Is it so funny to buy the accoutrements of an oppressive force?

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The Independent Online
I am feeling confused about some souvenir-hunting I did in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, last week. Usually, I restrict myself to buying every postcard in sight, and fancy that if I get to be old I will pore over them. Thus I have probably the world's finest collection of postcards from the monasteries of Europe. My collection of postcards from art galleries reminds me of how my feet ached in different cities, but also makes up for the impatient speed with which I passed the paintings.

In southern Ireland I once bought a light-bulb the filament of which was a flickering crucifix. I bought it as an icon of kitsch. That made me slightly uneasy since I was patronising the simple style and faith of the peasant mentality. Who is to say what is bad taste, and what is "simple" faith?

In Kuwait in 1991 I celebrated my only excursion into a battlefield by liberating an Iraqi textbook from a school's store where bomb-disposal friends were camped out. I could not resist it when Warrant Officer Nick Nice gave me a copy of the maps and plans of the Iraqi booby-trappers who mined the oil wells which were then blazing hellishly all about.

Souvenir-hunting, like beachcombing, has elements of legitimised looting about it. It has also to do with the relative value of things in different societies. In Kuwait, I indulged in the gruesome tourism of picking my way through the buses and cars of the convoy which the US air force shot up on the road to Basra. Apart from my anger at the scandal of the most sophisticated force on earth conducting a turkey-shoot against a spent force of soldiers I took to be illiterate conscripts, I was struck by the humdrum shabbiness of the stolen gear the dead had been carting off to the folks back home. Here a bra (lingerie for a loved one?), there a soft toy (for a daughter?), a notepad (for a student younger brother?). Mind you, looting is not only the greedy homage that the poor pay to the rich. I met US special forces officers who eschewed their own army's semi-automatic rifles: they found stolen Russian AK 47's more chic ("So stubby," they said, "you can sling it on your shoulder while you're driving a jeep"). One oil-fire fighter from Arizona had gone rather further: he had hidden a liberated Iraqi tank in a shed in his depot, and was plotting how to ship it home.

In Kiev, my problems were a lot simpler. In 1994, I had agonised long and hard about buying a Soviet watch from a stall in Sofia, and decided against parting with $50 for a piece of kit which might not work. Now, in Kiev's "Montmartre" district, there was a young stallholder with KGB watches. Mine is very fat, winds automatically and is so heavy that its being waterproof is surely redundant (the thing would take its wearer plummeting to the bottom and anchor one firmly there).

But I fretted about my choice. Is it so funny to buy the accoutrements of an oppressive force? Had the man who had worn this watch sold it on, fresh from a beating? I found these moral concerns somewhat lessened when I sought reassurance about a more selfish one. Would the watch work? Well, the boy said: "It comes with a bit of paper which declares that it was made in the Russian city of Chistopol on 16 October 1995." Now my problem was reversed: the ex-Soviet factory is presumably churning out these totems of a passed order simply for their value to tourists. I had worried about buying the watch when it seemed like loot but was at least genuinely tainted; now I fear that I have been codded into buying from the souvenir industry.

For all I know, the design never was genuine and has no more cultural status than a Mickey Mouse watch. I hope the lad put my $18 of hard currency to good use, and I am writing to the watch factory to unravel its mysteries. Meanwhile, it keeps excellent time.

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