Confessions of an Incidental Collector

Last week I attended the funeral of Mrs J, the beautiful and much loved mother of one of my oldest friends. Thinking about Mrs J three things immediately sprung to mind. Orchids (she was a renowned grower with many pots of different colours and varieties), knitted dolls (she was a prolific knitter and knitted dolls for grandchildren) and salt and pepper shakers, because years ago the wall unit in the “J” family home housed a huge collection of salt and pepper shakers of every shape and size.

Remembering that collection made me reflect on my own collections over the years. In my teens and early twenties I made a serious effort at collecting matchboxes, women’s fashion magazines and, for a solid decade, Vanity Fair magazine.

None of these collections still exist, or at least they don’t exist in the same form. A lack of storage space at various times in my life caused me to say goodbye to all but a handful of the fashion magazines, to relegate my Vanity Fair magazines to boxes in my garage, and to get rid of about 90 per cent of my matchboxes, only keeping a handful of my favourites in a bowl on the coffee table and some of the Redheads, which I framed.

bowl containing various matchboxes including Greek Michelin tyres, Gnome, Frida Kahlo, Vogue Johnny Walker whisky, and Automatic Restauranta white box frame containing nine different Redheads matchboxes

These days I sort of collect bookmarks. I say ‘sort of’ because despite collecting them since I was a child, I don’t really put much of an effort into it. It’s only been in the past decade that it’s really kicked off; I’ve added bookmarks picked up on my travels and coincidentally received a few as gifts. They’re flat and lightweight so they don’t take up much space in your suitcase nor, importantly, when you get them home.

bookmarks of varying sizes and styles scattered on the floor

I did think bookmarks were my only active collection. Then I remembered my movie ticket collection. Since I was about 19 I have been collecting my cinema tickets. I’m not sure why I started, but I did and now I have over two decades’ worth of movie tickets in a small cardboard box.

The movie tickets box sits atop my collection of MTC theatre programs. I’ve bought a program from every play I’ve seen since the late 1980s. I’ve got nearly 100 programs. Needless to say inside each program is my ticket from the play.

When I opened the tickets box to photograph it I realised it came with several other mini collections inside it: concert, opera and ballet tickets (no programs for these: too expensive). And sporting event tickets.

a box containing used cinema tickets with more tickets scattered around it

But wait, there’s more. There was a little plastic wallet in the box that held a mini collection of Australian dollar and Greek drachma notes (no longer in use), and, inexplicably, some stamps. And a 50 cent coin or two. A wee mini collection that I’d totally forgotten about, stored within another collection.

Of course that reminded me of my foreign coin collection, kept in a small ceramic jar from Greece. It holds coins from places I’ve been to and a few I haven’t been to. Another mini collection.

Australian one dollar note, two dollar note and Greek 50 and 100 drachma notes, stamps (Blinky Bill, Weary Dunlop, Click go the Shears), 50 cent coinscattered coins of different sizes and metals from Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States

There’s more too. On the same bookshelf that holds my theatre programs and bookmarks there’s my collection of … well, I guess you could call them little toys. Mostly they’re things I’ve picked up travelling, like the beaver soft toy from Vancouver, or the yo-yo from Cordoba. Within this collection I have a little sub-collection of small spinning tops, too.

Despite being a keyring, the Canadian beaver doesn’t live with the other keyrings I’ve collected (only a handful, honestly). They hang blue-tacked on the inside of one of my kitchen cupboards. Does this location make sense? No, it doesn’t. But I’ve come to realise that nothing much about what and why I collect things makes sense.

And still there are more small collections. I’ve got about a dozen decks of cards collected on my travels or received as gifts from friends who have travelled. When I took these out to look at them I discovered my old collection of pins and badges which used to adorn an oft-worn denim jacket in my uni days but now sit in a wooden box in the cupboard in my study.

Selection of small toys including Elvis Mr Potato Head, spinning tops, a robot, a small plane, figurines of a knight, king and jester, yo-yo and plush beaver

Oh and my marbles. I still have all the marbles I played with as a kid (cue countless jokes about not losing one’s marbles). Is this a collection? I would’ve said no except a few months ago I bought three very beautiful marbles and added them to the bag. So I’m going to say yes, it’s a collection.

I’m not including here my many collections of practical things that get used, or have had a practical use. Things that I just have a lot of, for example: bathers, scarves, handbags, cardigans, embroidered linen, books, cds, cookbooks, postcards, diaries.

I’m not even including the many other memento collections I have from my travels: the fridge magnets, the artworks or other wall hangings, the wee kitsch things that sit on my kitchen window sill.

selection of small spinning tops, some made of wood, others metal and plastic

Though even these things have something in common with all my other small collections, and that is that they haven’t really been put together with much intent. They’re all incidental collections.

I don’t go out of my way to collect things. I just happen to buy them or receive them or pick them up for free every now and again. Then I hold onto them. And I don’t often let go.

You could say I’ve curated the objects of my life into little groups that make sense to me. I guess the only thing I actively collect, then, is little wee collections.

scattered marbles of different colours and sizes

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Surviving Teenage Friendship

A few weeks ago I went to see MTC’s brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible.

