Ian McMillan: Indulging in the collecting evolution

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My wife and I were on holiday years ago in a little bed-and-breakfast place somewhere in Scotland; at the next table to ours in the breakfast room was a family with a boy who could be described as “precocious” or “forward” or, less charitably, as “a pain in the region of the neck”.

He wasn’t a bad lad, actually, but what really made me grit my teeth was that he started off all his sentences with the word “mummy”, which he extended until it came out as “Mumeeeee” and sounded like a cross between a squeaky gate and a kitten’s mewl. I’d be cutting up my sausage and suddenly I’d hear him say “Mumeee, I think I’m going to start collecting stamps. Mumeee, they call it philately and I’d like to do philately. Mumeee, if we go to the shops can we buy some stamps and an album and some hinges?” His mother would smile indulgently and ruffle his hair and his dad would gaze into space and, I imagined, think about ruffling his hair with a fork. There’s nothing wrong with stamp collecting, of course, but the next morning, in the breakfast room as I cut up my sausage, he’d pipe up again: “Mumeee, I think I’m going to start collecting coins. Mumeee, they call it numismatism and I’d like to do numismatism. Mumeee, if we go to the shops can we buy some coins and some things to keep the coins in?” Hair ruffling would ensue and I imagined the dad comparing numismatism to a disease like rheumatism and considering ruffling his son’s hair with a spoon. But then, I thought about myself at the same age as that boy. I was precocious and chirpy. People’s necks developed mysterious pains after I’d been with them for a few minutes. And, like my breakfast companion, I was always wanting to collect things when I was his age. Maybe all children go through the stage of wanting to be collectors; perhaps it’s an evolutionary throwback to a primitive hunter-gatherer existence, except that instead of hunting sabre-toothed tiger steaks and gathering delicious berries, you’re hunting rare matchboxes and gathering lovely banana labels. You might laugh but these were two of the things I collected, or began to collect, when I was young, although none of my collections ever developed very far, none of my albums ever got much further than page two. On a Monday I’d wake up and decide I wanted to collect matchboxes so I’d rescue a couple from the bin and scour the streets looking for others. I’d Sellotape them in an old scrapbook and gaze at them all evening. I’d write Matchboxes Of The World on the cover in my bestest writing. On Tuesday, prompted by a playground discussion, it would be banana labels. I’d take one off a banana and stick it in a scrapbook and cross out the matchbox title and write Banana Labels Of The World. One banana label isn’t a collection, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself. Wednesday it was bubble-gum cards. Thursday it was pencils. Friday it was milk-bottle tops (it’s amazing the variations you could get then). And I’ve never really grown out of it. My collection of Barnsley programmes takes up more space than a settee and I still cut these columns from the magazine and stick them in a book. Is your neck hurting yet?