Howard Jacobson: The road to despair usually involves buying Christmas gifts for men

Men see through this shallow pandering to a manliness they are expected to possess
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The Independent Online

So what have you decided to buy the man your life? I don't doubt the question's keeping you awake at night. It's never easy buying anything for a man.

I know about this from both sides of the counter. I helped run a craft shop in Cornwall years ago. Helped run it into the ground according to my partner who was also my wife of the time. But we needn't get into that. Sufficient for me to admit that it became less and less of a craft shop and more and more of a gift shop the longer I helped run it.

This wasn't because I had no taste for beautiful handmade things. On the contrary, it was precisely on account of my love for exquisitely turned earthenware and porcelain, for blown glass, carved wooden candlesticks and rocking horses, that I couldn't bear casting them before the holidaying Midland swine (I mean that metaphorically) who trooped through our shop, fugitives from the Cornish rain and boredom, with their gross appreciation – "That's noice, different een it?" – and their still more gross evaluation – "Yeah, noice proice too."

"Go to fucking Woolworths then," my partner used to tell them, clearing the shop and putting a GONE FISHING notice on the door. Which was where I stepped in. It was me, after all, who'd driven every lane of the West Country, fording flooded crossroads, braving bends made blind by hedgerows and tractors, getting lost looking for bridges and tumuli that weren't where the maps said they were, in order to find the reclusive potters whose Arthurian stoneware goblets really were worth their £250 a time price tag.

But if they were beyond the aesthetic comprehension and the pockets of the only customers we had from May to September (and we had no customers at all at other times), didn't it make sense, if not to change what we were up to altogether, at least to slip a few slightly more affordable items of tourist tat on to our shelves?

Aprons with pixies on them, fabricated in Taiwan. Cardboard purses. Witches' brooms from Pendle Hill in North Lancashire which we could always lie was Pendle Hill in South Cornwall. And it worked. Or it almost worked. We took more money. What stopped us taking enough money was that we could never find anything men wanted to buy for themselves, or that women wanted to buy for them. This is the insoluble puzzle for everyone in the gift trade. What's a gift for men?

We tried shaving tackle in presentation boxes, stuffed owls dressed in golfing gear, macho key rings with football boots or crickets bats attached, Wicked Willie coffee mugs (a step too far for my partner who at that point, I suspect, decided she no longer wanted to be my wife), tooled belts, straw hobo hats, sterling silver hip flasks, toothpick holders and plastic bibs for holding Ordnance Survey maps. But men are not fools. They can see through this shallow pandering to a manliness they are expected to possess but don't. As, I choose to believe, they can see through James Bond – a ruse of marketing from which there has been nowhere for a man to hide all year.

It's my contention, anyway, that no man really wants to read a novel about a womanising spy who drives fast cars and wears smart suits in the pants of which he can't for long keep his weapon, and merely does so (reads, that is, not keep his weapon) in the same spirit he accepts a sterling silver hip flask – in order not to upset the wife or mistress who bought it for him. That, half the time, is what being a man is: being what a woman thinks a man is. And let me tell you – it's no fun.

I am not even going to discuss the movies. I recall seeing the first ones as a Cambridge undergraduate, at a time and in a place when the only other films you could see were Bergman's The Virgin Spring and Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups. After five terms of nothing else we were prepared to snigger at Sean Connery's put-downs and enjoy his unapologetic sexism, for which (that's how long ago this was) there had not yet been a term invented.

Now I cannot watch 10 seconds of a Bond movie on television. Maybe I'm not man enough. Maybe I'm too easily upset by the sound of guns going off and motor vehicles exploding. Maybe plot bewilders me. Maybe the name Pussy doesn't do for me what it's supposed to. Maybe I'm interested in made-up stories only when the central character is a heartbroken lady in a bonnet talking about decorum. Adventure? When was I ever interested in adventure? When was any man I know ever honestly interested in adventure?

Not having a single Fleming on my shelves – Flaubert, yes, Fuentes yes, Fleming no - I have just downloaded from the internet as much as I will ever need of Diamonds Are Forever. (It's the titles, too, I hate, with their white jacketed gin-drinkers' would-be hard-bittenness.) It begins with a description of a pandinus scorpion, which has a "hard, black polish" and a "moist white sting", and is otherwise defined by pairs of adjectives and a sort of sinewy factuality of the sort men are presumed to find interesting.

Ah, so that's how the pandinus scorpion kills a beetle – a pedestrian description of greed winning out over fear which of course carries over into the doings of the neatly expensive, palely gold, hotly sticky, luxuriously lipped human carnivores. Guns give muffled grunts, engines roar, yellow lights flash, helicopters pitch and yaw, and characters are just about allowed the verbal energy to deliver lines such as "Drop it", "Get up", "Sit down", and "He's a goner now".

Meant to be ironical, I know. Tosh for toffs. Sophistication inhering in taking nothing too seriously, particularly the art of writing, though Fleming is said to have sweated sometimes – hotly and stickily – over his. Would, then, that he had sweated less.

So tell me you agree that no man you know is genuinely interested in any of this, couldn't give a toss about cars and guns and girls (or even owls dressed to look like Arnold Palmer) and much prefers a quiet life in front of the television in his slippers? Tell me you aren't after all going to buy him James Bond driving gloves for Christmas because you know deep down that he won't be pleased with you if you do. Tell me I am right. Because God help my sex if I am wrong.