Shopping Travel Special: Mugs from Tunbridge, donkeys from Majorca - memories are made of this
Saturday 13 July 1996
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
Life & Style blogs
Persistent heartburn 'could be a sign of cancer', new survey warns
Losing appetite as you age? Try adding umami flavour to restore the 'joy of taste'
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
Apple stopped a fingerprint scanner from appearing in Google’s Nexus 6
SAG Awards 2015: Best and worst gowns on the red carpet
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
30,000 reasons why the rhetoric on immigrants claiming benefits can stop now
- 1 Asteroid narrowly scrapes past Earth: how to watch the closest space rock for decades as it flies by
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
- 5 Watch Richard Dawkins read his own hatemail: 'I hope you do get sodomised by satanic monkeys in hell'
£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...
£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...
£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...
£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...