Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Sigmund Freud once said that collecting artefacts around us fulfilled a human need.
I think we all gather memorabilia from an early age - first it is our old toys, then presents from friends, holiday souvenirs, and so it goes on until by middle age (whenever that is) we have got shelves of the stuff.
I like this "clutter" because each piece holds a memory for me. I pick it up and think of the occasion - a paperweight fromn Malta, a bull's head from Salamanca. Each piece holds its own story.
The piece of faience in the picture holds a poignant story.
The year is 1947 and two young men in their early twenties meet at Art College and become friends. One is a frail young man, Mark, with quite severe health problems; the other, Malcolm, is a returned prisoner-of-war. He had been a "Band Boy" in the East Surrey Regiment, and had been sent to Shanghai in 1938. Taken prisoner by the Japanese shortly before his seventeenth birthday, he had spent the war on the infamous Death Railway in Thailand, suffering intermittent bouts of dysentry cholera, typhoid, pelagra, leg ulcers, beri-beri cerebral malaria and all manner of other indignities. Many times he had almost died but he had survived and at the end of hostilities was airlifted to Bangalore in India where he spent six months in hospital before being repatriated, discharged from the army on health grounds and sent home.
In the summer of 1947 these two young men decided to spend several weeks cycling round the Lincolnshire Wolds with easels and canvasses, camping out and painting.
On the first day of their holiday they came to the Lincolnshire village of Hemingby, where they found a suitable field and went to the house to ask permission to camp there. And that was how they met the two Misses Atkins, middleaged spinsters who ran a small farm with hens, ducks and a house cow. They had lived in the village all their lives.
The two men never moved on. For the duration of their holiday they camped in the field, set up their easels and painted every day, sketched, drank in the pub every evening, and had their meals provided - free of charge - by these two dear ladies. They were plied with fresh eggs, home grown vegetables, milk, butter, cream, cheese - all given to them with pleasure. For three weeks they pottered about the place, making friends with the villagers, helping with small jobs on the farm and eating very well.
Five years later, when Malcolm married, a small box arrived for him. Inside, wrapped in many sheets of newspaper was this small Victorian Hair Tidy - Quimper pottery from Brittany, dated 1896. There was a note attached, which read "Have a long and happy life."
And we did, until his death in 1991. Every time I look at this pretty little hair tidy I am reminded of those two gentle village ladies, now long dead, who kick-started a very broken and damaged young man on the road to recovery with their kindness.