Books: A Point of View: Wrap It Up |
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Wrap It Up : on creativity and charity in a market economy

(S04E08, broadcast 19th and 21st December 2008)

"It's a wrap"
— gift wrapping

For some of us, the hardest part of Christmas now looms, which is wrapping presents. In our house, jobs for the festive season are allocated according to intelligence, which leaves me at the bottom end of the roster, doing simple tasks that involve physical strength. There are bags of coal to be heaved into the shed from the back of the car, and then, one at a time, to be heaved back out again to the step outside the back door, with the usual pause for recovery after I crease my head on the door-frame of the shed.

The step outside the back door is the transfer point for the coal in the bag to be loaded into the brass coal bucket, which then has to be hauled upstairs and lowered into position beside the fireplace before I go back downstairs to pick up the coal that missed the bucket and then clean my hands in the kitchen sink, which then has to be cleaned in its turn.

Since there will be other people including my granddaughter for Christmas dinner, extra leaves for the extendable dining-room table in the extended kitchen will need to be hauled out of the utility cupboard, which has never been extended, except by the accumulated impact of what happens every time I go into it. The sloping roof of the utility cupboard is waiting for me to bang my already tender head against it, provoking a reaction from me which is a recognized part of the festive season. The extra-table-leaves hauling ceremony has to be completed well before my granddaughter arrives after church on Christmas morning, lest she hear my language. Above all she must not hear my language when I am lying on the floor under the table trying to fasten the metal clips which hold the table leaves in position. Nobody must hear that.

Extra chairs have to be brought down from various rooms and assembled round the table. Intelligent people might be able to do this, but why should they, when I am available? Bags of potatoes and new potatoes have to be hauled from the back of the car into the kitchen. For years I have harboured the forlorn hope that my low IQ would excuse me from the comparatively finicky task of peeling these potatoes and new potatoes, but not so. Peeling counts as a physical task. Add all these physical tasks together and you would have thought, or at any rate I would have thought, that I was on the limits of what I could be expected to accomplish. But all these public physical tasks are as nothing beside the task that awaits me in private on Christmas Eve. It is yet another physical task, but there is a mental element. Yet this I am allowed to do. Indeed it is made clear by all that I have to do it. Wrapping presents.

There is no way out of it. Nor should there be. Presents have to be wrapped. I accept that. I once tried giving my elder daughter the collected poems of Philip Larkin without wrapping it and it was made clear to me that it didn’t matter how good the poetry was, the effect had been spoiled, perhaps for ever, by the fact that there was no wrapping to be removed first in order to reveal what the present was. I already knew all that, but I hoped to get away with it for once. You can’t get away with it even once. In that respect, our house is like Japan, where the wrapping of the gift is at least as important as the gift. Many years ago, on my first trip to Japan, I rewarded my official guide with a bottle of high-grade Scotch. But I handed it to him in a plastic bag. He received it politely but later on I was told I might as well have hit him over the head with it.

Wrapping the presents shows that you have not only employed your credit card for a few seconds, you have taken care. I can see the force of that argument. As W. B. Yeats once put it, while wrapping a piano for his wife, ‘For how but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?’ Unfortunately I wrap to a low standard. All presents given to me will be wrapped impeccably. All presents given by me will be immediately identifiable by the clumsiness of their wrapping. It shouldn’t be like that, because one of my vacation jobs when I was in high school in Sydney more than fifty years ago was in the wrapping department of one of the big department stores.

I learned the principles of how to lay out the paper and tie the initial slip-knot, but the day came when I had to wrap a tricycle and after a couple of hours there was a crowd of other workers gathered around me laughing and laying bets. My spirit was broken for ever, and now I can’t get much further than laying out the paper without everything going wrong. I cheat by using plenty of sticky tape but I can’t get a piece of sticky tape off the tape dispenser without the piece going in the wrong place, usually nowhere near the present.

And there is always too little paper to be folded at one end of the present and at the other end too much. And then the length of ribbon that is meant to tie the whole thing up is always exactly not long enough, so that the bow is very small, or else a tight little reef knot which I can’t cover with a fluffed rosette without masses of sticky tape radiating in all directions and ... but why go on?

Which is my sentiment in a nutshell, but it has to be done. So I’ll get it done and get it done badly, finishing the job on Christmas morning not long before dawn, with Santa’s sleigh already getting set to touch down on the roof. There was a time when my younger daughter could be hired at piece-work rates to wrap presents for me, but when she grew old enough to work a calculator she declined to renew the contract. And I gave her the calculator, reasonably well wrapped. Now, there is no way out.

