TOUCH IT, SMELL IT - YOU'RE IN A DIVE SHOP!
REMEMBER YOUR FIRST VISIT TO A DIVE SHOP? The thrill! A delicious new world in which unfamiliar objects and unfathomable gadgets mingled with marching rows of rubber-scented drysuits.
My first dive-shop experience was down a back alley in Loughton, on a nameless industrial estate, with the diving officer. I was a wide-eyed novice; he was after something horribly tedious like a new pillar valve. He wouldn't let me touch anything in case I showed myself up.
Not much chance of that - the staff were briskly doing far more important things, and I was as invisible as last year's Big Brother winner at a celebrity bash.
The well-hidden location and harsh strip-lighting lent the place an ambience that teetered between criminal underworld hang-out and porn-movie location. Visiting the shop was a daring adventure; I felt that I risked being challenged and exposed for my sad lack of diving knowledge at any moment.
The whole thing was perversely thrilling, but I was determined to be a real diver with my own kit. My next shopping trip was more promising.
I picked a big, bright watersports shop in central London, with staff keen enough to actually sell stuff and - in that fit of enthusiasm coupled with ineptitude that is the hallmark of a diving trainee - I spent a large sum of money on a mask that resembled a conservatory. It flooded the minute I jumped in the pool, and I used 50 bar each time I cleared it.
After two pool sessions of floundering blindly and grabbing my buddy by the crotch rather than the shoulder-strap during a controlled buoyant lift, my mask was confiscated by the training officer.
Then, on my first dive trip to Portland, I discovered Parry's. OK, so it looked like a WW2 prefab that had accidentally been blasted into the car park by a stray V2, but it was a treasure trove. You could lose yourself for hours among the jars of multi-coloured curly cord, hose-protectors and mask-straps. The blades of new dive knives glittered.
Examples of old-style dive kit adorned the walls, like a mini-museum. Fossilised starfish and bits of driftwood from Chesil beach decorated glass cases full of compasses, depth-gauges and dive watches. I made several visits for fills, and found that once I'd stepped over the threshold more than once, the staff treated me like an old mate. Marvellous.
Who would miss out on the glorious experience of visiting a dive shop, getting dizzy on the gluey smells, stroking all that new equipment and lusting after the shiny-shiny bits? You find all kinds of funky stuff that you never knew existed - like little squeezy sachets of "Sink the stink!" and yellowing, chunky lumps of zipwax.
Now I'm a big fan of the Internet - my job is, after all, running Divernet.com - and I find online shopping nowhere near as exciting as doing it in the flesh, but it does have some advantages.
Online dive shops never shut. You can dally over the details of the latest Suunto computer at 3am if you so wish. You can comfortably compare who has the best deal on that must-have Apeks regulator without shifting your bum from that armchair. It's the modern way, but you still can't buy an air-fill over the Internet.
UK diving is dead without dive shops, so if you're going to buy online, do it through a dive-shop website. After all, why would you shop for something as important and intimate as dive kit from someone you don't know, on an auction site such as eBay? You don't know where it's been! It's like buying secondhand underwear.
"So would you buy a used pair of knickers on eBay?" I asked Marky Mark. "Depends," he said, all mysterious. "On what?" I demanded. "Well, if it was Kylie's used knickers..." I hate him when he's right.