What can you get for a nudist fishwife?

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The Independent Online
NOW THAT Christmas is over, I can reveal what I almost gave Bunhill Ma. I was surfing the Net when I found the "Perfect Present Picker". All I had to do was put in her details (age, interests, "lifestyle" and the like), and a series of suggestions (each helpfully supplied with a phone number for a mail-order firm) came up on my computer screen.

So, mum, what might you have got? Well, a fold-up wheel- chair was number one, at $895. Then came a toy kicking mule, a baseball, a vignette of Noah's Ark, and a foot wash ("When you shower, revitalize your feet by rubbing them against these brushes. Suction cups to shower floor. Comes with 8oz bottle of rejuvenating gel."). Aren't you glad I got you those fake leopard- skin driving gloves instead?

Intrigued, I invented more potential recipients. What, for example, might I give as a retirement present to a nudist woman who has worked in real estate and likes fishing? Kiehl's Body Protect All Sport Water Resistant Sun Screen seemed sensible, although for those rare shy moments a full-length coat with decorative top button was on offer, too, albeit at $185. The Venus de Milo was good value at $40 (someone should tell the Louvre), though my elderly target might balk at the photo of Marilyn Monroe, nude. Otherwise it was down to a painting of the Nativity, a kit of a clock with a fishing scene, and - distressingly - that wheelchair again.

What about a birthday present for a clergyman who likes cooking? The favourite here was a dried-mushroom variety pack, knocking a Jesus T-shirt into second place. The low-fat Jewish vegetarian cookbook seemed a strange choice. But who am I to argue with a computer?

FIRST fruits from Bunhill's request for words that have a little-known business origin. From Alan Tongue of Cambridge: "Aghast = stupefied at chairman's salary and chairman [earlier Agast, changed later to hide origins in British Gas]." And from Peter Rough of Peterborough: "Sagacity, as the senior citizens' response to Disneyworld." This idea clearly has potential - can we have more ideas before I start handing out the fizz?

Booming ridiculous

THE OTHER day, I heard Eurotunnel's chairman, Sir Alastair Morton, bemoaning the fact that he did not have enough beans under his mattress to pay the banks. I felt for him, but he also reinforced my view that most of the world's great structures have been built at a time of economic boom (for which read "madness"). The boom turns into recession, the banks lose a load of boodle, but the structures stubbornly fail to collapse. Result: we have ourselves something that is useful/spectacular for centuries to come.

Consider the Palace of Versailles. It bankrupted ol' Louis Fourteen, and no doubt caused havoc with the Banque de Richelieu's mezzanine debt rating. Yet Versailles is still a decent pad. And consider Bunhill Towers (known to some as the Canary Wharf tower). It went bust a few years ago, and lots of banks lost lots of readies. Yet I can testify it is still here, and a sight more solid than most of those banks.

I would therefore wager that there was a boom in Egypt around 2,700 BC. Cheops had just made a packet on the Memphis stock market, and sphinx prices were heading through the roof. He told his bankers he wanted to build a wonder of the ancient world, that there would be no return and that it would cost several zillion pieces of wonga. "Great!" they said. "When do we start?" The pyramid was almost completed when the bottom fell out of the building market; the banks took the rap, Cheops died ... and the rest is history. Thank heavens for economic cycles and human folly.

I HAVE stolen this cheerful tale of pragmatism from the Estate Agent. I hope they don't mind.

Jonathan Taylor wanted to sell his house in London for pounds 665,000. Samuel Ives wanted to buy it, but not for that much. After much haggling the two were still pounds 10,000 apart. They hit on a solution: let's go to Sandown Park, they said, and wager a theoretical pounds 10,000 on the 3.40; whoever's horse does better will get the price he wants. Trizella, Mr Taylor's choice, came fourth, but Mr Ives's Murphy's Gold did even worse, coming in sixth. "The agents were then instructed," the Estate Agent says, "to proceed with the sale."

Cold comfort

TWO SEASONABLY cold items. Following my search for ancient but working bits of British machinery, Sara Wheeler tells me of equipment that is neither British nor particularly old, but worth a cheer in any event.

She writes: "I was recently bulldozing snow in Antarctica in a Low Ground Pressure Stretch D-8 bulldozer made by Caterpillar in 1955. Six machines like this have seen 40 years of service on the ice and are still going strong. One of them, at Byrd Surface Camp on the West Antarctic ice sheet, was buried under snow for 17 years and is now as sprightly as a lamb."

The other cold item is an advertisement: "Human resource management software is just the tip of the iceberg."

Surreal or what?