I was too half-hearted a child ever to be a real collector. I’d trade a cigarette packet for an autograph and the autograph for a stamp and the stamp for a marble and then lose the marble. Only when it got competitive, as when I tried to build up a bigger list of books than my friend Gabriel – titles of books we’d read, then titles of books we owned, then titles of books we’d seen in bookshop windows, and finally, bizarrely, titles of books we’d simply heard of – did I feel anything of what I supposed a collector was meant to feel. But then an auntie took me on a coach trip to Furness Abbey, followed by a train trip to Knaresborough Castle, and there at last, among the mossy stones and echoes of sieges and devotion, I discovered the true avidity to acquire.
Not the ruins themselves, obviously – though I wouldn’t have minded having what was left of Bolton Abbey in the back garden – but the descriptive leaflets, published by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, available free or for a few pennies, at the entrances to the sites. Their sober informativeness, in contrast to the picturesque ruination they chronicled, spoke at one and the same time to the romantic and the civil servant in me.
I didn’t mention my new enthusiasm for leaflets to Gabriel. They were too suggestive of windswept loneliness to share. And I liked the idea that not another boy on the planet was collecting them. Eventually I grew dissatisfied with the pace at which my collection was growing – there were only so many day trips we could afford to take – and hit upon the ruse of sending stamped addressed envelopes to the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, begging information on this or that pile of rubble for a school essay I was writing. A braver boy would have taken himself off to Tintern Abbey and Kirkham Priory but it suited me to stay home and stare at the letter box.
Did I ever own them all? I suspect I came close. I arranged them alphabetically in box files and would choose one randomly to read at night. For a while I was expert in the architecture of keeps and wells and cloisters. I gave up when I discovered that Gabriel had been secretly doing the same. He did have them all. I burned mine in the garden. Not since the Dissolution of the Monasteries had there been such a conflagration.
I felt sorry for the taxidermied toad – so I took it home
I grew up in a house full of collections. In 1977, when I was 14, my great-aunt Dulcie died and my family inherited all her worldly goods. Since she had furnished her house in the 1930s and hardly ever got rid of a thing, we suddenly had a house full of odd old things. I don’t think she was a collector; she was simply someone who saved things in case they might come in handy. We had been antique shop junkies and thrifters before then but Dulcie’s stuff tipped us over some rational boundary and we began to think of ourselves as Collectors and of our possessions as Collections. My dad once joked that any three things in our house could be a collection and we all reacted with horror because we knew if we bought into that notion there would be no stopping us, ever.
When I was in art school I happened to buy a taxidermied toad at a garage sale. It cost 25 cents and it was a bit broken: there were wires poking out where its hands should have been. It was over-stuffed and clumsily sewn. I felt sorry for it, bought it, and took it home.
A few years later I bought a more elaborate piece of taxidermy, a mongoose with a cobra wrapped around its middle. The mongoose is biting the cobra and the cobra is squeezing the mongoose, but since they are both dead the joke is on both of them, alas. I later discovered that this particular tableau is a taxidermist’s cliché, but when I was 23 it just seemed like black humour. I put it on a shelf above my bed, though my boyfriend found it an anti-aphrodisiac.
The third piece of taxidermy, the one that doomed me, was a squirrel. It is an ordinary grey squirrel, perched on a branch. It looks alarmed, but that is the normal expression of squirrels in cities. I once played a joke using this squirrel: my boyfriend liked to feed squirrels, and had developed a cult following of squirrels who would wait around his door in hopes of a few almonds or cashews. He was beginning to worry that he’d over-encouraged them. One afternoon I arrived at his house with my stuffed squirrel. I placed it on the driver’s seat of his car and got on with the rest of the day, not mentioning this to my boyfriend. I heard no more of the matter for a week. Then he presented me with a photograph of my squirrel among all the live squirrels, all in the same pose with the same expression, surrounded by nuts. “You nearly gave me a heart attack,” he told me.
Once there were three taxidermied animals in my apartment, my family understood this as a come-hither and more taxidermy began to arrive at Christmas and on birthdays without any further effort on my part. Now our home is a sort of sad taxidermy refuge: I collect taxidermy that is unloved, missing bits, badly mounted or just forlorn. I recently tried to put a stop to the accumulation, but I can feel the spirits of all the unacquired taxidermy standing anxiously at our front gate, wondering why they haven’t been allowed to come in. I imagine my resolve will not last long.
