The world is full of old stuff.
Some old stuff survives because it is important or beautiful or valuable, or because it has been loved by one generation after another. Some old stuff though, survives for no good reason at all. It’s just the stuff people didn’t throw away. It is random old stuff.
Often, random old stuff carries on getting more random as time goes by. This is because – like the grin of the Cheshire cat – it is no longer attached to anything that can give it context. It has become curious. And because it is curious as well as random and old, it may well have reached a state of grace, where we can’t fail but to respect it. It has survived for longer than we ever will. We are impressed. We admire this kind of persistence.
Occasionally this kind of curious, random, persistent old stuff is capable of telling us a story about its place in the history of human ordinariness. I don’t mean where or when it was made – that’s often relatively easy. I mean its connection with people and their lives. This story is often in the form of clues. A name, a date, a place, an inscription, an engraving.
In recent months, my little online gallery has sold a painting to the Australian great niece of the Englishman who painted it and another to a man who had been a neighbour of the artist when he (the buyer of the painting) was a small boy. I have sold some original advertising drawings to the grandson of the man whose London shop they were made for, and an early 19th century beer tankard to a man whose great-great-great-grandfather’s name was engraved upon it, alongside the name of his local pub (which is itself, still pulling pints 170 years later).
I have also sold a rare limited print-run memoir of life in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp to man who wanted it because he owned a medal that had belonged to a soldier who had been imprisoned in that camp. This man (the book buyer) had no personal connection at all with the soldier whose medal it was. He had bought the medal at auction. Now he found himself driven to explore the life of the man who had owned it.
It has been very nice to be able do these things. It is the potential for stories that makes these old things so engaging – and these stories are a route into history. It is a route that depends not on making an itinerary or reading a map but on following your nose. It’s like those childhood days when you went out to play with no thought beyond seeing what would happen once you stepped through the door and into the sunshine.
This is an approach that recognises the point of randomness and respects the persistence of the old stuff that’s made it through to the present day. It would after all, have been easy enough to give in to mould and mildew and the indifference of generations but this or that old thing didn’t do that. It kept going.
This blog celebrates the stories of the old stuff that has survived.