Magazine article The Spectator

Making Up for Primal Deprivation

Magazine article The Spectator

Making Up for Primal Deprivation

Article excerpt

Of the innumerable ways of dividing people up into two kinds, one of the less investigated is into collectors and non-collectors. As with some of the other categorisations, the members of the two classes find it extraordinarily hard to understand one another in this key respect. Non-collectors tend, I have noticed, to occupy the moral high ground since they are not the victims, as they see it, of a compulsion which is really as much of an addiction as any of the better-advertised ones. Furthermore, they are interested in objects of a certain kind for their own sakes, while those who collect them need them only to fulfil a craving, often taking no interest in them once they have them.

Take, not at random, collecting LPs or CDs; I have done both, in succession, for 40 years. The thought of a recording which I don't have of a musical work for which I have a passion, or by one of the performers whom I idolise, is enough to obsess me, sending me on long searches, sometimes even resulting in my reorganising what was supposed to be a sightseeing holiday in, say, Rome, into a desperate exploration of the city's record stores. When I was there nine years ago there was a short-lived Italian 'pirate' label which carried performances I had only dreamed about, and which I knew by experience would disappear as suddenly as it had arrived. I was with a non-collecting friend, who found that we were heading for our next monument or gallery by strangely roundabout routes, all at the behest of the daemon that told me that what, in the pirate series, (which was elaborately hidden from the general view) I hadn't yet found I might possibly discover in a little store in, say, Trastevere. He realised that if I didn't investigate the unlikely home of some of these exclusive CDs I would be miserable, at any rate until I finally got them. When I got back to England I was exultant at having obtained the whole series; and though they soon appeared in some specialist English stores at about half what I'd paid for them in Rome, it was worth it, since I had had them for several months, to the envy of people similarly afflicted.

Probably not all collectors, not even collectors of CDs, are motivated strongly by competitiveness, but certainly it looms large in the makeup of many. It is the mean pleasure of owning something that someone else would like; but as competitiveness goes, this is perhaps less contemptible than many forms of it. More significant is the need to have, as I said, every last version of a piece, even though it is incredibly unlikely to be as fine as the greatest that one already owns. One can rationalise that need as deriving from the possibility that even a poor account of a piece may reveal unexpected aspects of it; but that's not very convincing. I've never managed to find an explanation of this mildly bizarre phenomenon which is. What is still more bewildering is that once one owns a version of something, even if one has heard that it is virtually without merit, it's very hard to let it go. Once again implausible rationalisations are at hand, such as that one needs it `for reference', or to demonstrate speedily to one of those numerous people who suspect that one performance is very like another that actually there can be a world of difference and that reason for keeping things has some sense. But that isn't, or doesn't feel like, the real ground for one's cupidity and avarice.

I'm sure, in fact, that there are various and quite widely differing explanations of the collector's urge. …

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