Postcards offered the true grail of my teenage years – a distinct sense of elsewhere
As a child, I was a casual collector: stamps, cigarette cards, even the fancier chocolate wrappers, anything that I could laboriously set out on album pages would keep me occupied for hours. But it wasn’t until I chanced upon some used postcards in a seaside bric-a-brac shop that I stumbled into my first real passion. To begin with, postcards were easy to collect: they were inexpensive and fairly common, and I only had to buy the ones that offered the true grail of my childhood years – a distinct sense of elsewhere. A ghostly image, say, of the harbour at Audierne, or a crisp, no-nonsense photograph of the Hotel Roosevelt on Wabash Avenue, Chicago, upon which somebody had written, in a far from steady hand, “I Lived Here for 2 Days”.
Many of the older cards had no space for messages on the back, so the correspondents would write on the front, below, or around the pictured scene, often at surprising length, as, for example, on a card sent from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, to a lady in Vermont: “This is where I live with 90 other girls. Nov 20th 1906. Received your postal a few days ago for which accept my thanks. I had a letter from Jennie tonight. She said you were going to the old country this winter. I hope you will have a very pleasant time.”
Over a colour photograph of Niagara’s Prospect Point someone (a honeymooner?) writes: “Enjoying the Beautiful Scenery Something Grand, Love to All”. Other messages are more poignant, even chilling. One image from the 1900s shows the Sanatorium, Salisbury, North Carolina; on the back the sender has written: “This is where they put us when we are sick”, while an idyllic card of a boathouse on the Charles River from EJ in Boston informs a lady in Redgranite, Wisconsin, that Mr D from upstairs has died, and “The Rubber is shutting down Wed and they don’t know when it will start up again”.
Over the years, many of them fairly nomadic, I have lost a few cards, but I still have enough of those cryptic messages to recall the world my teenage self constructed, a world where people kept secrets for good reason, where a banal remark might conceal some hidden fear or longing – a highly charged emotional world that the correspondents were often at a loss to share. One of my favourite cards, a colourful picture of the Grand Canyon, says on the back, “I think of you often. Do write when you can.” The card shows no addressee and no signature (it was probably slipped inside an envelope with a letter) but even today I still wonder about this unknown traveller, standing beside one of the most sublime spots on Earth, wholly preoccupied with a faraway friend or a lost love they must have feared they would never see again.
A conker, a badge, a hatpin: my mother’s collection of oddments was precious but puzzling
Gabriele d’Annunzio (the subject of my book The Pike) would ask each woman he slept with – and they were legion – to give him a glove. The gloves fill several drawers in the house on Lake Garda where he spent the last years of his life, and which he gradually transformed into a vast piece of installation art celebrating his own sexual potency, his wartime heroism and aesthetic refinement. He also collected theatre programmes and Murano glass and ancient Persian ceramics and other things less easy to accommodate, like boulders from the mountains over which Italy’s First World War battles were fought, and massive chunks of Roman masonry, and full-size plaster casts of Michelangelo’s Prisoners, and Great Danes almost as tall as his shoulder (he was a very small man).
D’Annunzio was unusually intent upon glorifying himself. But perhaps all collections are self-portraits, composite representations of the collector’s psyche. When one of my daughters was about two she liked filling paper bags with treasures. By the end of a week her room would be full of portable caches: in one a tiny plastic donkey, a ping-pong ball, a pink sock, a teaspoon and a pigeon’s feather; in another three lychees, a straw doll, the toggle from an old duffel coat and a bicycle bell. What these collections meant to her I didn’t know, and she can’t remember, but I found them oddly poignant. It was as though, in her childish impotence, she was trying to comprehend the bewildering big world in which she lived by plucking a few things from it and making them her talismans.
When we were clearing out my parents’ house after their deaths, I found that my mother had made similar small stashes. I shared her books with my brothers and her clothes with her granddaughters but it was hard to know how to distribute the things, clearly precious to her, she had kept under the glass of a display table. The half-shell of a hazelnut, painted with eyes and whiskers to make a tiny mouse, I recognised and reclaimed. I had made it and given it to her half a century before. But what to do with the nondescript pebbles, the withered conker, the broken hatpin (perhaps lifted from her own mother’s dressing table), the tarnished badge, the gilded glass bottle with its trace of stale scent, the sprig of dried heather?
