24 December 2002

All present and politically correct

Christmas Eve again and time to embark on my last minute shopping spree.
As I am driving through Thornton Industrial Estate I switch on the radio.
It is Woman's Hour - got to keep in touch with your feminine side - and a psychologist and a gift selection consultant are holding forth about the hidden messages contained in your choice of Christmas presents.
Buying your wife a new pedal-bin or a set of kitchen knives is an absolute no, no, apparently, because it sends out the message that you regard her as a domestic slave.
This reminded me of a piece I wrote some years ago about the practical difficulties involved in giving your wife a new ironing board for Christmas: the amount of wrapping paper and sellotape required: the near impossibility of concealing the nature of the wrapping's contents to achieve the necessary element of surprise; and the danger of tripping over it, especially when inebriated, every time you walked past the tree.
This was meant to be a joke, but several people took it seriously.
Just shows how irony can backfire, I suppose.
Anyway, by the time I reached the Horse and Jockey, our two experts were discussing the pitfalls in presenting your beloved with sexy lingerie for Christmas.
Here, it appears, size really matters.
Give her something that is too large and she will conclude that you would prefer a more voluptuous mate; give her something too small and she will conclude that you would prefer a less well-upholstered model.
To avoid damage to marital harmony, the present-selection guru suggested a quick rummage around in her undies' drawer to find her exact size.
Whatever present you buy, the psychologist opined, conveys messages about both the personality of the donor and his perception of the intended recipient.
I hate Christmas shopping, anyway, and I was feeling thoroughly dispirited by all this complex analysis.
I'll abandon the whole project, I thought, I'll turn round and go home, I'll give her a tenner so she can choose her own present.
Just then I heard the psychologist say: "And, of course, the worst thing of all is giving money, which shows a complete indifference for the feelings of your partner."
So there was nothing else for it but to pull myself together and head down Dredgman's Hill to Haverfordwest.
For the past 20 years and more, apart from the occasional pair of earrings, I have always bought Old Grumpette a book for Christmas.
I have never given much though to the deeper psychological implications of these purchases but, as I drove along Freeman's Way, it dawned on me that last year's choice: Delia Smith, was not that far removed from a pedal-bin, and the previous year's "Enlightenment", by Professor Roy Porter, could be perceived as a call to pull up her intellectual socks.
For obvious reasons, I cannot tell you which book I chose this year but you can be certain that it will be with more than passing interest that I observe Old Grumpette's reaction, as she tears off the wrapping paper.
And only now has it occurred to me that that knitted woolly cardigan I had last year was probably her not so subtle way of reminding me that I am getting on a bit.
Will my self-esteem survive a pair of slippers?
No wonder there are more marriage breakdowns at Christmas than at any other time of year.


Late drinks

The last County Council meeting before Christmas is usually a brief affair because the members' minds are elsewhere: the Chairman's room where all that lovely free booze and prawn vol au vents are to be found.
So there were several furrowed brows and turned-down mouths when the renowned filibusterer and former head teacher John Cole (Lab) announced that he had a long list of questions for the Cabinet member responsible for education, John Davies, on the 70-page "School organisation plan 2003-2008" which was before the members for approval.
After about 10 minutes of this questioning, the Chairman Leslie Raymond was heard to ask, sotto voce, "how many more?"
Cllr Cole ignored him and pressed on with the interrogation.
Another quarter of an hour passed before the Chairman repeated his question in a slightly louder voice.
Calling on his years of classroom experience, Cllr Cole did what all good teachers do when troublesome boys try to interrupt the lesson: he pretended not to notice.
By now some of the Independents were shuffling in their seats and looking decidedly glum, though, to be fair, Cabinet Member Davies seemed more than happy to give comprehensive answers to all the points raised.
Approaching the forty-minute mark the Chairman roused himself again and, in a loud voice, asked: "How many more?"
"Only two Mr Chairman" came the reply.
A visible sigh of relief passed round the Independent benches.
"Well make it as short as you can", the Chairman urged.
When Cllr Cole had finished John Allen (Lib Dem), Bill Philpin (Lib Dem) and Barrie Woolmer (Lab) decided to join in the fun.
And Plaid Cymru Leader Michael Williams indulged in a bit of seasonal mischief-making by thanking Cllr Davies for addressing the questions in the spirit of "democratic accountability".
"It is reassuring to see that there is at least one Cabinet member with the intellectual capacity to master his brief", said Cllr Williams, adding for good measure: "When we considered an adverse report on Social Services recently the Cabinet members responsible [Roy Folland and Bill Hitchings] were nowhere to be seen".
Members moved on to consider the "Youth Justice Plan" which former Police Inspector Cllr Don Evans (Ind) endorsed in glowing terms.
Cllr Jim "Son of Desmond" Codd (Ind), perhaps feeling the need to do something to justify his existence, got to his feet to add a few words.
"Following on from what Cllr, um, er, I'm not sure what his name is …" he mumbled.
At that point I decided I had seen enough and headed for the exit.

Healthy profits


I had intended to steer clear of serious politics during this season of goodwill, but I cannot let what I have just heard the 1 O'clock news on Radio 4 pass without comment.
Health Minister John Hutton was being interviewed by the BBC's Tim Franks about the Government's plans to allow private companies to run failing hospitals.
Mr Franks thought he had discovered a killer argument against this scheme.
Three times he repeated the proposition that: as the budgets for these hospitals will remain the same, and the private companies will need to make a profit, there will be less money available for actual treatment.
If that is true then, presumably, we would all be better off if the Government nationalised Tesco and distributed the £1billion a year profits in the form of cheaper groceries
Though, on past form, it is more likely that the State would run the supermarket chain so inefficiently that the profits, and some more, would disappear down a black hole, making our food more expensive than it is.


Silver lining

One good thing about winter is that is much easier to keep to the principle of never drinking before sundown.

And a Merry Christmas to you all.

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