Collecting technological paraphernalia
People will collect anything, from stamps to military hardware, but it takes determination to collect collectors
While Travelling on a train once from Leeds to London, I found myself sitting beside a fidgety young man. He had darting eyes, threw furtive glances out of the window and made notes on a dog-eared notepad. After each scribble he rubbed his hands in glee, as if he'd spotted his own six-figure bank balance written in pebbles beside the track.
My curiosity was sparked. Pretending to be immersed in some Guardian obituaries, I craned my neck and squinted at his notes. They read: '113, 114, 115, 116...' Perhaps he was one of the 20,000 Brits who responded to a recent M15 recruitment ad, practising his spycraft en route to the interview?
The train rattled through Yorkshire, swiftly passing numbered mile-posts: '117, 118, 119...'. I suddenly realised what engrossed my travel companion: he was recording the figures on the mile-posts! Collecting these numbers, he later told me, was his hobby.
This wasn't my first encounter with a peculiar breed of British collector, to which I myself had come to belong. More on that later.
Travelling by British Rail, I often bump into agitated characters in search of rare steam-engines. Since it is difficult to put life-size steam-engines into an album, or dry them off for a herbarium, these people content themselves with writing down the collected numbers in special tattered notebooks and boasting about them afterwards in smelly station buffets: 'Have you seen that gorgeous, if slightly asthmatic, WZM/123 at Dogford-upon-Tavern?' they ask. 'It's a beaut!'
I have a friend in Canterbury who collects – and is capable of playing – just about every imaginable kind of musical instrument, but only if it is of gigantic proportions. His flute is the size of a ship's funnel; his saxophone resembles a motor-bike bent in the middle; and his didgeridoo could pass as a high-calibre howitzer. When he starts playing his clarinet – as long as a boa constrictor, thick as an oil pipeline – it sounds like one of the trumpets of Jericho, which caused stone walls to fall. Now I reflect on it, his house has cracks all over the ceiling. No wonder his marriage didn't last...
Another friend, a writer and a committed Russophile, collects Russian obscenities – the sort that would make even the rudest Moscow cobbler blush. His only problem is lack of practice (which is probably why he's always so pleased to see me); at times, he tests his esoteric knowledge in the streets of London by hurling weighty Russian abuse at unsuspecting pedestrians. 'You must be careful, James,' I counselled him. 'One day you will bump into a touchy Russian gangster and he will beat this linguistic garbage out of you!' In response, he would say... er... Sorry, I've digressed...
To my mind, collecting is a genuine – if at times risky – passion that also involves a fair amount of knowledge and expertise. I see it as a natural escape from the often dull and unrewarding reality.
As for myself, I collect old Baedeker guidebooks. I also collect collectors. Not all collectors; just those who hoard vehicles, gadgets, engines, tanks and other technological paraphernalia.
The pride of my collection of collectors was (and still is) my late friend Sir Peter Ustinov, who kept an impressive set of vintage cars on his country estate in Switzerland. He also had a private jet, but I wonder if a collection of aircraft was ambitious even for him...
One real paradise for car collectors is the island of Malta. I will never forget my first time there. Valetta airport's car park contained collections of old, very old and vintage cars in different stages of disrepair. Mysteriously, the ancient jalopies kept coming and going with grumbling noises.
My first thought was that a meeting of the local vintage car collectors club was underway at the airport. It took me a while to find out that old cars and buses are considered national treasure in Malta. It is cool to drive them around and exporting them is illegal!
Riffling through just a single issue of the UK's Antiques & Collectables magazine unearths special features on the intricacies of collecting globes, Russian Matrioshka dolls, antique fishing gear, automatons, American model trains and sewing accessories (e.g. 'Steel scissors with design of the man in the moon. Italian, 1850-70' – not to be confused with Needle Armstrong!).
From the fascinating old (yet not antique) volume 'Fortune in Your Attic' by Tony Curtis, I found out about the existence of the individuals collecting car parts, electrical appliances ('1950s electric toasting machine'), corkscrews, dental instruments (probably in memory of the no-longer-existing teeth) and even hearing aids ('Silver ear trumpet by Rawlings & Summer, 1833').
What can I say? The breed of British techno-collectors seems alive and well. The latest example'comes from a 17 February issue of a popular newspaper which ran a story of a Norfolk man, Shaun Mitchell, who collects military vehicles and – like a retired Swiss Army soldier – keeps his collection at home, where an eight-tonne Sabre tank, a Jeep, a Second World War lorry, an anti-aircraft gun and an armoured personnel carrier are all parked.
Mitchell's girlfriend did not share his passion for tanks and left him. 'I have no bad habits,' he protests, 'apart from the compulsion to buy military vehicles.' He added that he was still searching for a girl 'who likes tanks too'.
I am more than happy to add Shaun to my ever-growing collection of collectors and hope he finds his tank-loving girl soon.
Eager to keep extending my collection, I am asking you, dear reader, to write, email or comment below. I want to know about engines, tanks, cars, planes and other technological euphemera you may be collecting, so that you can be added to my ever-growing collectors collection too!