People collect the darndest things.
I know a man called John who collects milk bottles.
My brother started to collect phone cards once, though he seemed to lose interest in it just after he started exploring our family tree.
And I once heard a programme on Radio 4 about the history of chewing gum (Radio 4 loves collecting the darndest ideas) that claimed that there are people out there who collect vintage, classic, historic sticks of gum.
"Oh yeah?" I said to myself in that laconic sub-Bogart way I use to address myself when nobody's listening. "And who do you think is going to keep antique, historic chewing gum lying around long enough for it to get valuable, sweetheart?"
And then I remembered who.
Me, that's who.
When I first went to America as a teenager, which took place so long ago that Eisenhower was still just president, I was amazed by the variety of chewing gum you could get. In Britain the only flavours I had ever seen were spearmint and Juicy Fruit. Mr Wrigley never told us chewers what kind of juicy fruit the chewing gum tasted of, and it was impossible to tell by chewing it. The only thing you cold say about it was that it tasted different from spearmint, at least for the first five minutes.
But in America there was a man called Adams who made chewing gum of a whole rainbow of flavours. There was sour apple, I remember, and there was grape, and I think there was lemon, and there was a chewing gum called Adams's Blackjack, which was liquorice-flavoured. In my salivating memory, Mr Adams made an endless selection of flavoured chewing gum, all of which were dead tasty. In my three teenage months in New York I learned to smoke Philip Morris and I saw Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis in the flesh for the first time, but what I brought back with me was stacks and stacks of Mr Adams's chewing gum, as if I had a presentiment that I would be able to get packets of Philip Morris cigarettes in Britain and Monk and Miles LPs, but never again sour apple gum.
And I was right. In fact, I think I am right in saying that Mr Adams no longer makes his gum – I asked for it the last time I was in the US and no one had heard of it. So when I heard on Radio 4 that people would pay good money for vintage gum, a little needle of memory started pricking at me, and I went to a little drawer full of memorabilia that I hadn't been into for years and rummaged at the bottom of it, and there I found several things dating from that ancient trip, including a packet of Adams's Blackjack Chewing Gum!
I took it out and trembled with excitement. This packet of gum was certifiably 40 years old, at least. It represented memories of New York from another era, so long ago that when I came back from New York I had come back by a scheduled liner crossing. (It was a German ship, the Bremen, on the North German Lloyd Line, which must by now have gone where Mr Adams's gum factory has gone.) It represented history. It also represented, according to Radio 4, a considerable fortune if I could ever contact one of those vintage and classic gum-collectors.
But what it also represented was perhaps my last ever chance to chew a stick of Adams's Blackjack gum. If I drew out a stick of that gum and placed it in my mouth and masticated, the flood of liquorice-flavoured memories would make Marcel Proust's madeleine look pretty small.
It would bring back to me, unsullied, the era of Floyd Patterson and Mort Sahl and Tuesday Weld and segregation and a time when Americans looked at Jack Kennedy and asked if a Catholic could ever be US president. (The answer, we now know, was "yes", but only once and never again.)
Reader, what would you have done? Blown $10,000 worth of pristine gum on a few tawdry memories? Or sold a precious packet of your youth for cash without drinking at the fountain of images trapped inside it?
Yes, that's what I should have done. Taken the money. But I didn't. I did the romantic thing. I tore open the wrapper and put the gum in my mouth. I sank my teeth into it. And I damn near broke half of them. In the last 40 years, all the moisture and elasticity had faded from the stick of Blackjack gum, and it had turned into a thin slice of household coal. In one fell swoop I had lost $10,000 and a packet of chewing gum.