Or is there? And here we come to the biggest news of the week for any man in my position. Apparently you can now contact, via the web, an organization which will wrap your presents badly at only £3.96 per item. A spokesman for this organization says that, quote, ‘It takes a high degree of skill to deliberately wrap presents this badly.’ Actually all it takes is a man like me, but there is no denying that the service provided by this outfit is worth every penny they are asking. They will wrap my presents to make it look as if I wrapped them, which is what my family wants to see. The drawback when my daughter wrapped them was that everyone could tell that I hadn’t. This way, it will look as if I care. And I do. I just don’t want to go mad proving it.

The bad-wrap merchants have identified a gap in the market, and I’m sure they will flourish. I would put money into their enterprise, if I had any. In view of the magnitude of the current world economic crisis, I still haven’t dared ring the bank to find out if I’m still solvent, but the mere urge to invest in such a bright idea is a sure sign that free enterprise is still alive. As I understand it, which is to the minimum extent compatible with earning a living, there is nothing inherently wrong with a market economy. As long as people make money by making things, and then invest the profit in making more things, an economy can boom for ever. Trouble starts when people start making money out of money itself. Then the whole deal comes tumbling down and finally lands on the less well off, which at this rate might effectively mean everybody less well off than the Sultan of Brunei.

But the source of recovery is still there, in the creative imagination it takes to realize that an offer to wrap presents badly could be a money-spinner, because some poor klutz might need it. That kind of creative imagination has its well-spring in human sympathy, in the spirit of charity. And if we have not charity, we are nothing. In a commendably charitable move, a High Court ruling has just opened the way for those asylum-seekers who really can’t go home — but haven’t been allowed to earn a living either — to work their way out of a financial limbo that beats anything the rest of us are likely to be faced with.

A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is at the basis of all dignity. In my homeland, Australia, it used to be called the Fair Go. When I was very young, after World War II, there was an Australian film called The Sons of Matthew. Any Australian film was big news in those days and we all went to see it, even those of us in short pants. It was about a poor family living in the bush who faced a bleak pre-war Christmas, and the older brothers made toys in secret for the younger ones. I remember a close-up of one of the older brothers as he fought sleep after midnight. He was still working on the details of a little toy train carved from wood.

I was from a poor family myself, but I knew that the presents I would get would be more lavish than that, even though they had cost my mother just as much in labour. Times had changed in Australia since the depression era evoked in the film. I think it was probably that same year that I unwrapped the box containing my Hornby ‘0’-gauge train set imported from Britain. It was a delightful surprise, and would have been less so if it hadn’t been wrapped up. I’ll try to remember that when I’m fighting the sticky-tape dispenser, even though wrapping isn’t among my gifts, if you get what I mean. Merry Christmas, and wrap up well.


For the truly bad-ass wrapper, there is another way out that I didn’t have room to cover. You can buy gifts in the kind of shop that will gift-wrap them to be picked up later. The shop is already draining your credit card so it might as well do a bit more for you. The trouble is, though, that the recipient of the gift might still find reason to wrinkle the nose. When I give a present that has been purchased at Liberty’s and wrapped by the store’s expert wrappers in the store’s unfeasibly luxurious paper, I have noticed that I am still looked upon as having taken the easy way out. What Liberty’s needs is a bad-wrapping department. In the overture to this broadcast I gave a pretty thorough survey of the simple muscle-intensive tasks that I was then allowed to do. I found my identity, akin to the elusive national identity of Australia, in my ability to carry them out. Little did I suspect that in the first month of 2010, not really a very long time later, I would be felled by various ailments and have to spend more than half the year forbidden to lift anything. The period of enforced leisure passed no more quickly than eternity, and at the time of writing I have only just regained the classification by which I am allowed to carry my share of the shopping bags on Saturday morning. It was a savage reminder that people really do define themselves by their jobs, even when the job is humble. That’s why the lady behind one of the many counters of the department store proclaims her ownership of the goods you wish to purchase from her. (‘I’ve only got it in these two colours at the moment but I should have the complete range in again by Saturday morning.’) At the supermarket, the person on the cash desk will ask you to enter your pin number even after you have already begun to enter it. (‘Can you enter your pin number for me?’) The person is really telling you that he or she is an indispensable part of the process. We should try not to smile knowingly: in the same position we would do it too. And in any kind of cooperative venture, to make light of somebody’s job is the quickest way of making an enemy.