wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

The art of collecting: turtles, autographs + The Hare With Amber Eyes

Duran Duran

Duran Duran

Moving house recently (and trying to whittle down contents to fit in a very small shipping container), I came across a box in my shed. It was full of programmes. Theatre programmes from Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera. Some signed — family friends working in theatre would get all the autographs. Gigs through the ages: Transvision Vamp, Madonna, INXS, petering out in the 90s.

I loved collecting as a child. Or I loved beginning to collect. The idea of having a collection; my follow through wasn’t so strong. I started off obsessive.

I would collect turtles. I always liked turtles. Shared an affiliation with them. That desire to crawl under a thick shell and have a little rest. Before re-emerging into the light. Once, driving from Casino, the road was covered in turtles, so thick that Caron (my stepmum) had to get out of the car and sweep a path for us to drive through. I was afraid of squashing them. Not toads. But collecting involved finding them in op shops. Too hard.

I would collect posters of Duran Duran. I bought magazines and albums with free posters inside. Until there was no more room on my wall, and Simon Le Bon (and his voice) was starting to wear thin.

I would collect autographs. Travelling on a plane to visit my dad in the school holidays meant I saw lots of ‘famous people’ (as I called them) at the airport. I remember Crowded House. The guy who sang What About Me? (not Shannon Noll, the other one). Peter Garrett. Rolf Harris. I was often too shy to ask them directly to sign and my poor parents would have to approach, me snuggling behind them, awestruck. I did speak to Rolf on the plane and he drew me a little cartoon of himself in red pen.

I would pore over these signings later. I still have them and the traces (getting fainter) of pen on paper charge me with a thrill at the touch. Even though there’s many names I no longer even recognise.

Kylie Minogue + Jason Donovan, days of Neighbours

Kylie Minogue + Jason Donovan, days of Neighbours

When I was 15, I won a dancing competition at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. I got up on stage with the cast of Neighbours (Kylie, Jason, Craig) and received my prize from Molly Meldrum. I won for doing that strange kind of hand dancing we used to do to The Cure in the 80s, flickering your hands near your face, and Kylie was the judge. These days it would be on YouTube and I could link to it. Thank god it wasn’t these days. The prize was a black T-shirt, promoting a road safety campaign, and had their autographs quickly scrawled on in red pen. I still have it folded in my cupboard, uniting Kylie and Jason forever, and every now and then think: must get that framed.

Nowadays, I seem to have lost my connection with early collections. The programmes in the box no longer held any special appeal. The DVDs (where I rapidly consumed director by director: David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Hal Hartley — where are the women I ask myself?) now seem cumbersome in the days of online streaming, as I lug box after box interstate.

I also like to read about collectors. Or any obsessives really. I like the detail, the narrowing down. A good enough writer can make you enthused about their collection, no matter how small (or large), and make you want to start collecting yourself. This was the case with Edmund de Waal, the author of the family memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. de Waal is an artist (a potter) and he sees the world with a unique slant. He uses the collection of netsuke as a starting point to branch off into a family history, then a history of anti-Semitism in Europe, then a background to World War II in Austria, then the re-emergence of Japan under US occupation.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Netsuke

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Netsuke

The strength of de Waal’s writing comes in his ability to focus in on the detail, describing the beauty of the netsuke, how they are handled and adored, and then to step back, to frame things in a bigger picture, and write with such emotional force (even though it appears at first, subtle), to wind you, knock you around. His descriptions of the Nazi invasion of Austria, and the family home in Vienna, give a visceral experience of what it must have been like to be trapped in every sense, to be gradually stripped of your belongings, your heritage, your identity. If you left it too late, you had nowhere left to go. His writing power comes from a rare talent: the ability to weave historical research and factual accounts into a spirited and moving narrative: it’s an unforgettable read.

Like de Waal, I return to moments in my childhood. I always come back to the autographs. I have a shelf of treasures. A line of books stretching from the 70s, that have one thing in common. They’re all signed by the author. Many have inscriptions. I prefer those I’ve waited in line to get signed myself (Jonathan Franzen) and ones where kind people, like Denise (my mother in law) have lined up too (Margaret Atwood). I like to have my name in there (To Kirsten…), the promise of that, rather than a signed edition from a pile near the counter of the bookstore. If I had the money I know I’d get truly obsessive about first editions. Tracking them down with detective work (like John Baxter).

Perhaps, in a sense, as you begin on a new piece of writing, it’s always a process of collecting (like a bower bird, how I see myself): the beginnings of an obsession, the reams of research, the snippets of conversation noted down, the focusing in on the small items, the branching out to make connections.

Just writing about it makes me want to start a new collection.

ANY IDEAS? ARE YOU A COLLECTOR? I’D LOVE TO HEAR WHAT YOU LIKE TO COLLECT… 

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF DE WAAL’S BOOK? KNOW ANY OTHER BOOKS ABOUT COLLECTORS?

