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This is one of the times of year that I am particularly made to notice how bad I am at being a woman. I am reminded of it in a subtle way whenever I walk by a jewellery store or bypass the ‘Female Interest’ section of WHSmith’s to get at The Economist and Private Eye (because news, like films and knowledge in general, is for men. This is because women are too busy screaming and trying on dresses to concentrate).
But while, for most of the year (apart from a brief assault each February) I am left alone to enjoy my strange and distasteful preferences for literature and ‘Men Things’, it’s a different story each December. This is when the entire population of Britain is bombarded with information about the sort of person we ought to be. People, as far as the media seem to be concerned, cease to be individuals on or around 15 November and become terrifying composite beings – KIDS, MUM, DAD, HIM and my own special identikit self, HER.
HER, as far as I’m concerned, is a more glamorous Father Christmas. Has anyone ever met her? Does she, in fact, exist? I don’t think so. Magazines and newspapers, though, seem convinced of HER reality, and there are awful pages of brightly-coloured copy devoted to HER preferences in the way of presents.
HER, apparently, has alarmingly expensive tastes. She likes jewels (especially diamonds, this being the only way that HER equally mysterious lover HIM can truly prove his affections), she likes clothes (the more gold per square inch the better), and most of all she likes to slather her divinely slender frame in perfumed unguents that, going by price alone, are probably made of the blood of actual virgins. The cleaning process, for HER, appears to be an exhausting activity that requires ranks of heavily perfumed oils, salts, waters and things that fizz.
I wouldn’t mind this if HER kept herself to herself. But reading about HER appears to make many of my friends and relations believe that HER and I have something in common. Granted, we both have faces, and hair, and bodies that need to be clothed, but as far as Christmas wish lists go we don’t even occupy the same universe. You see, all I want for Christmas is books. Why ask for bath salts (which, no matter how romantic they may sound in the abstract, are, in practice, strangely gritty and unappealing) when you can ask for a whole world full of strange people and interesting things and clever, funny, terrifying plot twists.
One of my happiest Christmas memories is being given The Woman in White by my godfather when I was thirteen. I went to ground behind the sofa with it and came out 600 pages of injustice and insanity and wicked Italian counts later in a haze of pure book-reader’s joy. There’s not a designer jumper in the world that could have produced that kind of happiness.
And yet! HER wish list rears its ugly head, and my nearest and dearest become convinced that books are, somehow, not enough for a woman such as I am. I need perfumes! I need creams! I need things in bottles and sparkly vests and gold eye-shadow and necklaces that look like the excretions of King Midas. It’s all profoundly dispiriting.
I could turn this into a rant about the commercialisation of Christmas and how we should all go back to its true meaning by covering our sitting rooms with straw, eating carrots and giving each other symbolic gifts of sheep. I won’t, though, because I don’t believe in that any more than I do in HER, HIM and the rest of their made-up flat-pack family and friends. Christmas is one of the things that gets us through the grim, lightless British winter, a license to have some fun with our lives and an excuse to tell our family and friends how glad we are that they continue to put up with us
Also, no matter how fraught the process of receiving presents can be, I love giving them. There’s something particularly wonderful about seeing someone open a present that’s truly for them, not just for a generic CHILD, or MUM, or FRIEND, and what I usually give (no great surprise here) are books. Books tend not to feature on many generic gift lists, mainly because they’re so idiosyncratic. If you want to give someone a book you have to think about what they actually want – what they’re interested in, what they might have already read, what’s likely to make them laugh. Just like me with The Woman in White, you’re giving them an object that’s got a whole world inside it – and (handily since we’re currently in the depths of a recession-by-any-other-name) they don’t cost half as much as a pair of designer leather-effect leggings that will spend their life stuffed in the back of your wardrobe or a necklace in the shape of Marilyn Monroe’s face.
I’m not claiming, of course, that all books are well-written and worthwhile, nor that a book is valuable just because it’s a book. Katie Price, after all, has (allegedly) written six of the things, and I don’t recommend any of you rush out to buy them. Like anything else, you have to pick and choose. But as far as I’m concerned, when a book is great – and so many of them are – it’s one of the most wonderful things in existence. As far as Christmas presents go, there’s nothing better to give or to get.