D’Annunzio accumulated objects as a way of immortalising himself; these private hoards have no afterlife. Eventually I would empty my daughter’s bags, putting the teaspoon back in the cutlery drawer, the lychees in the fruit bowl. She wouldn’t even notice they’d gone. My mother’s collection of emotionally charged oddments is just rubbish now. When she died, it died with her.
My Billy Bunter obsession was an invention of my mother’s
Both my parents were collectors. Some would say hoarders. My mum collected children’s books, then, for reasons anyone who has come to my stand-up show will know, golfing memorabilia. My dad, Dinky Toys. The whole place teemed with stuff. I wasn’t that bothered with collecting really, but my mother took anything I expressed an interest in and decided “Oh right, that’s David’s thing”, and for birthdays and Hanukkah would just buy me too much of that. I went through a few iterations of this: I remember a magazine called Look and Learn, which my mother bought me binders of, and later, Marilyn Monroe-abilia (she was still buying me photos and cards of her when I was in my forties). But the big one was Billy Bunter books. I did actually like these. I think Greyfriars, the boarding school portrayed in those books, with its fires and crumpets and turrets and adventures, felt, in 1975 Dollis Hill, incredibly exciting and exotic; possibly – for a Jewish child whose mother was a Holocaust refugee – in a comforting English way. It was a bit like Hogwarts, but without the wizardry.
So I did read them. But then my mother, in her unbounded way – which I just went along with, knowing no better – took it too far. She enrolled me in the Old Boys’ Book Club, a society dedicated to Frank Richards, the writer of Bunter, when I was 11. Every other member was about 70. I used to go to the meetings, bored out of my mind, waiting for the break for tea so that I could eat the jam tarts. There is also an interview with me in the Young Observer in 1975 with a picture (see above) in which I am surrounded by Holiday Annuals (Richards wrote for magazines called the Gem and the Magnet, and they were collected as these). The truth is that my mum foisted all these on me. The article is entitled “Ouch Yaroo You Beasts!”, a Bunter-like saying, but it could be translated as “Ouch I Am Getting My Head Kicked In At My Actual 1970s School For Looking Like Such A Twat In The Young Observer.” The last line of it, following a question about whether or not I ever read anything else – “Just now, I’m rather captivated by James Bond” – makes me shudder to this day.
Anyway. This leaves us with the question: did I actually collect Billy Bunter books? I would say the answer is no: like a number of things I thought made up my identity, really it was just an identity-creation projected on me by Mother. But I did like the books. I have no idea where they are now. I’m pretty sure my mum eventually just sold them and took the profits.
David Baddiel’s most recent children’s book, “Birthday Boy”, is published in paperback by HarperCollins
My first proper job was working as a researcher for an American author who was writing a book on the British royal family. This was before the internet (pretty much) and before Diana died, when going to the British Library meant heading for the British Museum and waiting while your requests were sucked up to Request Heaven via pneumatic tubes. I was just glad to have the job; I didn’t think I’d care too much about what I found. To my astonishment, I became consumed with fascination for the story of the abdication crisis of Edward VIII. I knew almost nothing of it, I confess, but suddenly I couldn’t wait to get to the library every day to take my notes on the grim drama as it unfolded in the shadow of the looming war. “You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
And then one day I was passing a little antiques shop; there in the window was a china mug with a pleasing round belly, a very Thirties shape, stamped as a souvenir of the coronation of Edward VIII in May 1937 – a coronation that never happened. It wasn’t expensive, as a great many of them were made: they look as if they ought to be rare, but they aren’t. I set it on my shelf. Not too long after I found another; once there were three I started to say I collected them.
Now, in the age of eBay, it’s a game with very particular rules. No buying online. I haven’t even looked to see how many I could find that way. No going out of my way: I have to happen to be in front of a shop that looks promising. I’ve got seven now, in a handsome row, along with a little commemorative pillbox I got after the author Elizabeth McCracken tweeted that she’d acquired it – if anyone took an interest, she’d mail it to them. I tweeted back; I decided that was within my rules, not least because I adore her work.
An American by birth – just like Wallis Simpson, of course – I’m not much of a monarchist. But I am very fond of my oddly republican royal souvenirs.
