Peter Rhodes on counting cranes, an explosive gift and who can resist a pickle fork?

Still hunting for that special Xmas present?

How many cranes?
How many cranes?

You might wish to avoid the choice made by Ukrainian officials when they recently hosted the chief of Polish police, Jaroslaw Zzymczyk, on an official visit. They gave him a grenade launcher (as you do), and you can probably guess what happened next.

It went off in his office, leaving the police chief with hearing loss and cuts. The moral? The traditional inter-forces gift of a nicely engraved pewter mug may not be able to launch grenades but it won't blow your ears off, either.

There are all sorts of ways to judge the state of the economy. I recall a financial expert some years ago who counted the number of tower cranes at work in central London. If there were more than 20, he forecast a looming over-supply of offices and a sudden slump in commercial rentals. Another test is the availability of trades people. In the past couple of weeks we've had work done by a plumber, a bricklayer and an electrician. They all turned up at the agreed time and did the jobs for the agreed price. This time last year you couldn't get a tradesman for love or money. Which makes me think there is already some slowing-down in the construction industry and the recession is indeed upon us.

Another useful barometer of the economy is the price of second-hand furniture. A reader who clears houses reports rock-bottom prices at auctions with zero demand for large items such as kitchen dressers and dining tables (apparently we all eat off our laps these days). Meanwhile, a friend had her eye on a beautiful little Victorian chaise-longue which didn't attract a single bid at two auctions. After the events, her private bid was accepted. Four pounds.

Still on high finance, Mrs Rhodes and I, expecting an austerity sort of Yule, agreed some time ago to limit our presents to each other to £20 with all items coming from charity shops. It concentrates the mind wonderfully as you mooch from Oxfam to Scope and the RSPCA establishments, desperately looking for something that says “thoughtful” rather than “cheapskate.”

I may have marginally overstepped the £20 limit but how can anyone resist a pair of plastic handled his-'n'-her pickle forks? God, we live well.

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