What Mother did with my whatsits

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The Independent Online
Einstein's original 72-page exposition of the Theory of Relativity is to be auctioned by Sotheby's at the end of the year for something around an expected pounds 4m, and in all probability it will be bought by a punter who doesn't understand a word of it. Thus goes the abstract into artefact.

So valuable was Picasso's genius, for example, that he was able to pay quite hefty bills simply by scrawling his signature on the backs of used envelopes, and the rumour persists in cafes of the south of France that when smaller sums were involved he merely had to wave in the general direction of a napkin. Where a great man's hand falls, it leaves a patina that can turn the merest scrap of paper into a collectible.

Whether the same magic will attach to floppy disks only time will tell. I somehow doubt it. We are entering the era of virtual reality and one thing you have to say for virtual reality is that, unlike real reality, it doesn't leave any rubbish lying around. Or, at least, not the sort of tangible rubbish that will come up for sale at Sotheby's 100 years from now. Inevitably, the day is coming closer when there will not be anything left anywhere to collect.

A hint of the future came to me the other morning when I found myself for the first time in decades watching children's television. It was an adventure story in which flesh and blood actors performed a sort of animated video game: lots of transformation into futuristic warrior shapes, masses of violence in short bites, a little American-style moralising, no sex whatsoever. Thank heavens.

One skinny chap played the nerd. He wore glasses. He read. (Yech! Don't you despise him, kiddies?) In the last scene, he appeared with a beautiful old box camera of the sort to make a collector tremble with desire.

"Now," said the dork as he sighted the others in his lens, "I'm going to show you how to make art!" And what happened? The camera blew up. The dweeb's face was black with soot. The heroic bullies fell about. And I could have cried for the foreseeable end of collectibles and collectors.

Mind you, we old-timers have not always appreciated or held on to the treasures that have come our way. All those years ago, when mother decided enough was enough, and finally cleared out my bedroom cupboard, did she stop to think that included in the trash she threw away was a seminal collection of Wonder Woman comics? If only I had those comic books now I'd put them into auction and on the proceeds be off to the Seychelles so fast you wouldn't see me for dust.

Will my son be able to finance his retirement some day with his childish toys and pastimes? I think not. The Atari video games he used to like were mass produced and regularly updated. But who could have duplicated the great Amazon Wonder Woman? Or even got the better of her? Baseball cards, Dinky toys, Barbies before bikinis, models of Luke Skywalker, Biba's feather boas, a person doesn't have to be much over 40 - or even 30 - to remember ruefully a fortune that mama dumped on the tip or gave away to Oxfam.

Britain is a nation of antique markets, junk shops, boot sales and auctions and the British generally are the world's greatest collectors, not of fine art perhaps but of doohinkies, thingamybobs, bric-a-brac, whatchamacallits and whatsits. One of the great pastimes of life in London, for example, is hunting out the touching bits and pieces left by past generations and making a collection of some personal significance, as well as intrinsic value or beauty.

Of course, there comes a point in every life when the line begins to waver between the genuinely antique and what feels like only yesterday. On the stalls of the junk markets increasingly these days are perfectly mundane items of the really quite recent past - green glass juice-squeezers, fountain pens, 78rpm records, powder compacts with fluffy puffs - and they are selling for phenomenal sums. However, this generation will not be leaving antiques, manuscripts and curios for the future, it can't: floppy disks, compact discs, cassettes, remote controls, personal computers, digital clocks - everything nowadays becomes outmoded long before it has acquired either the charm of a collectible or the quaint function of a curio.

Come to think of it, our requirements have become so slick and sophisticated, there isn't much to collect these days except intangible air miles, nothing worth saving but time and common old money, and only a very few of the objects we produce will be seen in the future to have had a quaint function. Containers for contact lenses, perhaps. Mobile phones. Social workers. And certain members of the Royal Family.

Miles Kington is away.

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