Abigail Williams, a woman in her mid-teens who has been scorned by her older, married lover, wreaks her vengeance by accusing most of the women and some of the men in the village of witchcraft. But it’s not just Abigail. A number of her friends follow her lead and parrot Abigail’s accusations.

In a pivotal scene, Mary Warren, one of the older girls who has been persuaded to finally tell the truth, succumbs to Abigail’s control again and re-joins her group of wilful hysterics. How does Abigail exert her control? By turning her accusatory finger against Mary. It’s a classic example of “If you’re not with us, you must be against us”. In teenage friendship, it’s a powerful tactic of manipulation.

Loyalty emerges as the paramount proof of true friendship when you hit your teens. As you assert your independence from your parents and look to your peers for acceptance and validation, loyalty is the key way to express your new allegiance. At that age, however, loyalty is often expressed through emulation, which is demanded by teenagers who need to have their choices validated, such as those teens who don’t get validation from any of the adults in their life.

If you copy me, you clearly cannot judge me as you will be tainted by the same brush by your own actions.

This is something that Miller captures perfectly in his scenes with the teenage girls, though peer pressure doesn’t always come with a giant signpost and neon-lit arrow. More often than not it plays out in subtle ways, in casual conversations between teens. “You shouldn’t feel so hung up about [insert questionable or risky behaviour here].” “I don’t know why you’re so worried about doing it, I’ve done it a million times.”

The fear of being rejected by the friend who demands emulation is all-powerful. Teens don’t want to be thought of as childish or fearful, and most importantly they don’t want to be rejected and ostracised from the group. Those doing the manipulating know how to leverage that fear and do so to get what they need.

At the end of The Crucible, Abigail Williams absconds, leaving destruction in her wake and abandoning her friends to their own fate.

If you copy me, I will feel better about myself. Oh and by the way, I don’t really care about the consequences for you.

This scenario plays out in teenage friendships all the time – it’s certainly in stories I hear from my nieces and godson – but as you get older, you slowly learn how to navigate through other people’s emotional needs in a more mature way, without sacrificing your own values and surrendering your personal boundaries. You also become more confident. You recognise that showing loyalty is merely being there for your friend and not judging them. You don’t have to copy them. You can be yourself and still keep your friendship.

Provided of course you manage to survive friendship in your teenage years.

The clothes and the man

I went to the theatre last night and there on my seat waiting for me when I arrived was a letter addressed to me. When I opened it later (it was too dark to try to read it in the theatre), I discovered it was a fundraising letter signed by the actor David Wenham, who was starring in the production I saw.

The letter centres on the important role of costumes in theatre and the quality of the costumes at the MTC. “Clothes might not necessarily make the man,” David Wenham says in the letter, “but costumes certainly make the character”.

Funnily enough, that particular quote by Mark Twain, “Clothes make the man”, had come to me earlier in the day as well.

I was at my mum’s house, ostensibly to look through my dad’s clothing to see if I wanted anything before she gave it all away to charity. Actually, I shouldn’t say “all”. Mum told me that she’d already given away Dad’s more casual clothing a while ago, without telling anyone at the time. Now she felt ready to give his formal clothing away too and wanted to know if I wanted anything.

Dad had a beige bomber jacket that I hated when he was alive because it seemed so daggy and he wore it everywhere. Needless to say now that he’s gone I love that stupid jacket because it reminds me of him… ironically exactly because it is so daggy and he wore it everywhere.

When I’d spoken to Mum on the phone before going over I had asked her about the beige jacket but she told me she was going to keep it. I was a little surprised as my mum’s not hugely sentimental, but of course I don’t mind. I’m just happy it’s being kept.

I then asked about one of Dad’s flannel shirts, seeing as he wore them all the time. She explained that she’d given them away, having assumed that we wouldn’t want his old clothes. So I went over to take a look at what was left.

Dad died unexpectedly about a year and a half ago and while it took me a while to accept it, I’ve more or less become reconciled to it these last few months. I thought if anything, I might feel a twinge of sadness when I saw his clothes.

Instead as the wardrobe was flung open and I saw his shirts and jackets and pants hanging there, I was overcome with a thousand memories.

Dad in his blue checked shirt sitting on the back doorstep at Mum and Dad’s with my dog, Gus, and pulling a funny face for the camera. Dad in his green and maroon all-weather jacket, standing at my front door with Mum next to him, visiting in winter. Dad in one of his many pairs of tailored Fletcher Jones pants (his favourite brand) and short sleeved shirts. Dad came to life suddenly in the clothes that he wore when he was here with us.

Tears streamed down my face. In that moment I wanted to keep everything. I was afraid that giving it all away would mean that I would lose those memories forever.

The rational part of me knows that that’s not going to happen. But I asked Mum if we could put it off for a couple of weeks so that I could get my head around it first. We closed the wardrobe and I composed myself.

It was during this whole experience that the quote popped into my head: Clothes make the man. Yes, I thought. They absolutely do.

Except for a moment they also did much more than that. For a moment, just a moment, clothes made the man come back to life. Seated man in blue checked shirt pulling funny face and holding a little dog