x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Best hope for the holidays this year may be a talking fish

UK shops are packed with useless junk for people to buy each other for Christmas.

The news that Dubai's hotel industry is anticipating a bumper season over the next couple of weeks will come as cold comfort to London's beleaguered tourist industry.

With the UK economy already struggling to avoid a double-dip recession and Prime Minister David Cameron distancing the UK further from the tottering euro zone, prospects for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year look decidedly bleak, at least in the leisure and retail sectors.

Not that you'd know it by travelling into the heart of London's shopping land as I did last weekend. The statistics may claim that retail spending is down 8 per cent on last year, but nobody seemed to have told the folks around me in Oxford Street, who were advancing on anything they could lay their hands on like extras in a zombie film.

Among items I noticed flying off the shelves were waterproof notebooks, finger-bongo drums and "blood bath" shower gel. It's a puzzling feature of this festival of crazed consumerism that normally discerning individuals are willing to part with good money for things they normally would only approach with tongs.

The situation was summed up by one melancholy individual sitting opposite me on the train ride home, laden down with a metre-high tube of chocolate biscuits in one hand and a pair of bathroom scales in the other.

This doleful vignette sums up the problem facing many at Christmas time. For however much we feel that we are under the financial cosh, most people in Britain have material wealth beyond the wildest dreams of our Victorian forebears.

So what do you give the person who has everything? A few years ago I thought I had solved this thorny social problem. Having been invited to spend the holiday with some affluent friends in Birmingham, I decided that the must-have present was an animatronic plastic fish mounted on a trophy board that by the touch of a button would wriggle into life and appear to sing a chorus of the old pop standard: "Don't worry, be happy."

In fact Big Mouth Billy Bass proved about as welcome as a case of gastro-enteritis. Not only were my friends profoundly underwhelmed by the sight of this kitsch monstrosity when they unwrapped it, but when I suggested they mount it on their lounge wall and give it a spin every time they needed cheering up, the colour drained from their faces.

By next morning the item had already been spirited away, presumably into their basement, never to be referred to again.

I was reminded of my humiliation this week upon reading a report about the nation's festive shopping habits. According to the survey, a staggering £2.5 million (Dh14.3 million) will be spent this year on unwanted presents, of which 40 per cent will never be used, and a further 35 per cent will be auctioned on the internet by the recipient within hours of unwrapping the gift.

The list of top 10 worst offerings tends to remain comfortingly unchanging over the decades, with collectable figurines, fluffy toys and incorrectly sized underpants all featuring in the top 10. But among best-sellers in 2011 have been humane spider catchers, novelty door wedges and this year's big mover, electric nasal hair trimmers.

Of course, the point of all this needless overspending in a time of such austerity is not to bring comfort and joy to our loved ones, but to get the poor old UK economy moving again. Mr Cameron may not have any friends left in the corridors of Brussels, but as long as he can persuade the nation to stock up on festive dustbin liners decorated with plum puddings, and sandals that double as metal detectors, the economy will keep stumbling along.

As for me, I'm taking no chances. Having received another invite from my friends in Birmingham after a five-year break, this year I'll be giving them a box of chocolates and a book token.

Mind you, if I can get down into their basement while they're not looking, I'm hoping to get my singing fish back. "Waste not, want not" is a maxim particularly appropriate for these straitened times, and with any luck I should get a few quid for Billy Bass on eBay.

And if not, I'm sure at least I'll be able recycle the gift. There must be someone who would appreciate a plastic fish singing "Don't worry, be happy."

Mr Cameron perhaps?


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London