I hate Christmas shopping. I don't have the genes for it.
Every year I spend the days before Christmas traipsing round the shops attempting to buy stuff that people might actually like. I tour the capital, from the South Bank to Oxford Street and from museum shop to department store, in search of something, anything, which might possibly be appreciated. I ought to know the people I'm buying for well enough, but I still find myself standing in front of displays of potential purchases in paralysed uncertainty. Will my choice light up their eyes with joy and gratitude when they unwrap it? Will they smile politely and say thankyou, then nip it down to the charity shop in the New Year? Or is there a crucial reason why they don't already own one of these, which is that it's crap?
I know my problem. I'm hopeless at converting money into value. A twenty pound note I understand, but swap that for material goods and I'm lost. I can't tell whether the intended recipient will think they've received something priceless, or something worthless. Have I passed the gift-buying empathy test, or would I have been better off wrapping an empty box? I never know whether I'm onto a winner or not, but I always suspect I'm not.
In effect, I've lost faith in my ability to second guess what others want. And this, I believe, reflects my reaction when I'm on the receiving end. When other people attempt to second guess what I want they invariably get it wrong. No, I didn't want one of those, not at all. No, that can live in its box until I get round to throwing it away. No, I'll flick through that briefly while you're watching but then it's going in the dead pile in the corner of the spare room. I know I'm meant to be grateful for the thought, and I am, but every unwanted gift seems such a complete waste of money.
I usually hate December 23rd, because it's the last opportunity to buy presents before I disappear up to Norfolk with my collected haul. I wander round London in increasing desperation, attempting to tick off all the required purchasees on my shortlist, and worrying. Will that be appreciated? Hell, will that do? Sometimes I think I'd have been better off buying the first thing I saw several days ago, rather than prolonging the agony without improving the payoff. Far from inducing festive bonhomie, my pre-Christmas shopping quest merely makes me unhappy.
I got especially frustrated on December 23rd last year, whilst touring such diverse retail locations as Stratford, Selfridges and Sainsburys. Really quite unnervingly annoyed. I even managed to drop my youngest nephew's present in a slushy puddle, before eventually returning home to spend the evening covering my disappointment with wrapping paper. In particular I'd bought my Mum some Christmas sweets, in the absence of any better inspiration, plus the CD she'd said she wanted (by a group that only Mums could like). I wrapped her stash during the course of the evening, cursing that I'd bought a turkish delight box with quite so many impossible corners, and hoping it'd pass muster on Christmas morning. And then, just before midnight, I received the unexpected phone call telling me she'd never open any of it. That bought perspective to my day, I can tell you.
So this year I'm doing things differently. I've still been round the shops for three days, but this time without hope of success. I've looked at endless gift choices all over town, and decided no, they'd not be appreciated. So I've bought nothing, absolutely nothing at all, not one single Christmas present. Which means I'll be travelling light up to Norfolk this morning, unencumbered by gift-wrapped carbootsalefodder, and never mind what reaction I get. People can jolly well have money this year and decide what to get for themselves, because that'll surely be far better appreciated that any rubbish I'd have bought for them. I'd never have dared try the 'no presents' approach last year, you understand, but this Christmas what the hell. It's the thought that counts. And life's too short.