Spectator: Lucy Baring on the art of giving

In the spirit of ‘try before you buy’, I’ve just taken the online UK citizenship test because this forms part of one of the more unusual birthday presents to which I’ve recently been asked to contribute.

The lucky recipient of this present is godfather to our son Will, who has lived here for more than 20 years, is married and has children. And he’s never tried to become a UK citizen-a fact that another friend has decided is due to poverty or sloth or possibly both and who therefore suggested, fairly late into the night of the godfather’s 50th birthday party, that we should all chip in £17.84 towards the UK Border Agency’s not insignificant fee, thus making our hitherto contentedly American friend One Of Us.

It was several days before I thought to ask the godfather if he actually wanted to become a UK citizen, to which he gave an unreadable shrug. More importantly, however, the man spearheading the present is del-ighted and as it’s also just been his birthday, I think we all feel we’re killing two birds with one cheque. His evident pleasure in having found the perfect gift highlights the present giving/receiving equation, which has been thrown into sharp relief as most of our friends seem to have hit the half century lately.

I’ve received many a present I’m not sure I really wanted, but I’m learning very late in the day that honesty is not the best policy. There was the time when Zam came home hopping with excitement saying ‘I’ve got you the best birthday present you could ever possibly imagine’, which made me wonder if it would be the wooden salad bowl I’d mentioned, a camcorder (which I’ve always wanted) or, fingers crossed, a print by Tom Hammick.

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I tried to prise information from the children, but they looked shifty, perhaps remembering another shopping expedition with their father some years ago. ‘Oh, you’re going to love this present,’ they said, barely able to contain themselves. ‘We can’t tell you, we can’t tell you!’ I trapped the younger ones. ‘It begins with a T and ends in E.’ After only a few seconds, I shouted: ‘I don’t want a tortoise.’ They were crest-fallen, Zam rang the reptile shop to cancel the order and I’d pretty much ruined Christmas.

So the birthday came and I was blindfolded and led into the hall, where sat-fanfare, beating of drums-an apple press. Hoorah! They watched my face anxiously and I hope I looked delighted because the tortoise had taught me a lesson, not least about managing one’s expectations. Actually, the press has grown on me even though most people I told replied: ‘I wish he’d said-you could have had mine.’

Last year, on a significant wedding anniversary, I was made to wait in the kitchen while a lorry delivered another of the best presents I would ever be given: a flat-packed shepherd’s hut. I’m not ungrateful-I don’t think that an already made shepherd’s hut would have had even more of a ‘wow’ factor. I’m very excited by the idea. Which is, at this moment, what it amounts to as they take a while to construct and we’re about halfway there.

The first citizenship test I took -and failed-needed quite a wide knowledge of employment law and some understanding of the constitution, but turned out to be a phoney, although I scraped through the legitimate one by being able to name a Jane Austen novel and confirm that Gilbert and Sullivan are known for writing comic operas. I think our friend will pass and I think this is the apple press of presents. He may not have realised it’s what he really wanted, but presents, even-or especially-at 50, are, as we all know, more about the giving than receiving.

Mind you, he’s still got to fill out the form, so perhaps this is, infact, the shepherd’s hut of presents and he’s as close to becoming a UK citizen as I am to sleeping under the stars in a shed on wheels.

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