My Barbra Streisand scrapbook was lovingly assembled – and deeply revealing
I blame the parents. Well, my father. Streisand was a gifted Jewish performer so he bought one of her LPs. I was about eight and impressionable and I listened compulsively to the emotional power of that voice, sang along and decided that when I grew up I was going to be Barbra. Matters came to a head three years later when she turned up in her Oscar-winning debut in Funny Girl, which I saw at the Waldorf in Basingstoke with my friend Liz. Like the screenplay and the camera, I only had eyes for Barbra but, feeling it was expected of me, I tentatively put my arm around Liz – this, ladies and gentlemen, was my heterosexual phase – but neither of us was convinced. I was in the grip of the cultural/psychosexual condition we can describe as Oklahomosexuality.
“I decided that when I grew up I was going to be Barbra”: David Benedict’s Streisand scrapbook
That’s where the scrapbook began. Film stills, magazine spreads, photos, features, reviews, gossip… it’s all there. There’s nothing precisely gay about it – OK, ignore tanned Ryan O’Neal in nothing but a bow tie and boxer shorts in What’s Up, Doc? because back then I had no idea he was hot – and yet the entire, lovingly assembled volume screams “Gay!”. Even after I came out, I felt shame at having been so spectacularly stereotypical.
Looking at it now, I’m glad of two things. First, I never threw it away in foolish embarrassment. Second, on the front I grandly wrote “Barbra Joan Streisand Part 1”. I’m pleased to report that Part 2 never happened. I no longer needed her the same way: I was living my own life.
David Benedict is a critic and broadcaster. He is writing a biography of Stephen Sondheim
I’m quite happy using my tanks to herd sheep
Like a lot of men growing up in the Sixties, I spent many a happy and frustrating hour building plastic war machines. They were Airfix planes and tanks mostly – Spitfires, Shermans,Tigers, that sort of stuff. The one thing I found disappointing about this hobby, though, was that the end results gave no indication of what went on inside. I don’t know what I was expecting for two bob.
I became a tank collector almost by accident. One day in the early Nineties, finding myself in the dangerous position of having more money than sense, I was driving past a garage and there, parked on the forecourt next to the shiny Fiestas and Escorts loomed a huge, ugly, green and black camouflaged tank. It turned out that this wasn’t just a promotional item to lure the curious. The tank was for sale for £5,000, with only one previous owner: the British Army. This seemed a bit of a bargain, considering that at 16 tons it dwarfed the rest of the stock. But you couldn’t just walk in off the street and buy a tank, could you? It turns out you could and I did.
I had bought myself an Abbot self-propelled gun – not an actual tank, though you’d never know, considering the rusty tracks and the terrific noise and billowing clouds of smoke it produced when it started up. Yes, the thing actually ran.
I had no idea how to drive a tank but living on a farm meant I had space to practise not crashing into things. It’s simple to operate – an accelerator pedal and a couple of sticks to steer it and stop it. It’s also extremely claustrophobic, and the experience veers from terror to exhilaration, like a roller coaster. It’s not the fastest thing you’ll ever drive but it’s certainly one of the most exciting.
Despite the lingering smell of grease and cordite, the MoD had thoughtfully disabled the gun. A little research revealed that a live firing specimen could be had on production of a shotgun licence – but I’ve never felt the need of a 105mm shotgun with a range of ten miles.
Inevitably my interest grew: now I’m the proud owner of four vehicles, all British and from the 1960s-1970s. Parts are not that difficult to find and most things can be fixed with brute force and spanners. Although theoretically allowed to be driven on the road – they’re exempt from tax, MOT and the congestion charge – they inevitably break down at the worst possible moment and the AA isn’t keen. So I wouldn’t chance it. I’m quite happy herding sheep with them. They used to call me the idiot in a band – now it’s the idiot with the tanks.
Stephen Morris is a musician. He was the drummer in Joy Division and New Order
I don’t collect, I say, when I’m asked. I used to collect. I collected bones, a mouse skin, shells, a tiger’s claw, the sloughed scales on a snake, clay pipes and oyster shells, and Victorian pennies from the archaeological dig that my elder brother John and I started one summer in Lincoln, 45 years ago, marking out the ground with string into a grid before getting bored.
