Featured image: My old Nintendo 64, which still generates precious nostalgia for me.
Welcome to my whimsical tale about things I value—things I’ve accumulated over the years—material possessions, junk, tat. Now, I like to think I’m a reasonable guy—a rational-thinking physicist, at least. So how do things hold any real value? Well, to me, they matter; and I can’t seem to let go of many moments in my life through them.
My continued possession of reproducible stuff makes me an overly sentimental fool—a romanticist—I guess. I collect football shirts from places I’ve visited from all around the world. I still possess a small bottle of red resin (‘dragon’s blood’) I took from the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador in 2009. A bean I picked from a coffee plant growing on the humid hills of Juayúa, El Salvador, in 2017 sits on my kitchen counter. Meanwhile, I drink coffee from antiquated moka pots, which I’ve adored since the times I spent in Italy drinking espresso. A pencil I acquired during game of golf abroad resides in my golf bag, inexplicably untouched, having never scratched against another scorecard.
I hold onto birthday cards. Trophies and medals, embellished with sheens of pride, adorn my furniture along with certificates of achievement, which decorate my bedroom wall.
I don’t let go of old books and notes, even if I’ll never read them again. I can probably access better information online.
I was devastated to learn that my original birth certificate was stolen from my old apartment’s mailbox. It had only faintly borne information about my birth, my parents, and the the new home I was born into, with unity and continuity—but, tattered and dilapidated, though it was, it was an original document. I can buy an objectively better one online and I’ve been reimbursed the £11 to do so. But, still, I am not consoled.
‘Things’ doesn’t have to mean ‘material objects’, either. I still love to explore the worlds housed in my Nintendo 64 games, which formed parts of my present-day imagination. I frequented their landscapes as an explorative prepubescent boy and relish going back. I curate photo albums and music playlists and other immaterial objects, like many other people do, to remind me of good times gone by.
So, here: come and peer at what else sits in my absurd collection of things.
My gig mementos.
I’ll start here: I have a bag hidden in the corner of my bedroom—a bin liner, no less—which is filled with gig mementos from over the years.
I love music and this bag, which is spilling with folded card of fading ink, contains paper odes to my most-precious live experiences of it. Mixed with these now-useless tickets is a thin, amorphous pool of festival wristbands, which I used to collect on my wrist and wear for years. They didn’t look or smell good at the time and they look worse for wear now.
The bag itself is bursting and covered in dust. Still, I conceal mementos in it to keep them safe—so I know where they are. I’m not sure why.
These mementos are just cheap, printed-out placeholders for tangible worth they had when I bought them from ticket suppliers, who charged me extortionate ‘handling fees’ to have them printed out for me. I then exchanged them for two or three hours’ enjoyment on the night of the gig, the details of which I usually mostly forget.
For moments are transient; and memory, totally imperfect, erodes and is never faithful to the original events. Nonetheless, I wish to embody them and somehow make them last. I can’t cling onto them since nothing will prevent moments from passing. I can only create new moments; and, after, again, not let go of those either.
My Che Guevara shirt.
I’m thankful for the things Mum did for me—and still does—as a single mother of five.
When I was 18 years old she went on a trip to Cuba by herself. She returned with a shirt imprinted with the instantly recognisable face of Che Guevara in her possession. It was for me.
I fetishised socialism at that age. Imagine how much I treasured an authentically Cuban shirt from Fidel Castro’s socialist Cuba! I still keep it in my shirt drawer.
What made this shirt authentically Cuban? I ask myself still. The shirt was probably one of millions manufactured at the time, all in mass production, to be sold to tourists who were funnelled down the same streets and exposed to the same markets.
I probably could have obtained a similar shirt from another country, woven together with the same kind of fabric in the same kind of way and imprinted with the same Che Guevara template.
But these facts are immaterial to me. Another shirt wouldn’t have been this shirt—a Che Guevara shirt that my mum purchased, just for me, within Cuba’s borders and packed and returned to the UK. It has identity: she chose that one.
My alarm clocks.
I’m generally a nostalgic person. I, therefore, keep tokens as symbols.
Absurdly, I still have alarm clocks programmed into my phone from joyous times away with my friends—the ringing at 02:30 woke me for a pre-Dublin trip to the casino, while the sounds at 00:20 initiated a stag do in Kiev in 2019. I’m aware that the only identities retained in these alarm clocks are the instructions to store and display them: I’ve had different phones for them. More fundamentally, the electrons used to code them never even have definite locations; how is there any fixed electronic memory at all?
Erasing these tokens wouldn’t take away the moments themselves—they’ve passed already—but some part of me would erode. Their identities are real; the meanings I attach to them are real.
Your objects mean nothing to me
Calamity Jane (Doris Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) long for a return to the 'Black Hills of Dakota' through song in Calamity Jane (1953). The song exudes romanticism of South Dakota's Black Hills—mounds of rock which transform into objects of beauty for the film's singing subjects. (Warner Bros.)
So what do you care deeply about?
Tell me you’ve never brought anything back from holiday in its memory, or held onto Pokémon or football stickers or birthday cards or antiques, or continue to collect butterflies or sea shells or coins or stamps or scotch whiskeys.
I meet people still collecting vinyl records, when digital music is more-widely available and cheaper and often provides the same-quality with music. But don’t let my cold rationality block your analogue nostalgia. I used to love collecting CDs. I only recently stopped.
