So the other day Hark and myself and our housemate E and her friend-guest-of-the-moment were at London’s Wellcome Collection, learning about death, because, well, why wouldn’t you? Anyway, E and I ended up in the exhibition library, as might be expected from a PhD candidate and a failed PhD candidate, and got to nosing at some of the works amassed therein, readers, for the edification of.
E asked “do you identify as a collector of anything?” and gave the example of books accumulated for work – they’re not a ‘collection’, they weren’t assembled for the purpose of assembling, possessing and displaying them, they’re just there because we need them so often that it’s more useful to have our own copies than not – but we do think of them as distinct from the other books in the house, those belonging to other people or read for pleasure or whatever. She went on to explain that the book she had her nose in was posing a definition of ‘collection’ that was somewhat broader, and just referred to a group of artefacts amassed by a person. This is the sort of question which young academics ask of each other and is to be expected. Naturally, my thoughts flew to gaming, which is also to be expected, and I explained that – to me – there is a distinction between just owning stuff and collecting it.
Allow me to elucidate (well, I’m going to whether you do or not, it’s my blog after all). What it all reminds me of is what the staffers used to say to new customers, which I heard time and again whenever I went into GW of a Saturday, or a Sunday, or indeed of a Wednesday afternoon when I should have been doing double Games (in a way, I was… right?). In any GW branch, near or far, the hail-and-well-met salutation would always be “So, what do you collect?”
Back in the day, this really got my back up. I didn’t collect things. Collecting was a very different sort of nerding from what I did, and there’s nothing quite like an early-2000s web-savvy nerd for constructing elaborate structures so that, quite frankly, they can always point to someone and say “well at least I’m not that sad.”
‘Collecting’, to me, always brings to mind that particularly, ahm, focused desire that some people have to accumulate and preserve things in as close to the as-new state as possible. My grandmother used to collect Beswick and Portmerion pottery and for all I know still does – she sells off goodly chunks of her collection from time to time but there always seems to be more of it in the house. This stuff isn’t used. This stuff sits in cabinets, looking pretty if slightly dusty, and appears to exist largely for the sake of being there (and maybe adding some visual interest to what might otherwise be a rather boring corner of the room).
This, to me, is an aggravating waste of functional objects (“they are made to be used!”, cries teenage Jon from beyond the admittedly shallow grave) and money (“you bought things just to sit there?”). It’s almost on a level with those chaps (and I’ve never met a lady who does this) who buy action figures and then cry if the cardboard box should sustain a dint, divot, slight wrinkle or whitening at the corners, or who’ll knock 50p off the worth of a Magic card because there’s a tiny white speck on the border. I played with all my action figures and sold them all off at the very car boot sales from which they’d been bought (well, not exactly the same ones, but you get my drift).
I have been known to line up my toy soldiers or RPG books on a shelf if I’m currently working on a project and want easy access to it, or want to take a photo of it for the Blog Thing, or sometimes just because I’ve forgotten what I own and need to see it all in a laid-out kind of way to work out if I own too much stuff (the answer is inevitably ‘yes’), but it’s all directed toward using it. I am not a collector. I am a hobbyist, a player, a blogger, a doer of things with stuff, but I invariably take stuff out of the box and do things with and to it that will ensure it does not accumulate further value just for existing, pristine, in a secure space somewhere. Admittedly it may increase in value because I’ve done a better-than-usual job of painting it or because it’s gone out of production since I ran out of uses for it, but that’s still doing something with it rather than just allowing it to accumulate value because it’s been sixteen years since they went out of production and look, it’s still in the shrink wrap. The point is that I don’t just collect things. Right?
Except… well, it’s not as clear-cut as all that, is it? I mean, I definitely play rather than collect Necrons. That army is assembled and thought-about from the express position of being played on the tabletop, painted on the, ahm, other tabletop, and narratively-wrangled on the laptop, as it were. There is very little in there that’s there for anything other than tactical or strategic purposes – there are six Flayed Ones who are there mostly because I really like the models (they’re the old ones) and that’s honestly about it. Same with my Warmahordes stuff. The only way I can keep a lid on that game is to buy things constituting a theme force that I’m interested in playing, and then leave it there, but that’s done for reasons of financial concern – I can’t keep up with the release-schedule Joneses so I’ve made the decision to interact differently with that game. Malifaux I’m less sure about – I only own one small playable force but I definitely see the value in owning lots of things for one faction in that game, and it’s small enough that I might actually be able to accomplish such a goal. Then, though, we run off the deep end a bit…
I own a Vampire Counts army. It is the same Vampire Counts army, by and large, that I built between my eighteenth birthday and the first departure for university, during six months of frantic kitbashing, slipshod ‘just get it in the board’ painting and furious sketching of deployment diagrams to help me not be flank charged by Skaven quite so much. I sold it in 2008 and bought it back in 2012 for more or less exactly the same price, even though some bits had disappeared ne’er to be recovered. And I don’t play games with it. Not often, anyway. Not since, what, April or May. I’m just not that wild about eighth edition Warhammer (it’s finally become clear to me just how much difference the magic system makes, given the extent to which the games are similar in approach if not in actual resolution) and I’m really not wild about playing Undead in it (they’ve gone from masters of attrition to brittle, fragile, scoop-off-a-dozen-a-turn and buy-units-of-a-hundred wound markers, and I never owned more than eighty Zombies at the peak of my madness). I occasionally take out some units and do a little repair or repainting on them, but then it’s largely back into the foam with them.
And none of this so much as touches the fact that I have kept the commanders from the armies I’ve sold off over the years, or that there’s a clutch of half a dozen IKRPG figures that just sit there, awkwardly not belonging in any case or, dare I say it, collection, and so are on display largely because they don’t belong anywhere. Oh, and of course I still own my sixth and seventh edition WFB core books and army books… but I’m going to use those again, right, I’m going to play sixth or seventh with people who acknowledge them to be better versions of the game, honest guv’nor I am. I’ve owned Vampire: the Requiem since release and never played it, a topic which I’m going to discuss on the House of Paincakes series very soon. And I would never, ever sell my precious Advanced Fighting Fantasy rulebooks even if there is a new version out. I’ve had them since 1994 (I think). They’re mine.
So, maybe it’s not as clear-cut as all that. Maybe the use I have for these things is something more ephemeral. Maybe some of the models and books I own are a kind of link to my hobby past, a reminder of where I’ve been or might have been, preserved in the glutinous amber of nostalgia against the day when, maybe just maybe, the syringe of recollection will penetrate that shell and extract the delicious archaic DNA of memory.
(Did I mention that Jurassic Park was on the other day? No? Now, there’s a film. The book’s better, obviously, but it was quite the thing in 1993 or whenever it was. I had all the toys they released around the first one, you know. In retrospect, I was a spoiled little bugger, especially considering the circumstances. I should ring my mother and thank her. I should also remember not to be such a soft touch around my own kids, in the event that they ever exist.)
The book that I was on about at the beginning was Death, Memory and Material Culture . That’s probably kinda telling.
Anyway, all this is a very roundabout way of saying that I’ve put some stuff that I definitely don’t collect up on eBay and you should buy it.