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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 25 - Collectable gems among the creak of limbs

PERHAPS to escape from the deep depression caused by living in present-day Britain, with its failing hospitals, plunging pension values, pot-holed roads, traffic jams, spasmodic trains, dilatory buses, fears of terrorism and increasing prospects of union action that could drive the traditional coach and horses clattering over the government’s cobbled-together wages policy, many people are retreating into the cosy carapace of the past.

Apart from watching a ple-thora of TV history programmes showing patri- matri- and fratricide among our royals, and the surge and thunder of wars and rumours of wars, the nation is apparently busy searching its homes, especially attics and cellars, for artefacts and objets d’art. These may not only have intrinsic beauty or utility in themselves - some more recent ones produced when trains ran on time and you could get a plumber at weekends - but, if taken to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, might also give pleasure to viewers and valuers, and bring a cash cornucopia to owners.

Antiques could include anything from a jewelled, clockwork-adjusting, pocket sundial by Fabergé (1913), with opal-rimmed eyepiece through which daguerreotypes of Ras-putin blessing the Russian royal family or lecturing on morals to gypsy women are glimpsed, to an English William III clock, ingeniously constructed by Tompion (1701) for the hands to run backwards, with a sepulchral tick and a nasty emphasis on the tock, and with silver mounts depicting death and its scythe, deference among the lower-classes to their betters, the evils of alcoholic over-indulgence and the triumph of maidenly virtue over importuners.

The programme is skilled at creating tension between antiques’ owners, some with minds like cash registers, and experts who drone on about the history and construction of, say, a gilt and patinated bronze lepre-chaun, armed with a light machine-gun and smoking a cigar-ette, when the owners’ faces indicate, with barely concealed impatience, the question, "How much?" An entertaining exercise in commercialism, craftsmanship and cupidity, its success was emphasised when it had 8.4 million viewers compared with Paul Burrell’s first major interview with Trevor McDonald on ITV - shown at the same time - which pulled in 4.4 million watchers.

While mainly inanimate objects are valued in such TV shows, human antiques, many sadly under-appreciated, should, I believe, be given equal TV prominence. Recently, I attended a Golden Wrinklies Fair at the Mechanics Hall, Grimness, where an impressive collection of ancient Britons, some looking as old as Methuselah’s uncle, but still in good working trim and suitable for government preservation orders or designation as areas of special scientific interest, were assessed by experts in the living antiques game.

Among the creak of limbs and clang of Zimmers, the occasional entanglements of drip-feeds, accidental deflation of haemorrhoidal cushions and the staccato sniffing of ephedrine inhalers, I saw a finely-sculptured, Hugh Scanlon-type, trade union leader (circa 1970), still with full verbal control and able, when wound up, to display an efficient strike movement and deliver pronunciamentos about the value of secondary picketing in an implementatory context of relevant factors appertaining at any given moment in time.

Highly collectable, especially among political enthusiasts, as were ancient military relics, many bemedalled, some with sloping Lee Enfield-type arms, others with steely-blue, drill-sergeant glares and most still able to change step on the march when not in their half-track, air-cooled bath chairs. Also on display, but with doubtful provenance, was a furtive ancient claiming to be a veteran of the IRA Dental Corps, complete with 1921 field-service, denture-polishing equipment.

As I mingled with the hearty has-beens, a shrewd-looking valuer, pointing at me, cried: "Marvellous. I thought there were none left - a rare George V production of a standard citizen, the mould now sadly broken. Notice the finely-tapered legs, the well-upholstered seat, hint of bay window, well-fitted drawers, tungsten-laminated spectacles frame and the elegantly-moulded cornice in the cloth cap. While the veneer has been slightly distressed by age and Inland Revenue payments and needs some restoration, this is, undoubtedly, a chef d’oeuvre, and, if fitted with castors and laid down on its side, will continue to mature and be an asset to any discerning home."

A fair assessment, and with my ceiling price assessed at "beyond rubies", I raise a glass of my favourite, preservative tonic swamp water to the valuer and say, "Frieze a jolly good fellow." Need I say more?

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