Earlier this month I went to a Shakespeare play at a famous London theatre, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not usually my thing, though. I noticed that people flocked to the gift shop before and after the show. There were shirts with the venue’s name printed on them and themed postcards and mugs. The shop reminded me of the tat tourists buy in Camden and Central London—Union Jack-emblazoned souvenirs and ‘I Love London’ attire—before visiting ‘Platform 9¾’ in King’s Cross St Pancras.
Sometimes I feel like mocking these people: how can people spend so much money on meaningless tat! But then again, in conflict, I think: I’m no different. In my derision I am being elitist. My things aren’t somehow better. In fact, weeks earlier I bought a band tee from a gig I thoroughly enjoyed. I also purchased a 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) magnet from the Design Museum during a Staley Kubrick exhibition in the summer. So we both collect meaningful experiences as physical tokens. We display them. They contribute to our identities.
Meeting a crisp Autumn morning with absurdity at a car boot sale in Winchester: In 2019's autumnal period I attended a car-boot sale I routinely visited in my youth. A lady plays her harp, which I find eerie, as I see the same man, my dad's friend, selling burgers from same burger van as two decades ago. People are predominantly middle-aged and older but there are also children. I returned not for nostalgia but for practical reasons. But the climate is eerie. I felt suddenly moved as I saw people selling their once-meaningful possessions as discardable junk, letting go of their past lives, possibly very reluctantly: they held onto them for so long. But, at sunset's signal, it's just stuff—collections of ages gone by—atoms and empty space, styled purposefully, valued and revalued over lifetimes but still just objects whose value faded in the end. If it doesn't shift hands today, it'll turn into trash or, at best, be recycled. An age of cluttering basements and attics has been spent.
The standards we live by have been contrived by us, as a society, into an ongoing genealogy; what’s valuable now may be a relic in the future. Museums and other public galleries serve these bygone eras. Yet we form the audiences: value is ultimately defined by us and what constitutes value is boundless. Specificity is the source of rarity: even unique things are only special in virtue of something specific in us.
So your physical possessions and your immaterial tokens may seem absurd to me and perhaps mine to you; but both contain immeasurable worth.
A theory of life
A stricken Hank (Dean Norris) found solace in collecting rocky minerals in Breaking Bad. How? (Sony Pictures)
Things are replaceable—you could swap my possessions when I’m away and I probably wouldn’t notice—but please don’t. They give me something. I keep my late father’s lighters and drinking glasses, which he collected from around the world, for this reason. A giant straw hat he brought home from China, from when he was working in Suzhou at the turn of the New Millennium, hangs on a wall still. I visit his grave, too—well, why? Every 365.2422 days another blow is delivered—for what? This susceptibility I have about him makes birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas difficult to bear but they’re just fleeting moments. I say what’s meaningful to me.
I am sentimental. I claim that I’m reasonable; yet, very unreasonably, I smother myself in the meaning of my possessions. I am afraid to admit all of this, though, because I irrationally fear losing the things I value. These are tokens of my life—and I know they’re useless, in the pragmatic sense of the word, but I like to keep them close to me and know where they are, however futile this may sound, for a sense of permanence.
Existential responses, for all of us, don’t have to be intelligible to be meaningful: they’re anchored to the emotions of being and we can’t help them. The process of letting go is not optional. We collect things in defiance, like pharaohs taking prized positions to their tombs in death and mortal life, dreaming of an afterlife.
Why are we like this?
A dying Oliver Sachs once wrote the following pertinent and poignant passage, which continues to move me:
I relate to this so much. A life without meaning, while rational and grounded in common sense, is hollow and robotic. I can’t favour that. In my deprivation of God and objectivity I accept the trepidation of defining what meaning is to myself. This is what freedom means.
We care about permanence. When we strip questions down to their bare bones what underlies our motivations? As long as we’re alive, I think, there’s desperate hope of permanent sedimentation onto the world—of real, ongoing values being left behind when we go. We thrive when we grow. But when growth is stunted and mortality hits us we have to find ways to make our value last. So we connect ourselves to things—particular objects in the world—certain people, ideologies, memories, specific possessions.
I fret in fear of tragedy when I feel optimistic. I look forward to handing a gift to someone dear to me just in case I am suddenly and fatally stricken. I’m scared to fly just in case everything I’ve worked for goes to waste after I die in the crash. I don’t want to talk about how things won’t last forever anyway—who will store them and save them from decay?—but being ill or flying only expedite the process of my befalling.
I fear death
Not for what is
Yet to come,
But for battles never won,
And for things left undone.
There is some real philosophy to all of this: terror management theory. That is, existence is underpinned by our awareness of death, which ‘exerts a profound influence on diverse aspects of human thought, emotion, motivation, and behaviour’. We have to maintain faith in the permanence of things to consider ourselves as beings of ongoing value and worth (through self-esteem): we live through the significance of our own lives, with organismic heroism and egotism specific to our species, where the illusions of permanence our things provide serve as evidence to ourselves.
I am fortunate that I have so much to care about in this life. My dearly held possessions embody the positive influence decent people and joyous experiences have had on me. They buffer my death-related anxiety: they confer value and worth to me and I am defiant by extracting meaning from them in their permanence. From infancy to death, they embody the condition of my life. I will die gripping onto them.