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Olly Mann: That's My Lot

BY Olly Mann

1st Nov 2022 Life

Olly Mann: That's My Lot

Olly Mann is surprised to find that he's become a collector of a goofy household item—but is his collection actually worth anything?

When The Queen died, and newscasters were bedecked in black, and Gyles Brandreth was suddenly everywhere, one royal factoid jumped out at me: Her Majesty, it transpires, was an avid collector of stamps.

She’d picked up the hobby when her grandfather George V, a pioneering philatelist, passed his precious albums down the family tree (my gramps did this, too; but sadly the stamps he collected were of the Green Shield variety. Worthless in the 21st century, they at least make for a more charming heirloom than a Nectar card).

"Her Majesty was an avid collector of stamps"

This got me thinking about how few "collections" I keep myself. I certainly possess the collecting gene: Dad sold classic cars for a living and, as a kid, I prodigiously picked up West End theatre flyers and stuffed them into a drawer.

By my teenage years, I owned thousands, including some pamphlets promoting productions that had flopped and quickly closed—The Hunting of the Snark, Which Witch, Moby Dick… curios that might, I suppose, be worth a few quid on eBay by now.

But, aged 19, keen to put away childish things, I ruthlessly chucked them into the bin, in a ritualistic pre-university purge of my possessions (at which time I also sent my vintage Mr Potato Head packing off to Oxfam. Mistake!).

Illustration of person opening giant fridge door covered in novelty fridge magnetsIllustration by Emma Thrussell

These days, my cabinets are teeming with keepsakes. They topple from huge piles. They prop up broken beams and slats. But could any of these fairly be termed a "collection"?

There’s a stockpile of my own ephemera—an exercise book from primary school; the first article I wrote for a mag; posters for plays I directed at college; on-air scripts I’ve used in radio programmes—but amassing memorabilia from one’s own career and tacking it up on the wall doesn’t really count as a collection, does it?

That’s more like a creative filing system (incidentally, I wonder if this explains how the Queen maintained her passion for stamps? It’s easier to keep a personal interest in objects that have your face on them).

Looking around my office, the closest things I have to a collection are a pile of "on this day in history" books, which I use for researching my daily history podcast, and a box of old lanyards from various conferences, which I retained at first because I couldn’t bear to throw away all that plastic, and then because I thought one day I might make some sort of artsy display out of them using clothes pegs, which of course has not and never will actually happen.

"Amassing memorabilia from one’s own career and tacking it up on the wall doesn’t really count as a collection, does it?"

Anyway, I was waffling on to my wife about how weird it is that I don’t collect anything, and she sighed, and gestured behind me, at the fridge-freezer. At first, I thought she just wanted me to shut up and get out of the way so she could hit the white wine. As indeed she did.

But then I looked at the fridge doors she’d been pointing at, and suddenly I saw—as if for the first time—that I own 57 fridge magnets.

How bizarre it is to have spent 20 years traversing the world, scouring souvenir shops, airport duty-frees and hotel boutiques for novelty fridge magnets… without once consciously being aware I was curating a "collection"!

I guess it’s because fridge magnets are, seemingly, so inconsequential and silly—basically just trinkets you stick up on a stainless steel slab to cheer it up a bit—that they don’t seem worthy of serious contemplation.

Particularly my ones, as I have a preference for the cartoonish and humorous: there’s a starfish with sunglasses on (Siesta Key, Florida), one that’s shaped like fish and chips (Southend), and, my pride and joy, a stunningly recreated scale-model of a bubbling paella pan, complete with yellow rice and googly-eyed shrimp (Marbella).

"I’d happily hand over another couple of hundred quid for them, as they hold so many memories"

These tchotchkes are so knowingly naff—like the furry dice I once dangled from the mirror of my first car, a lime-green 1985 Austin Metro—that until now, I’ve never considered their worth.

Financially, they’re valueless, since even the ones that might interest a fellow connoisseur (the Gaudí-style lizard from Barcelona? The chunky gold skyscraper from Dubai?) have all at some stage fallen to the floor, and then been superglued back to health.

But, for me, the "collector", they are… well, I hesitate to say priceless, but I’d happily hand over another couple of hundred quid for them, as they hold so many memories.

Some even include photos of me, like the one from our honeymoon at a San Pedro safari park.

Others effortlessly conjure up nostalgia, youth and enthusiasm: our last-minute getaway to Kaliakra, Bulgaria (the kind of spontaneous weekend that seems more possible before children); the Radio 4 one I bought at the BBC shop just because I was so proud to work in the building; even the depiction of Oregon woodland creatures, which I purchased solely to receive the receipt (it said "beaver magnet").

By no means is this a collection my grandchildren will want to inherit. It is, essentially, only meaningful to me. But, in the end, isn’t that the best kind of collection to have?

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