Shopping Travel Special: Mugs from Tunbridge, donkeys from Majorca - memories are made of this

I blame the Vikings and Francis Drake. If only the Vikings hadn't been so keen on pillaging and looting when they weren't raping, and Francis Drake hadn't set the fashion of swapping cheap trinkets for gold, the souvenir business would not be in the terminally tatty state in which we find it today. Does anybody know, incidentally, what the difference is between pillaging and looting? Or were the Vikings just being tautological between rapes?

Anyway, the Vikings looted, then Drake sailed the world making Britain rich by his shrewd commercialism, and the rest of the world have been getting their own back ever since by selling their cheap trinkets for our hard-earned gold. And we fall for it every time.

Souvenir-hunting - which is, after all, only the PC term for pillaging - all comes down to man's insatiable desire to own things. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we want to take a bit of it home with us. So the intrepid British traveller cannot tear himself away from the shores of Majorca without taking with him something that symbolizes its idyllic values: a stuffed donkey and one of those stupid conical bottles with a hole in the point that lets you pour cheap vino tinto down your t-shirt while everyone is singing Viva Espana.

And what happens to those bottles? They sit at home on the mantelpiece for months until someone lurches for the "Present from Majorca" ashtray next to them and knocks both onto the floor where they are shattered into a thousand pieces. Ole!

Once taken out of the natural habitat of the souvenir shop, souvenirs lose all their interest. Look at the most valuable souvenir to come up for auction in recent years: a hand-written page of a draft of George Washington's inaugural address. There were 31 sheets of the speech that Washington distributed to eager souvenir hunters in 1789. And how many have survived? Just 14 - the others, presumably, were used to write shopping lists on the back, or put into the wash when they got home along with the "I love [heart] Washington" sweat shirts. The recently discovered 14th page only survived because it had been stuffed down the back of a sofa all those years.

Souvenir: from the French souvenir, remember; which in turn comes from the Latin subvenire, to come into the mind, but whatever is it that comes into our minds when we buy a garish mug with the legend "A Present from Majorca" stencilled on it? It's not even as though we've fallen prey to a modern marketing gimmick. In 1852 Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, mentions "A mug with 'A Present from Tunbridge Wells' on it" and Rudyard Kipling, in 1890, refers to: "a china mug wi' gold letters - 'A Present from Leeds' ". Presents from Everywhere have been with us for a century and a half, and we still go on buying them. And the cheap models of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, and Taj Mahal biscuit tins and the famous Leaning Tower of Canary Bloody Wharf.

That's only the legally acquired souvenirs. As Russell Ash's Top Ten of Everything records, the favoured items for klepto-souvenirists to pinch from hotel rooms are towels, teaspoons, ashtrays, pictures, bathrobes, hairdriers, kettles, televisions, ornaments and glasses, in that order. At Ronnie Kray's wake last year, souvenir-hunters were even spotted trying to nick toilet rolls. You can just see them back home ushering guests into the loo and explaining in reverential tones that Ronnie himself might have wiped his bum on an earlier sheet from the roll. Forget "Now wash your hands please", this is the genuine "A Present from Gangland".

Personally, I always buy something genuinely useful as a souvenir. After a pleasant trip to Sweden a few years ago, I decided on an elegant Swedish glass pepper-grinder. Back home, I discovered that it was in fact plastic and made in Birmingham. Come to think of it, it was probably Denmark and not Sweden anyway. That's the real trouble with souvenirs: you forget where they are meant to remind you of.

Presents from Paris: Eiffel Tower statues await the tourists.

Photo: B & S Photography

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