered by accident into the store's Egyptian Room, and been back on the pavement screaming within 11 seconds.
To foreigners, all this is part of one of those quintessentially British traditions no outsider can hope to understand, like the Lord Chancellor walking backwards at the State Opening of Parliament. Except, with the Boxing Day sales, everything seems to be backwards.
In US sales, the reductions are greater than in Britain and the original price from which they're being reduced is a lot lower to begin with. So, to Americans, all the British are doing is enduring immense inconvenience, unpleasantness and possibly physical pain for the privilege of being slightly less ripped off than normal.
But, as usual, they're missing the point: it's not the winning or losing, it's how you play the game. We all know that that table of pullovers marked "Up To 50 per cent Off!" contains one sweater that's marked down 50 per cent and 69 that are marked down between 6 and 8 per cent. And, even if you find the 50-per-cent-off sweater, it'll be orange crimplene, which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the strange turquoise collar.
And, even though you know you'll never wear it, why forego the pleasure of queuing for half an hour to pay for it? It's the Blitz, it's the Dunkirk spirit, it's about showing that Britain can take it - and, if the Germans are too busy to dish it out these days, then thank God that Debenham's and John Lewis and MFI and DFS are willing to pick up the slack.
No, the post-Christmas sales are the apotheosis of the British experience. First, getting there is hell: last year the M25 was brought to a complete standstill - or rather an even more complete standstill than usual - when 100,000 shoppers endeavoured to reach the Lakeside shopping complex at Thurrock. Imagine: 100,000 people who want to spend the day trying to get to Thurrock, and failing.
Second, once you get there, don't expect any, um, facilities: if you're thinking of camping out, bear in mind that in the entire length of Oxford Street there are seven public conveniences.
Third, the only stars you'll see are Mr Fayed and someone who used to be in a spin-off from Dynasty.
Fourth, as at Wimbledon, the foreigners are beginning to move in. Last year at Harrods, one Russian bought 10 washing-machines and 10 dryers and then paid pounds 3,000 to ship them back to Moscow. G od knows why. If you plug 10 washing-machines into the wall in Moscow every light in Belarus will go out.
The only wonder is that Mr Blair hasn't got around to banning it on humanitarian grounds. But maybe he doesn't need to. Despite superficial touches of modernity - creche facilities for bored blokes who'd rather watch Sky Sports that some stores are now offering - there's something inherently antiquated and nostalgic about the whole season.
You vaguely expect to see decrepit department stores that ceased trading a generation ago to re-emerge at sale time from the mists of memory, like a retailer's Brigadoon. Like the faux millennium, the January sales like to jump the gun, showing up in December, late November, October maybe. You can't have a January sale in January any more, because in January most department stores are too busy putting up their Christmas windows. But the fact that they're out of sync with the calendar and have become entirely arbitrary only emphasises their redundancy.
This year was the first big Christmas of "e-commerce", when significant numbers of customers bought their gifts online. True, it's not the same, but technical innovation is proceeding at such a pace that by next year it should be possible to enjoy a virtual January sales experience, where, before you can log on to, say, Amazon.com, you have to sit for four hours looking at an amazingly life-like picture of the back of a Saab on the M25. Otherwise, like so many other glorious British traditions, the January sales look unlikely to survive to the next millennium.