In 1936, in the middle of the deepest depression of the century, the Provençal novelist Jean Giono published a 100-page essay – in fact, really more of a cri de coeur – called Les Vraies Richesses (True Riches).
It is a passionate, some would say simple-minded, denunciation of a money-driven materialism that has ravaged humanity and the planet. “Men have deserted the earth,” he laments. “They no longer want fruit, nor wheat, nor liberty, nor joy. They only want what they have created themselves.” Modern society has substituted an artificial kind of “riches” – an excess of throwaway stuff that doesn’t make the great majority of people happy or healthy – for the “true riches”, which can be shared by all: good air, good simple food and wine, art and things made with love and care, the transcendent beauty of the natural world.
I have been thinking about gifts in a rather different way in a run-up to Christmas dominated by hospital visits and my father’s final illness. I have been thinking of the true gifts my parents have given me, and which have very little to do with the throwaway world.
Some of the best gifts – to speak still of physical things – my father gave me are either still in use or usable. I am thinking of my first proper camera, a Russian-made Zenit SLR, built like a tank, solidly reliable, but also satisfying (this camera will still be working when the crack of doom sounds). I had so much fun with it even though it was heavy and a little cumbersome, even though I had to focus, twisting the lens, by hand, had to work out the exposure using an exposure meter, then hand-set it.
Though all that was harder work than the modern instantaneous way of using a little digital camera, it also gave one more control, and more craftsmanlike understanding. My father, a fine photographer, explained to me how you would get more depth of field with a smaller aperture; how you might need to use a tripod for an exposure of 1/25th of a second or more. The gift was not just in the thing but in the sharing of what could be done with it, how it could enrich my life as it had his.
Then there was my first serious tennis racket, a second-hand wooden Dunlop Maxply, far more unwieldy than a modern racket but also somehow more treasurable. I cannot imagine ever throwing it away.
All this ties in with a pre-Christmas pamphlet from my favourite counterculture think-tank, the New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org), entitled The New Materialism. Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts are at pains not to appear Scrooge-like killjoys; their message is not about hair-shirted asceticism – the abjuring of stuff – but about a deeper, more rewarding and more enjoyable relationship with things made to last and to be mendable.
People of my father’s generation were taught to look after things and often to repair them; partly as a result of that, and of those things having been made before the invention of built-in obsolescence, their possessions often lasted a lifetime or even longer. The other day my father stumped me by offering, in addition to some excellent suits he had hardly ever worn, a thick bathing robe belonging to my grandfather, which I remembered my grandfather wearing on the only holiday he spent with us, in the far north of Scotland, just weeks before he died.
The implication of NEF’s The New Materialism is that things matter not so much because of their shiny newness but because of the love and care that can be invested in them and that is transmitted by them. NEF suggests a 10-year rule: having and making nothing designed to last less than a decade. Handmade, or at least very well-made things are at an advantage here. As Christmas presents, I used to enjoy buying handcrafted ceramics made by my friend James Burnett-Stuart at his annual Christmas sale. There was nothing excessively precious about these plates, bowls and teapots: they were intended for use, not abstract contemplation, but they were things of beauty and craft as well as utility, and those other dimensions would also rub off on their users.
So the best gifts are not possessions or acquisitions that you can have to yourself, but mediums, ways of sharing experience. (Perhaps many things that get thrown away are rejected precisely because they turn out to be unsatisfactory in the sense of not apt for sharing.)
Last Christmas, my father gave me some small gifts with notes attached: a bottle of Tio Pepe sherry, a hunk of Manchego cheese. These were good things in themselves but also a way of transmitting the love of wine and food and Spanish culture and the good earth, and so many other things besides, that he instilled in me and shared with me.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres