Monday, 20 December 2010


I was asked to write a short piece with the title “Good Present/Bad Present” the other day. It got me thinking about how much the present buying process says about our relationship with the person we’re buying it for, particularly when it’s a boyfriend/girlfriend. Firstly there’s a question of how much to spend. Personally I hate the idea of setting a budget for Christmas presents with your other half. It makes it all about how much you’re spending, rather than the thought behind it. But establishing the protocol does take away the potential for rows when he unwraps the silver hip flask you’ve had lovingly monogrammed and he, thinking you were doing cheap and fun, hands you one of his homemade books of “cuddle vouchers”.
And once you’ve negotiated the minefield of how much to spend, you have to decide what you’re going to spend it on. Do you play it safe and ask him to draw up a comprehensive list or insist on surprising him with something he never knew he wanted - with the risk that he actually doesn’t want it?
And it’s not like his is the only present you have to think about. There’s family, extended family, family’s girlfriends and boyfriends, friends and work colleagues. Just when you think you’ve got it all wrapped up (excuse the pun) you remember someone else you need to buy for.
I do love giving presents to people, it’s the thinking about what they’ll want and then slogging around trying to find it that stresses me out. I prefer to give slightly unusual things and I’ve found Bristol’s great for this. The Woolies Indoor Market at the top of Whiteladies Road is full of quirky gifts, as is the Clifton Arcade. I also happened upon the market that’s held in Start the Bus a few weekends a go and picked up a couple of really lovely, unique things there. And I do love House of Fraser in Cabot Circus - department stores at this time of year make me feel like I’m in Miracle on 34th Street.
So this year I’m actually feeling rather pleased with all the offerings I’ve got to place beneath the tree. Now I just can’t wait for the best bit - watching people open them.

And here’s what I wrote under the title Good Present/Bad Present.

It was the Christmas present that finished it. Not his to me. That was fine. Safe and unimaginative but it was my favourite perfume and I didn’t really mind that he’d left the “half price at Boots” sticker on the box. But by then it was too late. In choosing his present I’d realised this was never going to last. I wanted my gift to be meaningful, special. A book of poetry perhaps, or a beautiful tweed waistcoat I found at a flea market. I imagined him opening these perfect presents on Christmas morning and just - couldn’t. He didn’t read poetry and would think the waistcoat was old, not vintage. They weren’t presents for him, they were for the boyfriend I wished he was. In a last minute panic I bought one of those novelty books they pile high in Waterstones at this time of year. It was as good a way as any of ending the relationship. I think I left the half price sticker on too.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Do you really need another pair of shoes?

I wrote the following for a competition. I didn't win (I was robbed, of course) but I thought it would be a shame for it never to see the light of day...

Do you really need another pair of shoes?

As babes in arms we are taught that shoes have magical, transformative powers. A quick sift through the fairytales and stories that shape our childhood will prove that no princess or heroine is worth halfpenny without her signature shoes twinkling at her feet.

Cinderella and her glass slippers almost go without saying. But the folklore woven around shoes only begins there. The Twelve Dancing Princesses slip on their jewelled dancing shoes each night to prance into their magical world, returning to their beds in the dawn light - tired but happy and with their heels tellingly worn down from dancing under the stars.

And what about the little girl in The Red Shoes? She knows no peace until she has her glittering pair, which set her feet dancing irresistibly up hill and down dale.

Book-loving little girls like myself progressed from the charmed shoes of fairytales to the enchanting footwear of much-loved children’s classics; Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and White Boots all waltzed merrily through my childish imagination, and have kept on tapping their feet into my adulthood.

So, little wonder women grow up so enthralled by shoes. According to the tales of our childhood the right pair of magical slippers will snare us a handsome prince, dance us into a magical kingdom and set us firmly on the path to a glittering career in showbiz. What more could any dreamy little girl wish for?

Added to this, there’s an alluring element of danger to their glamour. The dancing princess’ trodden-down heels betray their hedonistic nights to their strict father, while those provocative red shoes ultimately skip their owner to her untimely death.

So shoes are tricksy things. The wrong pair could get you into all sorts of trouble. And the right ones won’t just fall into your lap.

My search for the perfect pair began young. The first shoes I very clearly remember wanting were red, patent leather Mary-Janes. I was about five, my best friend had Mary-Janes and I’d recently seen the film of The Red Shoes on the telly. These seductive confections, probably spotted while buying school shoes in Clarks, therefore ticked all the boxes.

My mother, however, is a practical woman, and they did not strike her as suitable footwear for a five-year-old. I did not get the shoes.

And from that day forward (or so I like to think) our shoe-shopping career as mother and daughter was doomed. Denied my dream shoes, I became devilishly choosy, and trying on any kind of shoe became a nightmare for us both.

However many I was presented with, no pair ever seemed quite right. They were too tight here or too loose there. They rubbed my heel, or the top of my little toe.

Attentive shop-assistants, hovering nearby and chirruping “How does that feel?” added to the agony. I was as shy as I was indecisive and their attention would eventually make me feel like one of the ugly sisters; willing to chop my own toes off just to get out of there. When it got to this stage I would invariably panic and agree on a pair of shoes at random. Later, at home, I would sobbingly tell my mum I couldn’t possibly wear them. And back we would trudge.

To our mutual relief, my mum and I no longer buy shoes together. And now, almost all grown-up, I’ve somehow gained the confidence required in shops to make I’m left in peace while I wiggle my toes and twirl in front of the mirror at leisure, as the boxes pile up around me.

But, although I’m now at liberty to choose and pay for my own shoes, finding the perfect pair hasn’t got any easier.

I still agonise endlessly over the feel, shape and look. Practicality isn’t the issue here. It’s that indescribable rightness I’m looking for. I ask myself, will these shoes make me skip down the street and never want to stop?

For that, after all, is the point of shoes, is it not? Yes, how they fit and look is important, no girl would deny that. But, as the best fairytale princesses will tell you, it’s where they take you that matters the most. And we have so many places to go.

I’ve been searching for some years now and I haven’t found that one magical pair just yet. Many have come close but I can never help thinking that the ones I’m really meant to have are still out there somewhere, wrapped in fresh tissue, tucked in a box and patiently waiting for me to slip them on my feet and breathe life into their magic.

So I intend to keep on searching. I may find them, I may not. What I do know is the adventure is in the journey.