I have always been a collector. Almost by accident, things follow me home and are cheerfully hoarded, no reason for their existence in my life apart from that I’d found them. Old postcards, to pore over the messages written on the back. Green glass bottles, found on the beach. A broken typewriter, bought instead of the milk on the shopping list. I’m not a naturally tidy person, but every so often, I attempt to clean up my life, Marie-Kondo style. I vow to put all my ephemera into neat scrapbooks, organise my drawers into piles of perfectly functional items. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing – if I can order my external world properly, my internal world might follow? Tidy house = tidy mind, right?
I go through phases, taking a few days to furiously organise, recycle, donate. My room transforms, from curiosity shop to show room. But inevitably, the tide rises; the bowls of shells and rocks and loose change multiply, the shelves are filled with old magazines, photographs, notes from friends. It’s not so much a capitalist impulse, a desperate need for the latest desirable, but a compulsive thing, to collect as I move, to fill pockets with sea-glass, or take an offered flyer from someone on the street. On my latest purge, I found a tray of tiny sample perfume bottles. I have no idea when I was given them, how they ended up there, why I never got rid of them. They’re gone now, except for one. The cycle begins again.
Museums and archives are, unsurprisingly, my favourite places visit. I love the unfiltered things that survive, the things that no-one ever imagined would be preserved. The V&A in London holds a pair of bishop’s socks from the fourth century (they have a divided toe, to be rocked with sandals). Many of St Andrews’ rare books are covered in sweary marginalia, penned by feuding students. Stockholm hosts the ABBA museum. The instinct for preservation is universal, it seems.
Part of me would like to live more tidily, to become less sentimental about the random objects I find. I think my jumble might be a little genetic (my grandmother, when she died, left us her own impressive museum of things). But I also think that our pocketed objects, and the stories they contain, can be a way to stay tethered to the world. I often feel like I’m not quite earthbound. My collected things help to remind me of my own material presence, that I exist, and that other people exist, too. Especially in a pandemic, where we live so isolated from what feels like a previous life, the little things I’ve accumulated help to remind me that, once upon a time, I interacted properly other people, that my days were open and connected and full of experience, rather than pure mundanity. It makes me feel small, in a good way.
When I was very little, maybe five or so, we visited a castle in Cornwall, and I chose a set of metal figurines, of a medieval princess, an archer, a knight, a king. I threw them into the grass and pretended to discover them, like an archaeologist. But the earth was soft after rain, and they must have sunken into the ground, because I couldn’t find them again. I was distraught at the time, guilty for losing them, aware of their existence away from me. I wondered if they were found, and pocketed, and brought home. I hope so. I hope they live on a shelf, somewhere, lined up in a small, shining row, remaining there for no reason other than that they were found.