At this time of year my heart tends to sink, not because I don’t enjoy the warmth and conviviality of friends and family at Christmas – although my dislike of turkey, Brussel sprouts and brandy butter verges on the vitriolic – but because, everywhere I turn, there is just too much stuff.
Magazines and newspapers are stuffed (I use the word advisedly) with gift guides. If as the name “guide” suggests, they were eager, apple-cheeked girls in blue leading the troupe to a magical kingdom filled with presents that somebody actually wants, it might be different. Instead we have gifts for the man in your life, a £3,500 pair of Louis Vuitton boxing gloves (surely somebody that rich has a full complement of bodyguards to play fisticuffs for them?) while the woman in your life is no doubt gagging for that set of embellished headphones by Dolce & Gabbana; a snip at £3,650. (“Oh, darling, you shouldn’t have!”) No, seriously, you really shouldn’t.
At least bath salts and book tokens had their uses, but these days we are so overwhelmed with stuff that we have to resort to desperate measures, and cover perfectly banal items with diamonds and logos because you know, it’s so witty. And, obviously, we are so special. We’ve even turned a noun into a verb, “he gifted me the cutest handbag”, and have transformed a perfectly ordinary shopping trip into a Black Friday assault course. As for those heaped piles of boxes of “Luxury Toiletries”, which just mean cheap bath oils wrapped up overpriced packaging, they want me to boil my own head. Or induce such overwhelming claustrophobia that I want to retreat to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and stay there for the duration.
The older I get, the more ruthless I become about getting rid of clutter. If my house is chaotic, so is my mind, which is mad enough already, thank you very much, so I find a trip to the charity shops as cleansing as a Buddhist retreat. The one exception I will make is books of which there are so many that the builder who constructed my shelves exclaimed that nobody could read that many books in a lifetime. Good thing he’s not a betting man. Oh, and I do like beautiful glass paperweights (the emphasis being on beautiful) although it is always fatal to confess to any such love because every birthday and Christmas the collection grows exponentially larger and ugly paperweights are almost impossible, not to mention dangerous, to shatter. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Such is my reputation for brutal savagery when it comes to getting rid of stuff that I was summoned by friends who were moving house to help them edit down the contents. My role was to stand there uttering, “Keep, bin, charity.” Now, it is always a mistake doing business with friends (payment being endless cups of tea) particularly friends who own ten salt and pepper sets, all of which are crucial to their happiness. Oh, and a chipped vase their sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s cousin gave them twenty years ago. The mountain of stuff was so threatening that their stress levels had reached spontaneous combustion. I fully expected them to explode in front of my eyes. They are not hoarders in the pathological sense, just sentimentalists who attach meaning to stuff, even though it has been stored in a box out of sight for the past ten years. We got there, eventually. Miss Whiplash, moi.
I enjoy presents and present-giving but I honestly don’t know what to do with a mug emblazoned with the motto, Head Gardener. Probably drop it by mistake. You see? Ruthless. I would much rather have a packet of flower seeds, which are both beautiful and useful, but that, apparently is too boring. Do I look bored? No. I love the cliché of a scented candle. They smell good, you burn them and then you throw them away. Perfect. Even so, I am told they are dull and not “special” enough. Good grief.
I do have a weakness for cashmere (but only Scottish, Chinese cashmere is merely fluffy cardboard) but my stash has lasted for years and, moreover, is terribly useful if you live in a draughty Georgian house. I can never have too many bottles of scent. You use them, you love them and that’s the end of it.
But my absolutely favourite present are the socks my daughter hand-knits for me every year. My feet are permanently cold so I wear them in bed, I wear them when I’m curled up on the sofa watching television and I wear them to pad around in my kitchen, which has a chilly cold stone floor – useful when it comes to disposing of unwanted Motto mugs. Many a Keep Calm and Carry On piece of china has met an untimely death on that floor.
Right now, I’m wearing those socks because it is always freezing in my study. They are a disgrace, so well-worn that the soles are shredded to a fretwork of lace, but happily a new pair will appear under the Christmas tree. My daughter worries that I might grow bored of getting the same thing every year. She wants, she says, to give me something lovely.
My darling, there is nothing lovelier.