Consuming: Christmas challenge in the high street

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is something rather heart-rending about a leaflet that claims that a town has "surprisingly good shopping". It's rather like saying a hotel has "surprisingly comfortable beds". Still, the traders of Basingstoke have adopted this as their slogan, so one can only hope it works.

Basingstoke doesn't really have a high street. It has a huge concrete mall: one that, while sinking it into the ground so that daylight never reaches its dimly illuminated nether orifices, its designers didn't actually think to cover. So, despite a staggering number - over 300 - of shops that have gone to considerable effort to jollify the stalag in which they find themselves, the overall impression is still of a shopping experience soon after the war, when rationing was in and street-lighting hadn't recovered from the blackout.

And so to the task in hand: six gifts, including one for a hypothetical granny (I haven't had one of those since I was seven), for pounds 16.66 per capita from a handful of chain shops. I hate maths and I hate chain shops. This was going to be fun. I clutched my list. My first foray was going to be into H Samuel the jewellers.

Weaving through their crowded portals, it struck me that I've only been into about three jewellers' in my life. I have few baubles, and fewer aspirations. My menfolk aren't prone to signet rings. The last thing I expected was to find Dad's present first (fathers are always the most difficult to buy for, as they never let on about their tastes).

Crowds of teenagers oohed at the gold chains. Toddlers dragged parents to cases of Lilliput Lane cottages. And then I found the hip flask. His old family one went in a burglary and he's quietly lamented its loss ever since. Here were half a dozen, in handsome-but-practical leather and steel, from decent sizes that would take half a bottle of Scotch to little dinky ones for the faint-hearted. I settled somewhere in between, for pounds 16.50. Now he can conquer mountains and keep out the chill. And I'd only been at the task for five minutes.

Ten minutes later, and a quick dash round Marks and Spencer. I was on a roll: sister-in-law was sorted with a pair of cream satin jim-jams with a mandarin collar and embroidered front for pounds 21. OK, so she lives in Hong Kong and could get the same thing made in silk for half the price, but it's the thought that counts. There was also a potential potted Amyrillis (pounds 8.99) for granny, though I wasn't sure about its blue gingham check pot.

River Island and Next are two halves of the same whole. The first catering to those who would never be seen dead in man-made fibres, the second to those who like their tawdry glamour. Yet both have their uses. Mother, as mothers do, has a range of large handbags of the sort that women get used to during the period when they need Wet Ones and plastic farm animals permanently to hand. Next produced an absurd satin and bead-covered net dolly bag with long braid handles for shoulder-hanging for pounds 16.99. And River Island has a glorious batch of bright scarlet Lana Turner-style angora-mix sweaters at pounds 19.99. Amyrillis be damned. I want a hypothetical granny who wears red.

The four-year-old took time. I don't know much about four-year olds, so the ones I know tend to get whatever toy I want myself. Well, you can either please the parents or the kids. I did momentarily pause over a bunnykins mug for pounds 8.50 in H Samuel and various worthy but educational objects in the worthy but educational WH Smith, but fortunately, Boots came up trumps. They have Batman bubble baths, 7in tall, with moving arms and detachable cloak, for pounds 4.50. If anyone's wondering what to buy me for Christmas, this is it.

Brother was a piece of cake. Beneath that dapper corporate exterior beats the heart of a hippy. WH Smith provided the Bob Dylan Unplugged CD for pounds 12.99, and in Boots I snapped up a brass and verdigris four-bar wind- chime for pounds 9.99. They can hang it in a doorway and annoy their guests.

As I emerged from Smiths, loaded down and off the hook, I did a quick recce of Dixons, where the only things under pounds 25 are glamour gifts like calculators or alarm clocks. I clocked my watch. The whole exercise had taken an hour and 20 minutes. Six people catered for, total cost pounds 102.45. Unbelievable. Forget Sloane Street. I'm shopping in the provinces from now on.

Serena Mackesy

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