SO THERE I was, being chauffeur-driven down London's Park Lane precisely one year to the day after I had left the West in a fit of pique over its tiresome recession and its tragic effects on my career. With me was one of those China-doll Hong Kong media girls on her first visit to the land of now empty and crumbling dark Satanic mills and mounting bills. During the course of the flight we had discussed what to expect. From me, there were visions of the tired and depressed, either over-working or unemployed, trudging the rain-sodden streets under a sea of umbrellas. From her, basing expectations on tales from friends, books and newspapers, came images of smog, smoking chimney pots and gas-lit Dickensian pubs with the daggers of press gangs quivering in scarred oak tables between Toby jugs of foaming ale. One of the suitcases she carried with her was crammed full of Pot Noodles in case she found the local cuisine not to her taste ('Is it true you only eat fish and chips?'). I confessed to having expected Hong Kong to be full of tattooed, karate-kicking triads and Taoist monks when I arrived but now felt fully immersed in its glistening chrome, consumption-crazy sunny reality where redundancy is what people take when they fancy a holiday longer than their company allows, confident in the knowledge of finding a new career opening upon their return. To our mutual surprise, it was a pleasant morning when the plane landed at Heathrow after circling acres of verdant countryside feathery with summer dew. No reeking nullahs accosted our nostrils, no blasts of hot clammy air. Instead, the atmosphere was fresh and pleasant, free from the machine-gun bursts of pneumatic drills. A driver from our hotel, the exquisitely English May Fair in the central London district of that name, speeded us down the empty motorway into the city and around its grandest quarters in no time. It was 4.30 am, so we could afford the luxury to gape at the splendours of traditional English architecture and the flowery brilliance of the royal parks before the gridlock of the working day cloaked everything in the gaseous vapour of vehicle fumes and a cacophony of grinding gears and car horns. To my alarm, I had been seconded by my companion as her shopping guide. She was here to shop in grand style, but being small and alien to the place, she needed assistance. Museums and galleries I can take but shopping I loathe. Particularly shopping for clothes with women. It's all that uncertainty I can't stand. Trying this on, opting for that, changing minds, seeking the opinions of others, going back to the first garment, sighing, parading in front of mirrors and so on. It all seems such a waste of time. But I hadn't bargained on feminine wiles. A beguiling smile and a few words were all it took before we were marching up Bond Street and its environs seeking out designer shops as if on a treasure hunt. Before I knew it, I was laden down with shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo, Bally and Manolo Blahnik, a Burberry coat from Selfridges, silk scarves from Harrods and a hat from Schillings. More than $10,000 had been spent and this was only day one. While recuperating over a hefty gin and tonic back in the hotel several footsore hours later, it struck me. Just about everyone we had encountered shopping had been Asian. And the staff had fawned over them. The only people spending in these meccas of style and fashion were the beneficiaries of the Eastern economic boom. The locals had been reduced to the serving class. Even though the goods were half the price you would pay in Hong Kong, they were still well above what the average local was prepared to spend. You could return to Asia looking like a million dollars having spent just half a million. It was actually worth the cost of the air ticket. London is now a bargain basement city. It knows it and exploits it. This foetal theory developed during my stay. Everywhere I went, I found the prevailing employment was in the lowly-paid service sector. Tourism offices had boomed. There were the British Tourist Authority, the English, Welsh and Scottish Tourist Boards, regional tourist associations and leaflets galore advising people (mainly big-spending foreigners) where and how to spend their money. Every town and city played on its historic past, luring travellers to gaze upon the past homes of long dead authors and artists or buildings more than a century old. British Rail staff were being sent on courses to learn to be polite to customers, shop staff were inordinately grateful for any sale. Coal mines had been turned into 'Coal Experience Centres' where you could be given a guided tour of a now redundant industry no sooner closed than converted into a piece of history. And don't forget the donation to the unemployed and unemployable miners' fund. Grand old textile mills, once capable of supplying the world with shirts and sheets, had been turned into small business centres churning out cheap souvenirs. The country that had given the world the Industrial Revolution was now flogging it as kitsch for want of anything else to sell. And who was buying? The newly-rich Easterners, purses dripping with cash and keen to spend. Settling into my Club Class seat on the way back, I pondered the cyclical nature of success, how Britain became great plundering the world and how it was now reduced to second-class status, selling its sentimentally packaged past to the history-hungry nouveau riche. Perhaps it would regain that greatness at the next turn of the wheel? Somehow, I doubt it. The East is yet to have its day.