Confessions of a Collector by Hunter Davies
Quercus, 208 pp. $49.95
THE POPULARITY of TV programmes such as The Collectors, Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt is testimony to the appeal of collecting. These shows also reflect that collectables are not simply antiquarian items. A recent British survey showed that baby boomers spend up big to recapture their youth. Vintage comic books reach staggering prices: Wolverine‘s first appearance in a 1974 comic book recently brought US$7,500; a mint 1959 Barbie doll went for US$47,500; while Michael Jackson memorabilia is going through the roof. What will Lady Gaga material be worth in 50 years time?
Prolific British author and longtime newspaper columnist Hunter Davies documents his lifelong collecting in the lavishly illustrated Confessions of a Collector. Unlike many collectors who focus on only one subject, Davies‘ interests include stamps, WWII memorabilia, china, books, toys and games and the Beatles. Davies wrote the first and only authorised biography of the Beatles, although John Lennon in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview stated the book was ‘bullshit’.
Davies wonders: ‘Is there a collecting gene? Does it run in families, through inheritance or environment? My wife does not collect; in fact, she is a chucker-out . . . Collectors come in all ages, sizes, races, classes, but on the whole they are mainly male. Why is this? I dunno.’ Davies began collecting stamps as a boy but then stopped as a teenager ‘for reasons I can‘t remember . . . other things took its place, such as living’. Davies became the Atticus columnist for the Sunday Times in the 1960s, as well having his first novel, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, filmed in 1967.
Davies notes that the ‘joys and delights and agonies of collecting’ came ‘flooding back’ in later life when he also had more financial resources to devote to his collecting. He reaffirms, however, that collectors should be passionate about their subject, rather than seeing collecting as a long-term investment. He concludes his chapter on stamps that ‘poor stuff always remains poor. A good stamp will always be a good stamp’. He quotes his mixed experience with the portfolio collection which he bought from the famous stamp firm of Stanley Gibbons. The fact that the portfolio only realised less than half of its original price a decade later reflects the volatility of some markets.
Davies adds, however: ‘Some of the items in my collections are quite valuable, either because I spent money on them, such as £395 for an 1895 Walsall football programme (God, I went wild that day), or because they have become valuable, thanks to their connections, such as a postcard to me from John Lennon.’ For Davies, much of his collecting arose from books he was working on, such as the Beatles, soccer, suffragettes and the Lake District.
His collection of Beatles material, which arose from his 1968 biography of the Beatles, led to personal friendships, particularly with Paul McCartney. Davies recounts how he collected manuscript pieces from the floors of recording studios, original photos of the Beatles and letters and postcards from their relatives. His best material, including original written lyrics by John and Paul, are now on permanent loan to the British Library, where they sit in the Exhibition Gallery next to manuscripts of Mozart and Jane Austen.
Davies‘ autograph material is particularly interesting, including material from the monthly ‘North London Literary Lunch Club’, which Davies organised for ten years. John Le Carré wrote that he wouldn‘t attend, as he preferred ‘to meet his brother and sister writers in the next world, not this’. Kingsley Amis, who makes a typically rude comment in response about David Cornwell (Le Carré), caused mayhem in the group by secretly ordering whisky throughout the lunch ‘therefore greatly inflating the total bill’. As the bill was divided among the 30 participants, the younger women writers started complaining, one arguing that her share of the bill came to a sum that ‘she was allowing herself for a whole week for food and drink’. Davies includes a note from Martin Amis accepting Davies‘ apology for calling Kingsley ‘an old fart’ after his death.
The section on book collecting includes interesting anecdotes, such as Davies‘ meeting with some of his ‘childhood heroes’, such as Captain WE Johns, the creator of Biggles, ‘pleasant but a bit cagey about what sort of captain he had really been’, and Frank Richards, of Billy Bunter fame. Richards gave Davies a copy of the Dixieland jazz classic, ‘Won‘t you come home Bill Bailey’, which Richards had translated into Latin.
At the end of his Confessions, Davies faces up to the question confronting all collectors: ‘I often wonder what will happen to all my stuff after I‘m gone’. His best Beatles material has been willed to the British Library, ‘as for the rest, I haven‘t a clue’. His wife, the novelist Margaret Forster, culls her collection regularly – so there‘s no hope for Davies there, and ‘none of my three children is a collector’. The book ends with what he says will be his last words to his wife: ‘Now don’t chuck anything out!’
Confessions of a Collector is not a book focusing on the catalogue detail or the precise economics of collecting but rather it is a delightful personal odyssey of collecting, rich in vignettes and reminiscences.