My father was chancellor of the cathedral and we lived opposite its great Gothic east window in the chancery, a medieval house with a spiral staircase and a chapel at the very end of a long corridor. There were carved ruins in the gardens, corbel-heads in the flower borders. An archdeacon in the close passed on his collection of fossils dug up during an Edwardian childhood in Norfolk, some still marked with the day and the place they were found. When I was seven the cathedral library was getting rid of mahogany cases, and so half my room was taken over by a vitrine – my first – in which I would arrange and rearrange my objects, turn the key and open up the case on request. I can remember the sequences in which I placed the objects – a run of Victorian onyx marbles, seven silver toothpicks. It felt as if there was a cadence that happened when particular objects were placed near each other, an ordering that allowed them to be more than themselves than when they sat in isolation. Some of the taxonomies were odd. Things that cut: a penknife and a worked obsidian arrowhead. Round things: a monocle from my dandyish Dutch grandfather, and a vertebra from a fossilised fish. It was my Wunderkammer, my world of things, my secret history of touch.
As a student I came across the list of classifications that Jorge Luis Borges created for animals that belong to the Chinese Emperor: “Embalmed ones, Those that are trained, Suckling pigs, Mermaids (or Sirens), Fabulous ones, Stray dogs, Those that are included in this classification… Those that have just broken the flower vase, Those that, at a distance, resemble flies”. I felt cheerful kinship with the necessary, compulsive idiocy of ordering the world.
And now I look across my studio and am not sure I know how I’ve got to this point. I still don’t collect, but today, a hot July afternoon near a bus garage in West Norwood, I scan a pile of 30 different kinds of paper being prepared for a book project, a folder of medieval scraps of vellum used for binding that I bought cheaply at auction, tests of gilding on porcelain, a box of Chinese shards picked up on a hillside when researching my last book. And all the editions I can find for Robert Walser, as I’m obsessing about his “pencil method”, the way he learned to overcome his writer’s block by discarding a pen and writing in a minute script on scraps of paper. A new category of small unreadable texts appears.
When I was given a box of 400 rulers, I knew it had gone too far
When I was a child I collected things such as football memorabilia and comic books, but my parents threw it all away when I left home. They did a big clear-out of the loft, and my collection of 1970s Nottingham Forest football programmes got binned – which I’m still angry about to this day. But in the late Nineties I started to have some success with my artwork, and in interviews I was asked what I collected. And while I didn’t actually collect them, I just sort of said “rulers”. Because, like all Virgos, I really like stationery.
After I said this, whenever anybody came to the studio they would bring me a ruler as a gift. It gathered its own momentum so that the ruler-giving became a sort of protocol: people would always bring me one. So I started accumulating dozens and dozens of rulers. One young artist – I think I was in Australia – cast me a 31cm ruler out of ceramic. Then I knew that the collection was really going somewhere. Later a neighbour’s father – whom I was friendly with – died, and she gave me his collection of engineering rulers, which are beautiful.
I’m not a very good collector because I don’t really cherish things that much. I always want everything to have a function. Probably only three of my collection are working rulers: you need a metal ruler for cutting straight lines with a scalpel, and then a plastic see-through ruler with markings, and, ideally, a thick one with a slightly bevelled edge for drawing a thick line, because then not too much of the pen goes on the side of the ruler.
A few years ago, it all came to a head. I did an exhibition at a museum in Germany that was sponsored by a large multinational corporation. We had a special opening for the company and they said: “Oh David, we’ve heard that you collect rulers and so we have asked all of our colleagues in all of our 500 branches worldwide to send you a ruler.” They presumably did it by courier – it probably cost thousands and thousands of pounds, more than it did for them to sponsor the exhibition. But then it turned out that they seem to use the same ruler throughout the company, so I had many identical wooden rulers, each with a message from someone written on it: Daryl in Boise, Idaho, saying “Hi David, good luck with your exhibition”. There were, I think, between 400 and 500 rulers and they presented them in a massive box. After that I thought: “Right, I’ve got to knock this on the head.”
I’ve let it be known that I collect scissors now.
My 35 years of amassing suffragette stuff has not been in vain
In 1983, my wife, Margaret Forster, was working on a book called Significant Sisters about women who changed the world for other women. At Christmas that year I gave her what I thought was a really ace present – the autographs of the Pankhursts, mother and two daughters, and got them framed
“Why would I want that?” she said. “Autographs are meaningless. I am not interested.”
Sod you, I thought. So ungrateful. I will just keep them myself. I went on to collect around a thousand items of suffragette history – newspapers, postcards, badges, letters, documents.
