Occasionally, in a charity shop, I will see what, clearly, has been someone’s life collection, and I will pause to nurse a couple of seconds of heartbreak that this is where it has ended up. Thimbles: I saw about sixty of those once, porcelain, in a wooden cabinet all divided into tiny squares, a home for each one. Each of them different; painted with scenes, animals, flowers, dates, commemorations. And tartan ties, I remember seeing a collection of those, all orderly on a rosewood tie hanger, quietly telling me something about the man who once wore them – that he was fastidious and thorough, reliable, I think. They were all-wool ties, narrow, a different one for every day in the month, and now for sale separately, to be broken up like orphaned children centuries ago. Had there been no son or grandson to take them on? Or had they shuddered at the idea of an inheritance of such antiquity? The other day someone asked me if I collect anything and my mind returned to these thimbles and ties as I realised that the memory of them gently haunts me. As for my collection, the answer was no, I collect nothing, at least not in the conventional sense, nothing that appreciates in value, or that anyone – even charity shop browsers (when that time comes) – might have an interest in. The best I could come up with was my collection of memories. It’s a word collection of details and thoughts and reflections. I’ve herded it up over the years, inked it onto pages and stored it in journals that fill shelves and shelves. Their spines, all lined up, remind me a little of that homeless rack of tartan ties.
The cover of the journal is important, you see. I choose them for colour, pattern, texture, design; match them to my mood. One is covered with cork, some are bound in fabric – three came from Sri Lanka, covered in stiped cotton used to make sarongs. There are butterflies on one, swans on another, a page from the Lindisfarne Gospel, a map of Western Australia. Some are floral, some striped, one has feathers, another paint splotches. One is printed with sheep, ‘baa-baa’, until I open the cover and it becomes ‘blah-blah’. Some are embossed, bejewelled and stitched, and some shine with gold and silver like an open jewellery box. Some have a magnetic strip to hold them closed. Lately, though, I’ve gone for plain, solemn black with a mourning elastic armband to keep the words in.
Each morning, I open the page and it looks back at me in all its emptiness, a priest drawing back the grille of the confessional to whom I tell everything. Bored to tears he is, most of the time, while other times he’s rapt. On occasion, I’ve made him cry, but sometimes I make him laugh and sometimes I suspect he sneaks off thinking, ‘heard this one before.’ Yes, I frequently tell a new journal the same old story.
It’s not a collection I re-visit, at least not often, for just as there is nothing more fascinating than oneself when in the throes of one’s own drama, fixation or tragedy, there is nothing more boring than revisiting last year’s palaver. ‘Aren’t you afraid someone will read them?’ I’ve been asked. ‘More power to them,’ I answer, ‘if they last longer than a minute they’ll be doing well.’ This collection, you see, is unimportant, it’s irrelevant actually. I might compare it to someone who collects clippings from the hairdresser’s floor, brushing up useless matter, detritus we outgrow. That’s it! I’ve stumbled upon it: my journals are an emotional haircut. They are the barber’s chair where my split ends are removed, my ragged edges sharpened up.
My collection is accidental, and it’s fractured too. There is a trunk of journals back in Ireland filled with years and jobs and people and dreams and ideas. It is utterly worthless and inconsequential, so much so that it will never even make it to a charity shop. Its significance for me, however, is incalculable.