Loath to purge the urge to splurge
By Susie Boyt
Published: October 20 2006 in ft.com
There are so many people to thank at the moment, I’m not sure of the best way to do it. A very good letter is always welcome but good letters require a great deal of flair, and flair isn’t always something you can muster to order.
If someone does you a lovely favour, or shows vast kindness at an unexpected juncture, the urge to splurge can be huge. Sometimes the need to convey one’s appreciation in material terms is almost a compulsion. One good turn deserves another, you think, and there are so many great things in the shops. But you do need to tread warily. Any gift bought in these circumstances must not be presented as some sort of payment for kind deeds, nor must it reveal that you regard the original favour as a debt to be discharged. You do not cancel out another’s help or thoughtfulness by rewarding it, and it is quite wrong if the present you choose suggests that “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is a maxim you apply to good turns.
Even if you are cash-rich and time-poor, rewarding kindnesses with gifts may seem to the recipient a crashing collision of their thoughtfulness and your wallet. Meeting one sort of present with another can even appear competitive. It is slightly uncouth not to be able to receive without a knee-jerk reaction of giving back. There’s something too literal about it; it is a bit like not being able to accept a compliment: it shows low morale.
I once bought a large and luxurious, bubblegum-pink, leather-bound hardback notebook with a silver clasp, for example, to give a friend who had read and made many helpful suggestions for an early draft of my last novel. I was enormously grateful and thought the item would tickle her; it was where a princess might store her innermost thoughts. Yet although my friend agreed the present was delightful, it embarrassed her. I think it made her feel I was trying to pay her for something she had done freely, because she wanted to. She had not expected anything, she protested. “It’s too good to use,” she exclaimed. “What thoughts could be worthy of it?” I laughed but it was clear the gift had misfired. Unsought and not altogether wanted, that ritzy notebook was a mistake. The recipient was very, very, mildly insulted.
Still, the idea that thanking people with things can vex them is quite hard to swallow if you love to buy gifts, and I, for one, am loath to stop. This week I have been shopping for a thank-you present for a wonderful New York friend who has shown me kindness and generosity of late on a world-class scale. A colleague of his is passing through London this week, and will be dropping off another little treat for me. It’s the perfect opportunity to send something back. But what?
An extremely nice scarf can make a tender present for a gentleman, adding cool weather élan while guarding against grim winter colds. Remembering that Alexander McQueen did some large and lovely red and green tartan scarves with fluffy pompoms last winter, wondered if there was anything similar in the current collection. There was not. Yves Saint Laurent has a thick lilac cable knit scarf, but lilac is not a safe colour for a man.
“Get him a little Georgian silver salt cellar,” my neighbour said. “Well not that exactly, but something, you know, old, English and elegant.” A wander down Marylebone’s Church Street market, however, did not produce any such lucky finds. At Camden Passage antiques market nothing leapt out at me.
This morning, with only a few hours to go, I walked into Smythson. I had decided this was the right place for a gentleman’s gift. I examined travel document wallets and cufflink holders, personalised luggage labels and even a travelling case for watches. Then I spied a miniature, brown, snake-effect leather briefcase that opened out to reveal a letter set, writing surface, blotter and silver propelling pencil. It wasn’t the most useful thing in the world, but you could just imagine a dapper NY gent dashing off letters in the corner café while sipping a latte. And it would make a handsome addition to any desk at home, lending the owner a touch of the Cary Grants. I only hope I’ve got it right.