That Which is Old

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!

Time.

IMG_0033The 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.

Time.

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.

Advertisements

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of the recently released novel "Lords of Misrule" about jihad in the Sahara. Joel has also written "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio".
This entry was posted in Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s