The subject of objects

I’ve been thinking about personal souvenirs, the cherished objects we choose to keep from the past, and what they signify. Writing about the little tokens mothers used to put with their (mostly illegitimate) children before consigning them to the care of Captain Coram’s Foundling Museum set me off.

My mother used to keep all her precious bits and pieces in her bedside drawer. When she died, we found a stone there – beautiful, smooth and warm. She used to call it her sun-stone, discovered on a beach years and years ago. Whenever she felt bleak or cold she had only to hold it in the hollow of her hand (where it fitted perfectly) and all the summer heat and happiness would fleetingly return. It was a bit like holding a shell to your ear and hearing the sea. I was convinced it had magic powers, and used to wonder at the marvellous fact that of all the pebbles on the shoreline, she had managed to find the special one. Now I have a stone of my own, still glowing with the sunshine of August afternoons at Houmet Herbe in Alderney. I’m holding it now, and my hand feels as warm as dry sand.

She also kept little offerings from my sister and me, including a iron-grey bracelet with a charm on it like a pirate’s treasure-chest. The chest opens, and inside is a piece of tightly-folded paper, and on the paper is a poem, four lines sloping downwards as though they might tip off the page any moment. Seeing it again brought back the day I gave it to her: I was seven, she was sitting at her dressing-table getting ready to go out to some business Dinner-Dance or other, and I solemnly told her she must keep it for ever. Not because I had written it, but because I didn’t want the subject of the poem to be forgotten.

I was famously soppy as a child. Still am. My sons never let me forget the fact that I cry during Shrek. One of my favourite books was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and the most memorable poem in it was the one about a blackbird singing outside a building in London, and no-one listening to it. I was outraged at the appalling manners of everyone who didn’t even pay a beautiful blackbird the courtesy of admiring its voice and its song. So I wrote my own poem, as a sort of apology to blackbirds everywhere on behalf of preoccupied people, and that’s what was locked away in the pirate’s chest. I’ve just read it again:

Oh little bird, I’ve heard your song/Sung sweetly in that merry throng./Please won’t you sing it once again/As I walk quietly down the lane?

What? Internal rhymes? Alliteration? Did I peak too soon??

It’s tender-hearted nonsense, of course, and the intention rather pompous, but I see in it something of the impulse that drives me to write now: an embryonic sense of undeserved injustice (is that tautology?) and a need to apologise to people – usually women, in my case – who have been misjudged, misunderstood or ignored by commentators in the past. Did my mother keep that poem because she promised she would? Or because it said something about someone she loved? She had the luxury of knowing who I was, and seeing who I might be in the future. Those mothers who surrendered their babies to Captain Coram had nothing. The souvenirs they gave their babies ranged from frayed ribbons and squashed bottle-tops to coins and engraved lockets. One is a heart-shaped disc with the words ‘You have my heart though we must part:’ so sad.

The idea behind the tokens was to enable mothers to redeem their children later, should circumstances miraculously change. Foundlings were identifiable by the unique item left on the doorstep or in the communal wicker baskets with each baby. It’s extraordinary what power the most unlikely object can have, when invested with memory and emotion. I’d save my sun-stone in a fire before lots of more obviously valuable stuff, and I suspect my mother would have saved the scrap of paper.

I wonder what object links you to what really matters?


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