I have always been a keen collector, usually managing to work some of my treasures as illustrations into a book of my own, but my suffragette collection has been a private thing, for my amusement. I have been particularly amused when suffragette postcards I was paying £8 for in the 1980s now go for £100. I blame all the feminist historians.
This year at last some of my material has turned out to be useful. Our daughter Caitlin has done a book about the history of Holloway Prison and I was able to provide her with suffragette letters written from it. So 35 years of quietly collecting suffragette stuff has not been in vain.
Aged 11, in my moon landing scrapbook I was struggling to report what mattered
There it is in my very best handwriting: “I am very grateful that this wonderful event should happen in my lifetime. I was precisely 11 years, 0 months, 1 day old. My brother was about 10 years 4 months.” The event was the moon landing, though I now wonder at how I was so obsessed with it as to make a scrapbook about it but somehow didn’t know the actual age of my own brother.
Well… I was 11. And I had my priorities. This wasn’t a school project. No one else I knew cared much about the moon landing but I was utterly fixated. Space travel is in your blood. Every penny I got was spent on newspapers so that I could clip cuttings. I wrote “Moon” over and over on the cover. I wrote it on the desk at school and had to explain myself to the headmaster.
The only person who indulged me was my grandad. My mum was at work or out and my moon phase was just another sign of me being odd. Now, though, I love the yellowed cuttings as they bring back the wonder of the times. Of particular fascination to me were moon germs and contamination. The astronauts had to be quarantined. The headlines are telling: “Man on the Moon and the Russian robot is just 10 miles up”. There is a lot about the 2am moonwalk: “It’s good country for golf,” said Neil Armstrong. “The End of a Moon Dream”, reads another headline; “Back to Mother” – as they linked back with the mother ship. No wonder I was hooked. It stills seems miraculous to me.
“The moonmen landed upside down,” I breathlessly recorded. I didn’t start doing journalism till I was 30 – and my dreams of being an astronaut were slightly hampered by actually being an unsporting girl from Ipswich – but I can see in that scrapbook that I was struggling to report what mattered. The moon rock, the bacteria. “They were completely baffled by it,” I wrote. It stuck to nearly everything it touched. “More and more people had to be quarantined – 24 including a woman!”
The significance of the moment was not lost on me: “ ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ – that, that was the greatest moment the history of the world has ever known” .
Never knowingly understated, I still like that second “that”.
I sometimes worry my house will collapse under the weight of its memorabilia
There was a secret box next to my bed where I kept my scrapbook. Everything would go in there. Postcards, feathers, bus tickets. I even preserved part of a packet of fig rolls that my friend had shoplifted from an ice cream kiosk on the South Coast. The yellow plastic oozed fear and illegitimacy. At night I’d sit and look at the art on the postcards, imagining myself in the scenes. As I passed the age of seven or so the choice of cards themselves became more artful. Now I imagined myself painting each one; I’d critique my new styles – one night art deco, the next high-Victorian or high-kitsch. Eventually I started to copy them – and collect the copies of the collections.
But that secret box was just one of many. There was a tin can for first love letters; a china dog where badges were stored; a wicker basket for odd leg-warmers. I think I might have been inspired by my darling dad, who was the only child of a single mother in the 1920s, who died young. Aged just 16, orphan Pa had to find work in Coventry as a trainee draughtsman – and within a month was bombed in the Blitz. The single thing that survived the assault was his six-inch metal ruler. That ruler has always sat in a pot on the table next to his chair – the talisman of an age.
I still can’t bear to throw anything away. All objects feel to me to be freighted with stories – of others and of my own. I sometimes indulge an irrational fear that my house is going to collapse under the weight of its memories and memorabilia. But then neuroscientists now tell us we are creatures of memory – that we carry memory right across our brains and rely on past ideas, experiences, impressions to generate new thoughts. So perhaps the collections of the past survive as foundations for the creation of our futures. And dust.
Bettany Hughes’s latest book, “Istanbul: a Tale of Three Cities”, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
I held my first Roman coin in my palm and felt the weight of history – I was hooked
One of the frustrations – as well as the fascinations – of writing about ancient history is the need to make sense of occasionally gaping holes in the evidence.
To write about notorious monsters such as Caligula or Nero, as I was doing four years ago, is to be dependent on sources that are overwhelmingly hostile. Fortunately, though, the challenge of seeing such emperors as they themselves wished to be seen is not insuperable. We may not have histories of their reigns written by fans; but we do have their coins.
