‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

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?