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What's valuable as an antique can be priceless in life; PASSING THOUGHTS.


I KNEW the book-case was old.

But the man with the smile, who had this habit of rubbing two coins together in the right pocket of his dusty jacket, said it was an antique. There is a difference, of course.

The man took his large hand from the pocket, which down the years had been stretched quite out of shape by that constant rubbing and the demands made on the tweed by a briar pipe and a tin of tobacco.

Streaks of blood had dried dark brown on either side of the knuckles he had skinned inching bulky furniture through narrow doorways.

He ran these fingers through the few incorrigible strands of hair, which earlier in the day he had combed over the dome of his head, before pressing them in place with water. This was a gesture of faith, which would have impressed an army recruitment officer in a Quaker meeting-house.

Then he pointed to the delicacy of the fretwork on the book-case doors.

Only a craftsman of distinction, he said, could have shaped strips of mahogany into loops that thin. It was not a great antique; but, in a modest and rather charming way, it was representative of a fine tradition of British furniture-making.

His intention was kind. He wanted me to understand that if the day ever came when I needed some money, the book-case could be sold. Writing, he thought, could not be relied on to be a lucrative occupation of the sort that would smooth the way to easy street.

"You'll still be waiting for the big break when General Arthritis launches a pincer attack on your hips and your lower ankles began to resemble a street plan, " he said in a jaunty tone.

To that extent, he was a prophet, a man with a sure feel for good wood and a cunning eye for human frailty.

Even so, I told him that some people had done well enough out of writing to send their children to independent schools, to take out private health insurance policies, and to visit islands washed by the azure sea where the tanned girls sip vivid juices from fluted glasses.

Yes, he agreed, but the more typical writer ends up as a toothless old wreck in a bathchair, shakily fingering the screw-cap to the quarter bottle of gin under the tartan folds of his dressing-gown, while eternally hoping that, in the pitying smiles of strangers, there is remembrance of his one published novel.

Antiques, on the whole, are a safer bet, the man said.

I told him that to me the book-case was simply old. It had always been with me; though to the cynics among you, that in itself may grant it some kind of antique status.

But, in truth, I have always felt more comfortable on the bric-a-brac side of life, and I'll tell you why.

When I was young, I found peace and joy on the shelves of the bookcase. It wasn't very big or very grand, really. To begin with, I had to stand on a stool to reach up, always to the middle of the three rows, where the volumes of the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia were lined in alphabetical order.

They were beautifully bound in red and contained information on all the subjects that interested me - Spartacus, Red Indians, Hannibal, and lots of other heroes, who had been given glorious life on the cinema screen.

These films had brought them to me, thus giving the dead men flesh in my imagination; but in the tight print of the fine pages, the encyclopaedia gave them immortality.

Strangely enough, my father had found the volumes in an extraordinary junk yard, whose Irish owner used to push a handcart through the streets, with the collar of his great coat ever-raised, as his wellies skidded and skewed on the mud.

He followed the death notices in the local press avidly, so that he would be able to pick a house where the family may wish to unload some items in exchange for a few shillings.

Sometimes he would go to the big houses and doff his cap and bow at the door.

In his yard, there would be wedding dresses, jerries once sat upon by the bottoms of the professional classes, whalebone corsets, wind-up gramophones with their horns, brittle records, Welsh dressers and, occasionally, an antique sideboard. He didn't care much about whether they were antiques or not, as long as they made profit which he could turn into beer.

It was in this yard I saw a threewheeled car for sale at fourpence - or nearest offer.

Now, I hope to pass the book-case on to my son, believing that one day its selection of new books will bring him pleasure. Sadly the encyclopaedia is no longer complete. These things happen in the moves of life.

But I still have the volume in which Spartacus sleeps.

You see, life is strange. An encyclopaedia which tells you all you need to know is bric-a-brac. But a chamber pot can be an antique.

Money comes and goes. In my experience, it mostly goes. And it brings stress when it is with you and stress when it is not. But an old bookcase can never be replaced.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 18, 2001
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