Present imperfect

That’s the last time I take a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis to a dinner party, I said grumpily as we threaded our way down the garden path. I realised that I had become a little unsteady on my feet – just as well that the taxi had arrived to pick us up at the appointed hour.

When a colleague and his wife invited us to dinner, I had hesitantly accepted. There was an opportunity for career advancement and a need to impress. On handing over the bottle on arrival, our host had scrutinised the label briefly and disappeared into the kitchen with it. To put it on ice, I guessed.

The other guests had already arrived. A bottle of Pinot Grigio was open on the table and my host gestured towards it. Glass? Yes please. Over dinner, I felt sure, we would move on to something different, with a little more steely minerality – like a Chablis perhaps. Nevertheless, the Pinot Grigio was emptied and replaced by another bottle of the same.

I have nothing against Pinot Grigio and neither has Jane McQuitty. At £3.98 a bottle, the Asda version with its crisp, floral notes represents exceptional value… The starter came and went and in due course the main arrived, a fish dish. It was delicious; our hostess was a tremendous cook. My colleague noticed my empty glass – time for a suitable wine to complement the lemon sole. How about – there was a tantalising pause – another Pinot Grigio?

By now I had realised that I could not single-handedly drink my way through his inexhaustible supply of the stuff, impervious as he had already been to my attempts to steer the conversation in the direction of the contrasting winemaking styles of Northern Italy and, say, Burgundy… in France… the place where they make some exceptional white wines, like Chablis for instance.

If you give somebody a present you can’t expect to consume it yourself, came my wife’s succinct observation as we climbed into the taxi.

How very true. But then, when you take somebody out to dinner for their birthday, or take a bottle of fine wine to a dinner party, you are treating yourself as well. That’s the nice thing about gifts; they benefit both giver and receiver in some way.

Though I’m not a good giver of gifts (perhaps because I’m not a good giver of gifts) I always give something that I’d like to receive myself. As a boy, it is said that I gave my grandmother a catapult (one careful owner) and a box of chocolates for her sixtieth birthday. Though my grandmother’s prowess with a catapult is somewhat unknown and she wasn’t that fond of chocolates, I certainly had been known to enjoy the odd one or two.

My wife, besides being the after dinner voice of reason, is my polar opposite. She is good at presents. She considers every gift and every recipient very carefully. Christmas presents can be bought at any time of year and stored for later use. In my life I have known quite a few people like that. I suspect that there are quite a few in my category too.

It may be the wrong time of year to be curmudgeonly about presents but I do think a little moderation wouldn’t go amiss in these straightened times and therefore, I have a proposal.

Again I draw inspiration from my wife or, more accurately, from her mother and her aunt. For many years the two women (sisters-in-law, they had become friends at medical school during the war) exchanged the same birthday present – a handkerchief with a cartoon motif of a man leaning against a lamppost. In May, Gina sent it to Betty and in December Betty sent it back.

Neither of them could recall who started it or why but I find it a rather touching arrangement. If we see a gift as a token – of friendship for example – there is no need for lavish expenditure. In fact, apart from postage and the odd bit of wrapping paper, there is no need for any expenditure at all.

If, like me you have sometimes found yourself on the periphery of a family circle or group of old friends, you are apt to get one of those lucky dip presents anyway: “Lovely, I shall add that to my collection of interestingly shaped soaps.“ In future, using my recycling method, you can store the gift and recycle it on the next suitable occasion. Or go one step further, send a dear friend your favourite shirt or a cherished piece of jewellery.

It is, after all, the thought that counts.

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