I have usually bought all my Christmas presents by early December. In fact, I had them ready wrapped in my flat on the night of the fire. Fortunately, they all escaped the conflagration unscathed; although I think I would have been forgiven if I had not handed out tokens of my esteem for once. Perhaps the saddest story from this festive season concerns the late Joyce Vincent, who died at the age of 40. Shockingly, her body lay undiscovered for two years. She was found propped up on her sofa, surrounded by the unwrapped Christmas presents she had bought for others. Yet no-one had thought to investigate her disappearance.
A Christmas present I treasure is a small terracotta ring box, edged with tapestry and fastened with a silken cord. It is not the kind of object I would normally have chosen for myself, but I cherish it because it was given to me by a close friend, who died a few weeks later. I can be quite sentimental over gifts. Nevertheless, even I am not so soppy as to wax nostalgic over the hastily cobbled together present of a tin of talcum powder, the desperate donor having rummaged around in her bathroom at the last moment to find something to give me. I have not been averse to recycling my own ornaments from time to time. Thus, I gave my copy of an ancient Egyptian cat to the niece of a friend, after I had run out of both ideas and money.
Occasionally a present causes raised eyebrows. A colleague realised that that her line manager was becoming somewhat unhinged when he gave her a book on how to apply make-up. His increasingly erratic behaviour prompted me to promise my friend I would confront him about it in his office, which I proceeded to do but with some misgivings, as I feared I might be sabotaging my career. I did not need a vindictive and love-sick senior manager on my hands. He listened to me in silence, all the while playing with an alarmingly sharp letter opener, which did little to put me at ease. Eventually he conceded that his behaviour had been at fault. It seemed he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. He wanted to know if he could speak to my mother in her professional capacity as a psychotherapist. I told him that my mother would only take on patients referred to her by their own doctors. Even if she had been able to accept him as a patient, I would never have countenanced it. Goodness knows what she would have asked him about me! Instead, I persuaded him to seek help and support from his own doctor and also from his wife. To his surprise his spouse was wholly accepting of the situation. She was simply relieved he had finally unburdened himself as she had long suspected that something was wrong.
I try to buy presents which either reflects the recipients’ personality or else those I wouldn’t mind having myself. Accordingly, certain putative presents never leave my house, such as the Victorian drawing of a young woman dating from 1872 and still in its original frame. Sometimes, great minds think alike with disastrous consequences. One woman ended up being given three copies of the same best selling book and I would have added to her tally, if I had not taken the precaution of prudently having a second present in reserve for just such an eventuality. Consequently, I prefer to scour second hand bookstores and discount book shops, making hard backs eminently affordable. After the fire, an insurer told me I ought to claim on my collection of paperbacks, as they had been badly damaged. In reality, they had been damaged by virtue of being poorly constructed; the pages glued on rather than stitched into the spine and printed on inferior quality paper, which quickly yellowed with age. In the British Library I once handled a copy of William Caxton’s Golden Legend printed in 1483. In terms of quality of manufacture, my recent paperbacks looked as if they were far older than the still pristine Caxton.
When the Queen receives presents in her capacity as Head of State, they are carefully logged and then stored. The next time the visitor comes a-calling, they are whisked back out of storage and given temporary pride of place. One winter I gave my mother a carved red lacquer Chinese box from
’s. I adored that shop and spent most lunch hours there when I worked nearby and many the present I sourced from their Oriental Basement. Some months later, a relative visiting from Liberty , enthused over a marvellous red lacquer box she had admired in my mother’s house and was subsequently given. I rang my mother that evening and asked her about the carved box. Finland
“Oh that was just a piece of junk I was going to chuck out anyway,” my mother said blithely.
“I gave you that for Christmas!|” I replied indignantly.Henceforth, I vowed only to give my mother flowers or chocolates. After all, it’s the thought that counts!