Gift shopping? Auntie must gin and bear it

`Come and visit me and bring me something decent to drink,' begged my aunt
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The Independent Culture
URGENT MESSAGE from aged aunt in hospital with liver infection. Infection? I'm surprised there's anything left to infect. Aunt Jean drinks a bottle of gin before sundown and a bottle of brandy before midnight and has done so fairly consistently for the last 50 years. When you go round for afternoon tea she offers Earl Grey in flowered Minton to her guests but pours neat gin into her own teacup. "For God's sake, come down soonest and get me out of this depressing place, Susan," said my aunt on the telephone. "But Auntie, you're ill. I spoke to the doctor and he said you'd be there for at least another week," I said.

"Well then, come and visit me and bring me something decent to drink," said my aunt, and hung up.

I took advice from the staff nurse. Definitely no alcohol, he said, and no cigarettes either. My aunt was a very sick woman. Let's see; she had enough flowers, fruit and chocolate to keep her going. Why not some amusing little gift? There are some lovely novelty items in the shops these days.

I'm sure there are, but it's the time factor. The kids are on holiday, the builders are in, the cat's having fits, the bath is leaking and I just don't have time to browse in gift shops for amusing novelties.

Besides, Aunt Jean is incredibly fussy. It's not the thought that counts with her, it's the price.

"Get her something on the Net," advised a friend who went seriously cyber after taking evening classes in computer technology. Her basement, which used to be the ironing-room, now looks like a branch of Radio Rentals, with banks of screens at which her five children and husband sit for hours e-mailing each other instead of talking.

"Where do you do your ironing?" I asked.

"I don't," said my friend.

I have long held the opinion that women divide naturally into two camps - those who iron and those who don't. But we'll discuss that another time. Right now I'm looking for an amusing gift that will bring my aunt as much pleasure as a bottle of gin.

"You want one of those specialist shopping channels," said my friend, expertly clicking from menu to menu with her mouse. "Ah, this looks like the sort of thing."

"Buy Appointment", it said, and showed a picture of Richard, Earl of Bradford outside his stately home, taking a lot of designer carrier bags out of the boot of his car. "I come from a long line of avid shoppers," said his lordship, "but I've become increasingly fed up with the problems and aggravations that surround today's shopping experience - traffic jams, parking tickets, goods out of stock. I believe shopping should be exciting and fun." He went on to describe the extensive range of luxury items he had chosen for his new website.

Toiletries, confectionery, unusual items for the home, gifts, handcrafted footstools. Before my aunt's liver failed, her only complaint was the occasional twinge of gout. Brilliant. I'd get her a footstool from Lord Bradford's exclusive collection.

"Footstools are one of the most versatile items of furniture on the market today," the earl was now blathering. "They can be used as coffee tables, telephone tables, window seats or just to put your feet on." Wow, what a come-on. The man's a born salesman. "Cream footstool showing chunky pine leg and leather corner brace. No casters, pounds 191.53", was the first item, and it was one of the cheapest.

Well, maybe not. But what about unique designs in giftware?

Now here's a curious thing. How far it sums up the preoccupations of modern British aristocrats I cannot say, but 90 per cent of Lord Bradford's gift ideas were lavatory-oriented. There was a loo brush duck (dark blue) for pounds 48 and a series of loo-roll poles featuring dogs, for pounds 64.50. There were two loo seats (comical), one saying Check Your Fly, the other Good Shot, for pounds 74.50 each and, give or take the odd Border terrier kitchen roll holder, that was pretty much it.

Far be it for me to cast aspersions on the aesthetic judgment of a belted earl but, frankly, I've seen more amusing novelties on market stalls in Clapham Junction.

I have my doubts about Internet shopping. I'm what you call a hands-on shopper, who likes to feel the goods before buying them. Yes, I know they have pictures on the Net, but they're so small you might just as well be looking at a stamp collection, and I'm not sure that it saves time, either. It took my cyber friend a couple of hours to click through all the various shopping channels, none of which, incidentally, yielded anything worthwhile or even faintly amusing.

I'm going to see my aunt in hospital tomorrow. I've filled two empty Lucozade bottles with gin and tied red ribbon round the top. Now there's a novel idea; at least she'll die laughing.