Around this time last year my soon-to-be wife and I were finalising the preparations for our wedding. There are many questions that will be endlessly asked of newly-wed (or soon-to-be-wed) couples: How did you meet? How long have you known each other? Do the parents approve? But for me the worst question was “What do you want as a wedding present?” – and for two reasons.
Firstly, my wife and I had managed to inherit or buy most of the crockery, cutlery, cookware and linen that we needed to run our house in the early days of living together and by the time our wedding was drawing close we couldn’t think of anything else that we really needed.
The only suggestion I could make was for a new can-opener (ours had broken a few days after the wedding invites had gone out) and it was quite a challenge to convince people I was being serious.
The second reason is that I am the sort of person who finds asking people for gifts unbearably awkward. The idea of sending out a note to friends and family with a list of items we would like them to buy for us was anathema to me, especially given that the fashion seems to be to ask for fairly expensive items. A wedding registry? I’d much rather chew my legs off, thanks.
The reason I bring this up is because when the first Christmas shopping catalogues came through this year I began to think of what I might have asked for if we had been so bold as to organise a wedding registry.
Leafing through the catalogues, it occurred to me that there was a remarkable amount of crap for sale – even more than in previous years. One catalogue in particular featured a range of almost a dozen small electrical appliances, each with their own specific task. A chocolate fondue machine? Well, I suppose that it’s probably a safer option than a saucepan. A pancake machine? Er, what’s wrong with a frying pan? A Dutch pancake machine? How many times are you really likely to use this thing?
And that’s more or less the point: there are so many gadgets and items for sale that look flashy and seem appealing but that will only be used half a dozen times before being forgotten and then rediscovered when you move house and realise that you have underestimated the number of boxes you will need.
When I was growing up my family had a term for these sorts of things: sponge sharpener. The term comes from an old Wizard of Id cartoon in which a gentleman asks his wife if she has seen his “handy dandy dial-a-matic sponge sharpener” (I can’t remember the punch line), though the sponge sharpener collector in my family was my mother.
There are strong fashion trends in homewares and appliances and it is remarkably easy to get sucked into the fad. How many of the following do you have: an espresso machine, a bread maker, a popcorn machine, a sandwich toaster (and maybe a café style one, too), a tagine, automatic room air fresheners, a deep fryer, a lettuce spinner, cookbooks by a celebrity cook or on an “exotic” region like Italy or Spain, and (my personal favourite) an avocado saver?
With the exception of the espresso machine and possibly the sandwich toaster (if you really like sandwiches) or the cookbooks (if cooking is more of a hobby than a chore for you), there is very little gain to be had by owning these things. As I mentioned before, you can now buy a pancake machine; if you can’t make pancakes using just a frying pan and a stove you should probably go watch TV and let someone else make them instead.
And what’s wrong with pot pourri? Keeping a room or cupboard smelling fresh used to be as simple as pouring a bag of dead plant matter into a bowl, putting it somewhere and enjoying it. Now you can buy air fresheners that have been more engineered than your average car and that run out of spray so quickly that they often become little more than an elaborate cat scaring machine. It shouldn’t take batteries to keep your room fresh.
We are about to enter into one of the busiest shopping seasons of the year and the urge to splurge will be stronger than at any other time. My suggestion is that we resist the siren call of the sponge sharpeners and save our money for things that are really worth it. The worst it could do is annoy Gerry Harvey and, frankly, I’d still count that as a win.