Precious objects that memories are made of

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The Independent Online
LITTLE by little, since my father died, we have sorted through his possessions and bequests. What principally astonishes me is how familiar and durable most of them are. Take the 'temper tester', a Victorian parlour joke. It was a glass phial that you held until the liquid inside it rose to the top and bubbled. The faster it rose the more bad-tempered you were supposed to be. This amused my sister and me 40-odd years ago; my own children 20 years ago; and most recently, my grandchildren. How did such a fragile object survive? Presumably because it was always put back carefully into a glass-fronted cupboard that was then locked, thus adding to its mystique.

My parents' home is filled with objects that bring back the very texture and boundaries of my childhood. The same pictures, furniture, cutlery, even humble things like tablemats and saucepans, continue in use. They cannot ever have been particularly expensive, certainly never fashionable, yet they were well made and solid and my frugal parents never saw any reason to replace them.

My father's watch, a 21st birthday present from his mother, lasted more than 50 years. His propelling pencil, an engagement present from my grandfather, did crosswords and kept bridge scores for a lifetime, and now my son has it. His camera, a Thirties Voigtlander, continued to work for 40 years until the type of film it took (127, was it?) ceased to be manufactured. Even my father's clothes - sports jacket, cap, creased leather slippers - gave decades of wear.

When I look around my own home, I can find almost nothing that came with me into marriage or accompanied my children through their childhood. A couple of rugs bought in a moment of insane extravagance when I got sick of watching my salary swallowed up in endless bills; two or three pictures, relegated now to a dark staircase; the silver cutlery from my godmother. But my kitchen equipment lasts a dozen years at most; after that it is either broken or you can't get the spare parts any more.

I pace the flat, trying to find the object I have possessed longest. There is a funny old green leather Egyptian jewellery box that Lee, a glamorous friend of my mother's, brought me from Cairo when I was about 13. I still have that. I think I hoped it would impart some of her tanned and shiny glamour to my owl-eyed teenage self.

My oldest book is a Pan edition of the Mowgli Stories, with a dramatic cover showing Mowgli on the Council rock, holding aloft a flaming brand. Inside, my name is written in a careful eight-year-old hand. I then leap half a lifetime (another eight years) to the austere brown-banded Penguin translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad, by E V Rieu. Several Penguins crop up about then, Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky (red bands); Balzac and Stendhal (green). They lack colourful jacket illustrations, let alone television or film tie-ins, but I read and re-read them.

My oldest record is a beloved EP (the little ones that went round at 45rpm, their playing time halfway between the old shellac 78s and the new vinyl 33s). It is of Maria Callas singing four arias from La Traviata, produced by Cetra from, as I now know, a pirated recording. My mother gave it to me on my 21st birthday and upon hearing it I instantly fell in love with opera and Callas.

After this, the accumulation of possessions becomes too great for individual memories to be attached to each one. But I shall never forget a pair of shoes I saved up for when I was first given a dress allowance: pounds 5 a month, granted when I left school. These shoes were made of taupe suede with a little curved heel, they came from Dolcis and cost pounds 2 9s 11d ( pounds 2.49). Nowadays I buy two or three pairs at a time, without half as much pleasure.

I do not praise hoarding; it smacks of miserliness and can bequeath a nightmare of sorting out for those who remain behind. (Loyalty makes me add hastily that this was not so in my father's case.) But I do regret the ease with which I buy and, I admit, discard possessions, usually via Oxfam or the local church fete. Ordinary objects are seldom of good enough quality to last a lifetime; but I am too easily persuaded by the blandishments of advertising and fashion to replace things that are still perfectly serviceable.

Which beloved objects define me? I could answer that question as it applied to my father, but turned on myself, I cannot say. They haven't lasted.