His list includes a remote control watch, check woollen scarf, vintage port and non-vintage champagne. Slightly conservative choices, perhaps, but nothing that'll immediately get shoved into the cupboard. Then there are the cannily pragmatic 'gifts': car-cleaning kit, cordless screwdriver. So much more effective than nagging, or hoovering/changing the plug yourself.
And for her? A video of Cindy Crawford doing The Next Workout Challenge: jolly exciting for him, I'm sure, but guaranteed to send her into a furious, self-hating depression, relieved only by the rest of the Ferrero Rocher.
Worst of all, a barrel of Tesco biscuits, price pounds 4.99. Why? Why would any woman want a barrel of biscuits for Christmas? Double-sided florentines, perhaps. A box of Boasters, even. Anything except a barrel.
Then there's the black lacy body, sheer chiffon slip, black lace and mesh underwired bra, black lace and mesh G-string, gold satin body, cream silk French knickers, gold lace dress from British Home Stores . . . Yawn. The same thing, year in, year out. I suppose the rationale is that if she's got a drawer full of knotted lace, there's more chance of wearing it. A particularly poignant fallacy, given the ordeal it is for men to purchase such items.
Last Thursday I went to Knickerbox, in High Street Kensington, to witness the frenzied lunchtime rush of shopping men. At 1.10pm, however, it is still all women, comparing derniers and flipping through the boxer shorts. (I'm very taken by the hot water bottle holders, one of Knickerbox's more unexpected lines.)
At 1.20pm a man in his late forties is loitering outside the entrance. He has a moustache, glasses, a bald patch. Is he waiting for his wife? Apparently not: he steps through the door with the startled look of a rabbit caught in the beam of a car. Then he panics and charges towards the practical pyjamas. The red satin is on either side, but his eyes drill into the brushed cotton as if Medusa were in the corner. Five seconds later, he charges for the door.
Ten minutes later a young gun with slicked-back hair strides in. This is more like it: he looks around confidently, stays a good 30 seconds. Doesn't buy anything, though. And after he has left I realise he has been faking it: he was rifling busily through tights. Men don't buy tights.
At 1.45pm, at last, a serious customer. Alas, he doesn't count: Ian is a student at the London College of Fashion, looking at the silk pyjamas that were featured in Vogue. But what about the red satin he browsed through?
'I got a bit frightened,' says Ian, 'so I came back over here. They're not really my girlfriend's cup of tea.'
'It's hysterical,' says Belinda, the down-to-earth Londoner who manages the shop. She laughs, as if to demonstrate.
'The more mature businessman look like they're going through hot flushes. We try to make them feel at ease,' she says, struggling to make herself heard above a particularly loud cry of Feel-the-music], 'but they don't know what they're doing.'
There are, of course, tedious sociological reasons for this state of affairs. Women are socialised to shop; a recent Mori survey found that European women rated shopping more highly than sex. Women shop for themselves, for their children, for their significant others. Thus all-male shopping spaces hold no fear - even boutiques staffed by haughty wannabe male models. Hence all those practical trousers, shirts and jackets appearing under the tree.
Also, women are well-known for their endurance, compared with men's short, sharp bursts - the wrong mode for Christmas shopping. It leads to panic purchases (see biscuits); complaining bitterly (he is the only person in the world who has to shop in his lunch hour); and giving up. I used to thank both parents for my stocking. 'That's nice,' came my father's confused reply.
So here are a couple of tips. Buy chocolate: it's always the right size, if nothing else. Praline hearts (eight for 99p) from Tesco, which also feature in the female hit list, are spot on. The more the better. Junk the biscuit barrel and buy a five-pack.
If you must buy fantasy underwear, relax. No one's interested. Especially if you make a big show of buying three pairs of boxer shorts at the same time, slipping the knickers at the bottom of the pile.
Just pray that the girl on the till hasn't seen Bananas, in which Woody Allen buys six serious and one, unpriced, pornographic magazine. How much is the lace, Belinda?Reuse content