collecting butterflies

What Do You Keep?

As a serial collector of all sorts of things, in fact anything and everything, I am always quite fascinated by those with similar interests to myself, and in contrast, those with the ability to cull their possessions, and to do so with an almost ruthless disregard for their value, be it monetary or sentimental.

So is the point of a collection simply about the acquirement of interesting objects? And at best, do these things have sentimental value, or perhaps do they resonate at a deeper level, and represent comfort? Clearly there is some significance that a high proportion of people who have experienced any sort of trauma or loss tend to hold on to possessions, as they appear to engender a feeling of security.

Children have always been greatly encouraged to start collections. At first, these had no monetary value; things like pressed flowers, pinned up butterflies, owl pellets (yucky but true) conkers, fossils and shells. What kid do you know who has not at some time filled a bucket with beach treasure? I added to my own collection only yesterday, when I was presented with a rare and very beautiful heart shaped sea urchin.

Somewhere down the line came the actual parting with hard cash to build a collection.  Early examples were series of stamps, and sets of cigarette cards, like sports and movie stars, or cars and airplanes. The realisation that each component of a collection may cost very little, but would mean the purchaser would develop a loyalty to the brand, and return week after week, meant that an entire industry was created to extract pocket money from the sticky hands of young children who would bypass their piggy bank in favour of purchasing the next Dinky car or china Whimsy.

Matchbox cars were brilliant at this, and could easily be blamed for creating an obsessive collecting streak in several generations, but the last laugh is with the collector, as we see time and again. That lucky guy who is middle class enough to have kept each car in its individual box, and stored the entire set; bubble wrapped and hermetically sealed in his temperature-controlled attic. With great anticipation, we get to watch him roll his eyes, and exclaim “Goodness!” when Fiona Bruce and the Antiques Road Show rumbles into the charming grounds of his local stately home, and he is publicly and dramatically informed that the collection should be insured for five thousand pounds, but because he once opened the Mark 1 Cortina door, and the wing mirror’s now a bit bent, they’ve had to slash the value of the entire set to £58.70.

So kids go on to amass all sorts of things; stickers, rubbers, Hello Kitty evertything, keyrings, snowglobes, fridge magnets, pin badges, , Kicker shoe tags, teaspoons, baseball caps, dolls, theatre/ballet/opera programmes, football or pop band memorabilia, Pokemon cards, Go Go Crazy Bones, and my current favourite; Lego Minifigures.

Adult collections include pipes, ashtrays, all sorts of smoking related accouterments like silver and mother of pearl cigarette cases and holders, lighters and, (OMG, just had a memory of a childhood friend whose mum smoked like a chimney, and had a giant brandy glass filled with books of matches). Grown ups get into all sorts of stuff like taxidermy, beer mats, champagne corks, and all sorts of china. They go on to save their children’s school reports, and their drawings and paintings. I for one have saved the cards and letters my kids have written to me.

Regrettably, there are the odious collectors of ivory, game kills, and trophy heads of wild beasts. They are not much easier to stomach than the tribes who shrank the heads of their enemies, and displayed them for all to see.

Of course, we have the “Investor Collector” who amasses things like wine, whiskey or paintings, but who sees these objects as collateral, not for personal consumption, but for them it is more about making money.

But think of all the kitch things we can amass; Baby George on a plate edged with genuine 24 carat gold, a figurine of the late Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta in Perfect Porcelain, the six wives of Henry the Eighth in tapestry kit form (everything you need to create six cushions is included, plus a free bonus kit of Henry himself to be fashioned into a padded loo seat cover). Franklin Mint have found the best copy writers on earth, and resisting the temptation to purchase the entire series of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves cruet set was almost beyond me.

It would seem by far the sweetest collections are those with little or no value other than sentimental. I discovered a dear friend of mine has kept over a thousand letters from a past lover and I think that is really special. Of course, photographs fall into this category too, but that’s not quite the same.

It would appear that there is quite a bit of emotional attachment to certain collections, as well as value. Certainly, records, musical instruments and autographs would fall into this area.

So, when do collections become obsessions? Why are some collections are considered to be more acceptable than others? And, is it Collecting, or Hoarding?

I had a conversation about this very subject on Wednesday at the Seed Pearl Breakfast and one of my guests eloquently stated that we must control possessions, or the possessions will control us. I think he may well have a point.

Look at the shock we felt when we discovered the 3,000 plus shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now please don’t get me wrong, I am in no way justifying her insane dictatorship and epic consumerism, but I suppose the question is, would we have quite felt so repulsed if her collection would have been antique fans or china teacups? I mean Martha Stewart has an entire warehouse filled with various sets of china for any and every occasion…

In the sixties, a rather grand, tophatted and bekilted  book dealer haunted Portobello Road and its environs, buying up various volumes. He stuffed his flat with so many books, that it became uninhabitable, so he moved onto another and did the same, in fact several times over, until he ran out of flats and so stuffed the weighty tomes inside his other collection, vintage Rolls Royces. The cars became so heavy; he was unable to actually drive them. It makes my own sizeable library, clung onto through good times and bad, packed and unpacked, in and out of boxes relocated and rehoused to eventually reside at times in both flimsy Ikea bookcases and bespoke joinery seem really quite trivial in comparison.

Poor Mr. Trebus was featured in a television documentary some years ago; he lived in a large house in Crouch End, and was pushed out room by room, because of his refusal to throw anything away, particularly newspapers. He had collections in every room of his four-story house; vacuum cleaners, cameras, washing machines, Elvis Presley memorabilia, all stacked in great piles. These finds also filled his garden. In the end, he lived in a small corner of the kitchen, boxed in by literal towers he couldn’t and wouldn’t discard. In the end, the council had to come and take care of his vermin infested home. He really didn’t see what they were taking away as rubbish; he regarded each paper as his possession, and it was pitiful to watch, as the man fought to retain what he felt was his right to keep. He was Pomeranian Pole who had experienced the tragic loss of his father in an accident, and then the Nazi Occupation of his home, forced conscription to the army and then was captured in France. Later, he chose to settle in London after the war.

For me, one of the most sinister literary characters of all time is Frederick Clegg, The Collector in the brilliantly written John Fowles debut novel. The lonely man, previously interested only in pinning down petrified butterflies, picks up his new obsession, a girl called Miranda Grey, and drugs her with chloroform before locking her in his basement. He hopes if he can keep her long enough she will learn to love him. Chillingly, life imitates art, as we have discovered, with several poor girls finally seeing the first light of day in years, following their release from captivity.

Lastly, on a lighter note, there are finite collections; like my children’s milk teeth. In no particular order, once the Tooth Fairy had exchanged her coin for the little enamel-coated-treasure, I would pop them into various pillboxes dotted about my home. I know this is slightly bonkers, but they are very dear to me, and without wishing to be over-sentimental, when the last baby tooth leaves my youngest son’s mouth, that part of our lives will be gone forever.

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