Small Objects of Desire

I remember once, a long time ago, reading a weekend colour-supplement article entitled Small Objects of Desire. It must have been a long time ago – probably the 1980s since one of the desired articles was a mobile phone. I seem to recall that in the ’80s most mobile phones were the size of a dachshund dog, and had aerials. The phones, not the dachshunds.

Try as I might I can’t remember any of the other desired objects listed in that article, but the pictures of them were lovely. My father tended to discard a whole heap of supplements every weekend in favour of the newspapers they fell out of. I rescued them and relished them, mostly because of the arty colour photographs and sophisticated, intellectual, cultured, urban lifestyle they seemed to imply everyone lived. This was in the days before the internet, of course: nowadays we’re awash with arty images.

I’ve actually been trying to find out where that oddly memorable phrase Small Objects of Desire came from. It struck me it had to be a quote rather than something a journalist would just make up. The nearest I have got to it is something on Wikipedia, linking it to French psychoanalyst by the name of Lacan in the 1950s or ‘60s, who coined the term Object petit a which makes no sense grammatically and which he stipulated should never be translated. So I haven’t. Neither have I been able to untangle Monsieur Lacan’s psychoanalytical theories though I’m normally quite good at that sort of thing.

But it did lead me to wondering what might be my small objects of desire? I think the phrase rules out anything you already possess – such as the green glass cat I mentioned in The Armageddon Suitcase. I think it means things you want. Little things. Exquisite little things. Or maybe things you have lost.

I’m afraid the first thing that occurred to me was my Phillips screwdriver with the orange handle. In fact, that may be what inspired this post. I found it, you see. It was a particularly useful screwdriver – just the right size for most household uses – and I liked the orangeness of the handle. It was a lucky object for me, like the battered retractable tape-measure my father once gave me. I lost both of them, eventually. The tape-measure has never returned. Despite serial house moves since then I can’t help but continue to keep an eye out for it.

But the orange screwdriver turned up the other day, in a cardboard box with an old red kettle. Why I had kept the kettle (which didn’t work – I tried it) and why and when I had dropped the screwdriver into the cardboard box with it – who knows. Finding it I felt… as if all had become slightly less skew-whiff with the world, somehow. But the world is still somewhat skew-whiff because of Dad’s tape-measure.

So – lost objects are objects of desire, almost by definition, but what about purely desired objects?

I tend to desire expensive stationery. Yes, I know that’s odd. Those completely useless little leather notebooks with vellum-like paper, smoothly-rounded edges and marbled boards or marbled endpapers (I used to catalogue old books for a publisher – that’s what they’re called, those swirly patterns). And I crave pencils – specifically those dark green pencils that look as if they’re crafted from the skins of wooden alligators; 2B graphite, no other; and sharp.

The desiring does not necessarily depend on how much an object costs, though it may do.

Paintings – little paintings. I think if I had money I would buy little watercolours and display them all up the stairs. But I’d have to get the stairway redecorated first, to show them off to best advantage. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? One expenditure will always beget another.

Books – I would buy old books, especially dictionaries.  I like the outdated or wilfully eccentric definitions of words (Samuel Johnson: Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people) combined with indecipherable typefaces and that unmistakeable smell of crumbling pages, the dust of centuries disturbed…

Anyway, I’ve run out of puff with this idea and the tumble dryer has started beeping at me. A list to be added to another time, perhaps.

What are your small objects of desire?

And have you any idea what old Lacan was on about?

The poetry is in the pity

What sparked this off was a picture of a baby I found in the bottom drawer of a weird cupboard thingy I bought on impulse in a charity shop. It – the cupboard, not the baby – is about the size of a grandfather clock with shelves and spaces in an eccentric configuration. The man in the shop didn’t know how to describe it on the invoice so he just called it Wooden Thing, or somesuch. I rather like it. I can see it in my new kitchen, assuming all goes well with the house move. I am using it to keep my multi-cat-household-stuff all together in one place – bowls, brushes, a variety of probably-out-of-date half-finished medicines, a collection of cut up cereal boxes for scraping up those darling little piles of this-and-that first thing in the morning…

Anyway, I thought I’d thoroughly explored all those weirdly-arranged drawers, but I missed something. Today, in the very bottom one I found an odd-shaped block of poor-quality wood – an offcut maybe – and a polaroid photograph of a baby.

To the unpractised eye he looks much like any other baby. Sort of spherical; rather red; not entirely bald; correct number of fingers on each hand. He’s wearing a rather charming stripy blue and white bottom-half and a matching blue fleecy top, with a hood, and he’s fast asleep in the corner of what looks like an armchair or old sofa wearing a faint, Mona Lisa smile.

My first thought was oh, I must somehow get this back to the owners (the baby photo not the cupboard) but then I looked at the back on which was inscribed in a round, unmistakeably female hand: Harry Noah Dodsworth Lauder, born: 28.10.08. So – frantic maths – the infant would be around eight years old by now.

I suppose he could even be reading this post. The ability to use the internet has now started to be inherited genetically, I reckon. Even foetuses know about CTRL-ALT-DELETE. Even in the womb, little Harry could have told me why I can no longer get links to work on this blog, and with any luck in plain English rather than irrelevant, supercilious geek-speak. Bit muffled, maybe, due to the womb.

Why did they name their child after a music-hall artiste? I wondered. But then of course they wouldn’t have heard of Harry Lauder. He was even before my time. Quite like the Noah, though. Nice manly name. Good strong ark-building name. A jutting-jawed, I’ll-do-it my-way sort of name. And Dodsworth… Dodsworth… Charles Lutwidge…? Oh no, that was Dodson. More likely the mother’s maiden name or a treasured family surname.


Harry Lauder (looking rather pink also)

The baby-photo gave me an idea for a story. It’ll probably never get written, but you never know. It also reminded me of all the little objects I have found and lost. Like those red plastic sunglasses when I was a child (I would link you to my posted mini-story “She…” at this point but I can’t because WordPress have broken my links.) Like the smooth, heavy stone with a fossil of some long-dead tiny octopus on it, with legs and suckers and all. I lost that again, somewhere along the way. I’ve regretted that ever since. I’m sure the ancient fossil-octopus was a talisman, intended for me alone. Never had a day’s luck since I mislaid it.

And how many other things – a dropped key, a single earring; a child’s bangle; a small, squashy bear near the village infant’s school, probably thrown out of a push-chair; a £10 note in a car-park. All those things I found and should have kept, and now have lost again.

So, I’m going to start a Found Objects box. I’ve got a spare shoe-box (the cut-up cereal boxes will have to go somewhere else). Everything I find from now on will go in it. Everything I find will, at some point, get turned into a story; or maybe just collected, just for the saving of things that would otherwise be lost and unloved. The poetry, as they say, is in the pity.

Featured Image: Fobots (found object robots) by North Carolina artist Amy Flynn

tutu girls