Numismatics opened up a slippery slope that I had never before thought to descend. Googling a coin that portrayed Caligula in front of a long-vanished temple might well take me to a scholarly monograph; but it might just as readily lead me to a website offering it up for sale. The realisation that I could own material evidence as well as read about it affected me much as the first smell of a joint might an innocent teenager. It was not long before I took the plunge. My first coin was a golden aureus of Nero. In his portrait he looked fat, heavy-jowled – rather like the Trump baby blimp. To hold it in my palm was to feel the literal weight of history. I was hooked.
A hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins: “evidence for the very beginnings of England”
Roman coins, though, were to prove merely my gateway drug. It was writing a biography of Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, that introduced me to the ultimate high. His reign was the centrepiece of one of the most significant periods in all of British history. Over the span of less than a century – from the 870s to the 950s – a succession of astonishingly able men (and one woman) succeeded in redeeming the kingdom of Wessex from seemingly certain ruin, and fashioning a whole new kingdom: England. It was a heroic and momentous feat of state-building; and yet one that not even the English know very much about.
The story can seem too complex, the sources too moth-eaten, the physical evidence too lacking. Except – of course – for the coins.
To hold them is to see stamped on delicate silver evidence for the very beginnings of England: for how Alfred or Athelstan wished to be seen; for how they understood their duties; for how they organised their realm. Most prized of all the coins that I have in my burgeoning collection is one that seems to me the nearest thing that England has to a birth certificate. Commissioned by Æthelflæd – the daughter of Alfred and aunt of Athelstan, who planted towns across the Midlands and led her warriors against the Vikings – it is decorated with a tower. Scholars disagree as to what precisely this portrays: perhaps a church, perhaps the bulwark of a gate. In reality, though, it hardly matters: for what it indisputably symbolises is a project of urban regeneration. Touching it, I feel like Gollum: I know what it is to own a Precious.
All my life I secretly envied collectors. Deep within, I suspected I lacked the essential requirements to become a collector: a sense of continuity, a remarkable consistency, an attachment to a place (or to a memory) and faith in progress and faith in the future. I thought of “the art of collecting stuff” as a belief system unique to people who were settled.
My life had always been peripatetic. I was born in Strasbourg in France, then moved with my mother to Ankara in Turkey. At the age of ten, I was living in Madrid and Spanish had become my second language. Later on, Mum and I moved to Jordan and Germany before returning to Ankara. In my early twenties, I uprooted myself once again, and came to Istanbul. I always thought of myself as a nomad, but I could see that as inspiring as this lifestyle was for art, it was tiring and lonely for the artist.
I lived in Boston, Michigan, Arizona, writing a novel in each, and then returned to Istanbul. Then, urged by my children, I managed to settle down in London, where I felt free as a woman, as a writer, as a citizen of the world. During and after the Brexit referendum it made me sad to see that the leading figures of the Leave campaign had little appreciation for the embracing diversity of London, which made me (and thousands of latecomers like me) feel welcome and at home.
All through my nomadic years, I lamented not being able to keep a growing library. When I was in Michigan I had shelves of books in Istanbul waiting to be transferred; when I was in Istanbul I had boxes of books in Arizona. Sometimes, in the midst of writing an article or a novel, I would want to refer to a book that I had read years ago, find that crucial quote, and yet the book I needed so desperately would be somewhere else. It made me a better reader, perhaps, and it improved my memory, knowing that I could not keep at hand even the most beloved books.
In my own clumsy way, I tried to become a collector of different things. In Ankara as a little girl, I had postcards from all over the world. In Istanbul for a while I was interested in late 19th-century photographs, most of which had been taken in studios by artists, travellers or orientalist scholars. In Boston I collected leaves in the shades of autumn. In Arizona I had stones from the desert and the Grand Canyon. More than a collection, all of this amounted to a collage of ideas, memories and fragments that might have been close to Walter Benjamin’s heart. But these objects were lost in my travels. I knew I did not own them: they had their own destiny, their own journey.
Objects do not belong to people. They belong to their stories. In the end, that is exactly what I am drawn to: stories. And because a storyteller is also interested in the things we cannot easily talk about – including political, cultural and sexual taboos – I am also drawn to silences.
That’s what I collect: stories and silences.
Images: Douglas Kirkland/Corbis via Getty, Phil Knott/Camera Press, Peter MacDiarmid/Getty
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special