This is the year I give up giving. Whether anyone will notice is another matter.
The recipients of my Christmas munificence are few and far between, not because I'm stingy but because it disturbs my psychology to shop for presents. It's easy to find practical explanations for this. I don't like crowds. I am appalled by the commercialism. I am impoverished. But the truth is I do quite like crowds, I don't disapprove of commercialism and I am not yet impoverished. So what's the real reason?
I suspect it goes back – doesn't everything go back? – to my own childhood Christmas disappointments. I didn't get much. My mother reminds me that I had a pedal car long before most of the people in our street had a real one. And that I had climbing frames and hula hoops and yo-yos and boxing gloves and roller-skates and model aeroplane kits. Were it not that I can still recall the lovely airy aroma of balsa wood, along with the more pungent smell of that glutinous substance used to stiffen the tissue paper for the fuselage – "size", I think it was called – I would deny all knowledge of any model aeroplanes. But what I was actually given and what I think I was given are two entirely different matters, and psychology concerns itself with perceptions not with facts. I think I didn't get anything much for Christmas, therefore I didn't.
A tangerine and half a Toblerone. That was it. I would lie awake most of the night waiting for Santa and then, when I did finally fall into the bitter disillusioned sleep of the abandoned child, my father would creep in wearing a red dressing-gown and a gas mask (so that I shouldn't recognise him) and drop a tangerine and half a Toblerone – sometimes half a tangerine and no Toblerone – into my stocking. What did I want with a tangerine? I didn't like tangerines the rest of the year, why would I suddenly start liking them because it was Christmas?
I know the argument. The war was barely over. Rationing was still in place. To get me a tangerine my mother had to take in neighbours' washing, my father had to get a second job and pawn the pocket watch his father had given him, the Royal Navy had to run a blockade outside Tripoli, a goods train had to waste fuel the country didn't have hurtling through the night from Southampton to Manchester, and our shell-shocked greengrocer had to brave the Pennine snows to get to a fruit market which no longer existed because it had been bombed. So why couldn't I count the segments of my tangerine and be grateful for every pip?
Well, gratitude is one of those thing you can't force out of people. You feel it or you don't. Some of us go through life feeling grateful all the time, others can barely scrape together thanks for the gift of life itself. But what follows from the romance that you're someone who's never been given anything you wanted – what I wanted, if you must know, was a little girlfriend with green eyes and golden ringlets, and failing her the complete short stories of Henry James – is that you're psychically prevented from giving anyone else anything they want, other, of course, than lingerie for the woman you love, assuming that the woman you love actually wants the lingerie you give her, which isn't always the case with the louche lingerie I buy.
You would guess, from what I have so far said, that my ungivingness extends particularly to children, and you'd be right. That thrill of seeing a little face light up? I don't experience it. It's not that I'm a Scrooge – I willingly pay hundreds of pounds at Myla or La Perla for the merest wisp of black lace – it is simply that where children are concerned I need to balance the books. I made do with a tangerine, they'll make do with a tangerine. It would be bad taste to act in any other fashion, it would look like over-compensation. "No child must ever suffer as I suffered, blah blah..." And the next thing you know you're talking like Bono.
Beside which, modern children are greedy and need to be resisted for their own future good else they'll grow up to be bankers who think they're entitled to a bonus equal to the gross domestic income of Finland every time they show up for work. Already I've heard of children threatening to emigrate to Switzerland if their parents don't give them what they ask for this Christmas. "I'll go where I'm appreciated," they say. "I'll bring this family to its knees."
They write lists, like soon-to-be-married couples, only they don't ask for a casserole or a duvet cover, they demand Elite Modern Warfare, 2, 3, 4 and 5, Hannah Montana's Music Jam, a PS3 Real Arcade Pro.3-SA arcade controller, a Vtech Kidizoom pro multimedia digital camera. None of them gifts you can just nip into Hamleys and buy unless you're carrying the list with you which I, frankly, am not prepared to do. And which, judging from the mayhem I encounter in Hamleys, other men are not prepared to do either. We bang into one another on our hands and knees trying to read the serial codes of gifts we don't understand for children of friends whose names we can't remember. The staff blow bubbles and artificial snow on us. Giant pandas and pirates think they can lighten our temper by shaking our hands. It's here that my wife and I have the first argument of our married life. She has been ticking presents off the list for upwards of four hours. But she is unable to find the PS3 Real Arcade controller. "Then give him something else," I say. "It's not a he, it's a she," she tells me, "and she really wants this." Do I care? "What's wrong with a fucking tangerine?" I shout.
I am overheard by a red-faced man up to his ears in cuddly toys. "Do you mind!" he says, "There are children here." "I haven't used a word they don't already know," I tell him, "except perhaps for tangerine." A walking polar bear intervenes and starts to nudge me out of the store.
I don't put up a fight. Polar bears are an endangered species. If I'm seen wrestling a polar bear in Hamleys there's no knowing if I'll work again.
Next year I'm taking my mother-in-law's advice. "I'm shopping Off-List from now on," she's told me. "I don't care what they want. They'll get a box of handkerchiefs." I can't wait to see their little faces.
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