When I was young, my sister and I were taken into town to select fabric and a pattern each from the haberdashery (great word! should be used more often) and then taken to the seamstress (though I think we called her the sewer) who miraculously whipped the material into a replica of the dresses in the patterns. This was possibly a once-off occasion; I remember the excitement of standing at the bench looking at the rolls of fabric, and the amazing feeling of freedom – I could choose any one I liked. I have a vivid memory of that dress – the material was a pattern of squares, triangles and circles in multiple colours. The dress had a pleat at the front and a yoke, and something about the neckline that eludes me now, makes my visual memory slide about – was it a collar? I can see it out the corner of my mind’s eye, but it slips away when I try to look at it directly. I also remember clearly my sister’s corresponding dress – a tent dress (very fashionable at the time) lime green background and paisley design in hot pink, blue and yellow. I remember this well for two reasons: I hoped to inherit it one day; and the left over fabric had been used by my father under the wire mesh of the speaker in the record player cabinet. Long after the dress had been cast aside, the speaker cloth, in all its psychedelic glory, reminded us of that tent dress.
I also remember an orange acrylic bracelet I received, at a primary school concert, from Santa’s sack. It was a heavy bracelet, thick and shiny with wisps of various shades of orange drifting through it. I remember the weight of it in my hands, on my wrist. I no longer have the bracelet so I can’t check to see if it actually looks like that, or if that is simply the picture of it in my memory, embroidered over time. I’m not sure if my father went out and bought the present himself (it wasn’t a generic gift, it had my name on the paper) or if he left that to an aunt, grandmother or a neighbour, in the absence of my mother. But if it was his idea, he got it so right. I kept that bracelet for many years, wearing it again when chunky bright-coloured jewellery came back into fashion in the 80’s or maybe it was the 90’s. But again that could be a fabrication. Did I just wish I had that orange bracelet when I saw it could be fashionable again? I can’t actually remember getting rid of it. I just know that I do not have it now, and wish that I did. To check the actual with the visual memory. I recall sitting with the bracelet on my wrist, looking down at it, turning it around. But I can’t remember what I wore, who I sat beside. Just the thrill of a gift. A beautiful one. And now I can barely remember what gifts I was given for Christmas last year
We’ve developed such an appetite for the accumulation of stuff, that single gifts or purchases rarely leave such a vivid memory. Yes, age plays a part in this. The nostalgia of childhood polishes those gifts into such singularly memorable gems. But the rampant consumerism of the modern age deadens the sparkle of any individual gift or item. There is always something more; something better, bigger, shinier. We are all the fat, spoilt boy in Harry Potter, counting his gifts and declaring, but last year, last year there were 37! Rarely do we have that singular remembrance, an isolated bubble treasuring the only one.
Stuff – so much. Too much.
How did we come to develop such a desire for stuff? And I don’t mean when we stopped leading a nomadic existence and could settle in one place where stuff could be useful as well as a thing of beauty: a carved shelf to put the pestle and mortar on, a curved hook to hang the dried herbs, or a second pot in case the first was being used. And all these things can be remarkable versions of the ordinary – tools of necessity rendered significant, beautiful. But do we really need 15 cushions on the bed, 56 pairs of earrings, a second or third television because everyone might want to watch different stuff, an array of ornaments of various sizes and shapes, countless plug-in scent diffusers or scented candles, etc. And amongst all this stuff – plastic. Lots of it. Now China is no longer going to take our rubbish and recycle it into more plastic stuff that we can buy back from them. We may have to find our own way of dealing with our preposterous waste problem. Our disposable culture, our failure to look to the future. To be able to respond in a way that is sustainable for the planet and not just for a moment’s delight and indulgence. To be able to look back and know the value of a shiny bracelet, the shapes and patterns in a long ago fabric, when there was so little. But just the right amount too.