Why do we treasure that which is old? The mundane – an earthen bowl purchased for two-pence in an African market; ah but take it from the bottom of the sea, a shipwreck discovered. Priceless, they will call it; setting it carefully upon display in a museum under glass and guard. A cracked teapot, rusted and worn and useless; an old button, a soiled banner from some distant campaign of yore – so many castoffs; but dust them off and place them beside an old lamp and a tired bust of Aristotle – antiques!
The other day I was walking through a market in Accra when I came across an old wooden bowl filled with coins and bank notes from the dark colonial past; ripped and worn. After haggling, we agreed upon a price and they were mine. They must have thought I was mad, those sellers-of-sculptures, of carved diabolical effigies and demon idols from pre-Christianity when men feared rock and snake and sea. Trading good money – money that could be used to fill a hungry belly, purchase school equipment for the thousands of children wandering aimlessly the ungoverned areas of Africa. Exchanging that money for money that time had relegated to a piece of paper, a worn out reminder of other times. Of better times? Of worse times? Who is to say.
Of course for me – as a collector (numanists, they are called – those men overweight and vest-wearing who spend their days at arcane conventions in stained hotel conference rooms drinking cheap wine and discussing serial numbers); OK, not one of those collectors – but a collector nonetheless. For me banknotes are a reminder of history, of the stories of places I have been or want to go and of how things were before they became as they are. And I have many; banknotes with Saddam Hussein’s face on them – Idi Amin’s: my most valuable, Patrice Lumumba’s face across the boldest declaration of his independent Republic of Katanga, their sovereign right to issue currency, brief though it lasted (that one goes for $1000). Germany before the wars; notes printed by imperial Japan to prepare for their occupation of the West Coast of America.
I think of course the answer is found, as all good answers, in fiction: specifically Tolkien:
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.
I am keeping things of mine for my son. I’ve never been much of a collector of other people’s history: it seems somehow arbitrary, how to choose between an old Spanish sword or an Inca pot? To say they are old – collectors looting the museum in Baghdad to display for themselves something they had no part in? No, I’m keeping pieces of my life – such as they are, such as it has been. A Tuareg box with copies of a peace deal I once helped seal; an old constitution printed, proposed and denied and then forgotten, the act of a despot who I fought for a season. First copies of my novels, each of them carefully signed and shelved. Paraphernalia from a life more abundant; a box of my stories which someday I will tell to my boy.
Ah, but if they are kept – after “all things have been devoured” maybe they, too, will become – priceless.