The problem with the gift-giving ritual
is that we’ve never quite resolved the uneasy gap between the two rationales for doing it.
If me buying you a present on your birthday, and you later doing the same for me
is meant to be a way of increasing the number of desirable objects in both our lives,
then it’s obviously hideously inefficient.
Generally speaking, I’m much better then you are at knowing what things I haven’t got that I might want,
and although once in a while you might hit the holy grail of present giving,
the ‘I’d never have got it for myself, but now I have it I love it!’ gift;
I would say that each of those is offset by at least a score of ill-fitting jumpers
or duplicate copies of The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
It’s simply not a viable economic model.
I was once given a voucher for a grooming session at a men’s spa.
I suppose opening the envelope to find that inside was less upsetting
than seeing the shredded remains of a fifty pound note, but the effect was identical.
‘But no,’ you will be saying,
assuming you have sportingly chosen to play along with the Gradgrindish persona
I am adopting for hopefully comic effect,
‘of course that’s not what gift-giving is for - it’s to show someone we have remembered them,
that we care enough to want to make them happy,
and that we know them well enough to be able to try.
Even if the attempt fails, it’s important that it is made -
what would you have instead, a solemn Christmas exchange of bank details?’
Well, no, obviously I get that it’s the thought that counts,
and that after a certain period of trotting up and down the aisles of Waterstone’s
worrying that whatever you choose will make you look like a total dick,
you have discharged your duty of thought-bestowing,
and are free to buy another copy of The Bonesetter’s Daughter
for the recipient to fail to get round to reading, like everyone else.
But if that’s the system, why do some people ring you before your birthday to ask what you’d like?
Particularly people who know you well.
Close friends and family who feel they know you well enough
to be able to admit that they don’t know you well enough to know what you’d like.
Surely that’s a disastrous reversion to system A: presents as a way of conferring monetary value.
It’s not the thought that counts if you’re the one being asked to have the thought!
! In fact, it becomes a chore,
because naturally you want to please the giver by thinking of something
you’ll really like for them to give you, so you ask to be allowed to think about it,
and then inevitably when they phone back a week later you haven’t thought about it at all,
and you feel guilty, and… this is madness, surely!
This is what I mean about the gap between the two systems.
If it’s the monetary value that counts, clearly the best system is just to give one another vouchers,
and not sodding ‘men’s grooming’ vouchers either;
proper vouchers. By which I mean banknotes, which are basically Everything Vouchers.
On the other hand, if it’s the thought that counts,
we really ought to withhold our recommendations for DVDs and books
our friends might like against the day we need to give them a present.
‘I’m off on holiday next week, have you read any books I might like?’
Yes, four. Your birthday’s in October, isn’t it?
Well, on that day, you will discover the identity of one of them. But not before.’
Now of course, we have the Amazon wishlist as a way of preserving the pretence of the thoughtful gift,
whilst actually it’s just me robotically clicking on the thing you’ve indicated you want, whatever the hell it is.
But this system seems to work ok, so perhaps it’s now time to take it a step further,
and simply put everything you ever intend to buy in the future on an online list;
from the sports car you have your eye on should you ever win the pools,
to the packet of pan-scourers and a Twix you need from the corner shop.
Then anyone who needs to buy you a present at any point can simply access your list,
and select the item closest to the price they wish to spend.
The list would automatically update, so you could check it just before shopping,
and discover to your delight:
‘Oh, that bloke I had a row with at work has made it up to me by buying me a packet of detergent and the Booker shortlist
What a nice guy’.