A few summers ago I looked round at the various artefacts in my mountain house and realized how many beautiful objects I seem to have collected – pottery, miniatures, carpets, Uzbek wall-hangings, Kyrgyz and Iranian table coverings, glassware, plates, Chinese screens, wooden carvings et al. Of very little - except sentimental - value I hasten to add!
Bookmarks – paper and silk - pens, pencils (they have to be soft!!) occupy pride of place on the desks.
At the time I had been musing about the various roles I had played in my life - Lecturer, politician, networker, maverick, leader, writer, explorer, consultant, resource person – and suddenly a new label came to me – “collector”!
All of this is by way of preface to a lovely book The memory Palace – a book of lost interiors which I came across this week at Bucharest’s superb English Bookshop –
Taking his title from the Ciceronian rhetorical technique of memorising long speeches by means of an imaginary stroll through a series of grandiose palaces, and moving towards a depiction of the internet as a vast and ever-expanding memory palace, many of Hollis's potted histories establish a convincing relationship between the frailties of memory and the unavoidable solidity of material objects. As his grandmother’s mobility has declined, so the interior of the house has become a world in miniature…..
Another review gives a sense of the subjects covered -
The book is organised around vignettes of his ailing grandmother, confined to her sitting room: her fireplace like an altar, her trinkets a cabinet of curiosities. The fireplace leads him back to the Roman hearth and myths about the origins of Rome: from the “Purple Room”, in which the Byzantine emperors were born, to the cave in which a she-wolf was purported to have suckled Romulus and Remus.Tea breaks with his granny aside,
Hollis proceeds chronologically, taking in the relationship between medieval furniture and British statecraft; the collector’s impulse; the commodity culture of Victorian England; and the screens and virtual rooms of the digital age.
It’s a vast span, which Hollis looks to condense thematically by dwelling on palaces. He yokes together actual historical palaces with the classical concept of memory as a type of palatial enfilade in which everything has its recorded place. It’s a tidy idea that feels tenuous by the time we enter the Big Brother house in the final section.
I love such types of books - which defy categorisation, A Scotsman review puts it nicely -
All books have brief indicators of subject matter on the back. Hollis’s reads “History/Architecture”, to which could be added classical culture, popular culture, monarchy, politics, consumerism, memoir, art collecting and more. This is the kind of non-fiction – like the work of WG Sebald or Paul Collins or Rebecca Solnit – that makes fiction seem predictable, thin and uncurious.
The Independent also catches the atmosphere
Edward Hollis's The Memory Palace is ostensibly a selective and often forensic history of interiors. But it is, more tellingly, a kind of instruction manual about ways of thinking about these histories. It's less a descriptive route-march through physical interiors, more a treatise about the mysteries of time and place."The mind wanders from room to room," he writes, "from the cave in which we began to the [data] cloud we inherit today, each one of which represents a different mode of memory."
As I survey my various collections, it is inevitable that I wonder about its eventual break-up…..occasionally I come across a book which records the paintings collected by one person – a lovely idea which gave me the idea of adding the pics to the volume of 2015 posts. But more often artefacts are found in antique shops with no provenance….One has simply to fantasise about where they rested before – and with whom….
Some 30 years ago, when I was going through some difficult times, my sister-in-law tried to help me by encouraging me to explore the various roles I had – father, son, husband, politician, writer, activist etc. At the time I didn’t understand what she was driving at. Now I do! Makes me wonder what tombstone I should have carved for myself in the marvellous Sapanta cemetery in Maramures where people are remembered humourously in verse and pictures for their work or for the way they died!!
It was TS Eliot who wrote that “old men ought to be explorers” – perhaps the reason why my visiting card now says – “explorer and aesthete”!