Collect Sunsets 2

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Alongside our national obsession with collecting, there is the lingering suspicion that the accumulating urge is a form of miserliness, a dead end for “pale enthusiasts”; in short, philately gets you nowhere.

Freud thought that an obsession with curios reflected “abnormality, sexual impotence and personal failure”. In their classic punk rant The Boy Looked at Johnny, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill put it another way, insisting that collecting “makes you fat and old”. Then again, Freud collected more than 2,000 classical antiquities.

The problem with an activity that is, by definition, endless, is knowing when to stop, as the Collyer brothers discovered, too late. Over several decades, Homer and Langley Collyer filled their Fifth Avenue home with the largest and oddest collection of tat ever assembled, including umbrellas, guns, glass chandeliers, 14 pianos, human organs in pickle jars, X-ray machines, rakes, millions of books and every newspaper they had ever read. Langley was crawling along a newspaper tunnel inside the house in 1947 when he accidentally set off his own booby trap and was crushed by several huge bundles of newsprint. Trapped inside this monument to human accumulation, Homer starved to death. Along with the bodies, police removed 130 tonnes of collectibles.

I lugged my collections to New York, Paris and Washington when I changed jobs, collecting new ones on the way: a peculiar assortment of Victorian leather medicine balls; an array of antique French shutters; a set of American 1950s ice-cream adverts on painted tin. More bloody books.
And then, a few weeks ago, I suddenly realised that I had stopped, without realising it. I could not remember the last thing I had collected. Not one of my collections was complete, but I was sated. Partly this was the work of the internet, where the serendipitous pleasure of discovery has been replaced with merely finding what you are after, and then paying for it; eBay has made collecting too easy. Why hunt, when a search engine has already found what you want? Why add another book to the shelf, when you can download it?

I am a recovering collector, but I have also, inadvertently, started a new collection. My elder son’s bedroom is mosaiced by the largest collection of bottletops in North London. The younger one has an expanding forest of cacti stretching across the floor.

I now have a collection of collectors, and I can stop.


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