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7 thoughts on “The art of collecting: turtles, autographs + The Hare With Amber Eyes

  1. My sister collected ENORMOUS numbers of turtles! She’s even had an exhibition of them–the ceramic and glass ones, that is. When I was about 11, I started to collect TV GUIDES. I had about 5 years’ worth when my mother made me throw them away. I still have the postcard collection I inherited from my great-aunts, which I also added to until I got tired of it after college. But we have schlepped them around the world. I still have a bit of that collecting bug, but since my tastes have grown, the things I want to collect cost too much!

    • I’ll have to see the turtle collection one day! TV Guides! I can imagine how big the pile was after five years. Why did you decide to collect them? I also loved postcards for a while.

  2. You won a dance competition judged by Kylie? At least you can die happy. Gosh this post hit the spot today –resonated in so many ways! Hal Hartley! David Lynch! The Cure! Dancing!Margaret Atwood! It has it all! But also because:
    1. I used to try and look like Wendy James from Transvision Vamp with a sixties pink frock, white hair and pink lipstick. Actually, I think it’s a fashion style that has stuck with me. I never saw them live.
    2.I was given “Hare with Amber eyes” for my birthday and am about to delve into the pages.
    3. My sisters said I looked like a snail and I embraced it, incorporating a spiral into my signature. The shell on the back appeals to me too.
    4. Rolf Harris! As a small child I called him “Sure Can” because of the British Paints ad. And later, when I was about ten, my mum told me if I put a piece of wedding cake under my pillow I would dream of the man I would one day marry. I had a vivid dream….about Rolf Harris. I was disappointed but it showed he still had a special place in my heart.
    I have no autographs and collect stuff at random but the older the get the more I’m attracted to the focus and structure of a true collection. But not at the moment. Life is too crazy with too many kids. Will save collecting for when I am old. And can I just add that while writing this I have been interrupted three times – twice to wipe bums and once to wipe up spills. And they are calling now…….

    • I was OBSESSED with Wendy from Transvision Vamp and wanted to LOOK EXACTLY LIKE her too. I was disappointed because she did two concerts in Melbourne. And at the other one apparently she had what is now termed a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and her breast slipped out. I would have liked to see that. Do you also love Hal Hartley? You could have married Rolf Harris! He may still be single. Speaking of kids, my turtle collection now amounts to two pieces I think, after my son broke a couple, so yep, collecting may be a thing for the future (unless it’s digital, which isn’t the same, as it needs to be tactile I think).

      • Yes Rolf still looks fit actually…you know I once bought a pair of vintage black patent leather knee high boots because I saw Kylie try them on (and they were too big for her!) so I snapped them up. And yep – I loved Hal Hartley .”Trust” blew my tiny country girl ming. But I also LOVED “Simple Men”. After seeing it I decided that all good films should have a hair cut scene and a dance scene! (Only other film I can think of with those elements is “Roman Holiday”)

  3. Wow, Kirsten I think our collections were mirrors of each other – except for the turtles!

    Duran posters – check. Far too many actually. I mixed it up with a few others – bands, artists, movie posters. But if you’d seen the wallpaper I was working with, it would be completely understood. Vive la 80s!

    Autographs – yes maam. Although I stopped that pretty early on I think – certainly by the time I was 13 or 14. My collection included Neighbours peeps – some from when it was on Ch 7. (Does anyone remember that?) But no Kylie or Jason for me. Scott & Charlene might well have moved up to Qld, but I never saw them. I can’t remember where the autograph book is now, or even whose autographs I have, but I do recall some dude noting in his message my ‘beautiful face’. He was no doubt just being nice, but given I would have been barely teen and he was probably in his late teens or early 20s – well it does come across a tad dodgy.

    I do like the idea of being so interested in one thing that you collect any and every thing you can, no matter how small. Because without it you just wouldn’t have the full picture. But then I think of the TV show Hoarders and I like the idea far less.

    These days the closest thing to a collection I have is shopping receipts, which is probably the sign of an entirely different problem!

  4. I have collection of old technology – old laptops, portable storage devices bigger than your head, even a zip drive and numerous zip disks. Also tens of vhs videos, which have been whittled down from several hundred, but I can’t yet part with them.

    But I’m sure that’s not what you mean…

    I used to collect teapots because my students got wind of the fact that I liked teapots and gave them to me as gifts. It was during the 80s and early 90s, so I had colourful fish, chicken, circus bigtop and house teapots, a miniature teapot about the size of a thimble and whole teasets with legs. I did have to send most to good homes, but still have four of my favourites.

    I’ve started collecting artworks and proudly own four of Salvatore Gerardi’s works. Beautiful and functional!

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