Bill Linnane: When does a prized possession become surplus to requirements?
There is an old story told about Topper Headon, drummer with the legendary British punk band The Clash, from the height of his heroin addiction. Having been booted from the band for his habit, and thus losing his income, one day he strolled into his local pawn shop to flog an armful of platinum records. The pawn shop owner asked if he was sure he wanted to sell such special items. Headon assured him that, yes, he wanted to sell the discs, and anyway, they were only the ones they got for the American sales, and he would never sell the British discs. A week later, he was back to sell the British ones.
In the two years since my father died, I have found myself going through repeat audits of the things he left behind. In the first 12 months, I refused to let anything go, hoarding storage boxes loaded with a century of knick-knacks, ephemera and various objects that straddle the divide between heirloom and junk. I had some vague plans to put all these items back in their rightful place - ie, cluttering up every room in the house - but once they were in boxes stacked in the attic, they started to lose their meaning. As the house slowly moved from being my parents' house to being mine, they became more like remnants of a lost civilisation; no matter how much of an aged hipster I would like to be, I see no real-world use for a quill sharpener, six pairs of opera glasses, or a foot-pedal sewing machine.
Items that go back a hundred years in my family stopped being prized possessions and started being surplus to requirements - even the stories about why they were so special have become vague memories. My wife will ask why we are keeping the brass candlesticks - I can only reply that they "go back to Famine times" and they were "used for someone's funeral". I'm like a child doing a report on a book they haven't bothered reading, trying to guess what happens by the front cover photo.
My father's illness only lasted four months, and while I had intentions of sitting down and recording all the stories of his life that he could tell me, somehow it felt ghoulish to do that, as it would mean accepting that he was dying. So now all of his belongings have been untethered from their past, and the auction house is being summoned.
As with Topper Headon's UK platinum records, what was once a prized family heirloom is now a commodity. Just as a marooned cartoon character looks at a fellow shipwreck survivor and hallucinates a roast chicken, I look at all these artefacts and see euro signs. Respecting the past is important, but so is money.
Of course, a lifetime of my dad telling me how valuable everything is is naught in the face of the auctioneer's grim assessments: "We have loads of those… Nobody wants those as they are too big… This might be worth €50… That needs to be fixed first… This will not sell… And I'm not even going to open that box".
After a while you start to realise that value is relative: to me they are worth something because they mean something; to anyone else, the price is all that matters. If these items leave me, their history is eradicated and they start life anew with someone else for a bargain basement price.
This cleansing process, which I assume is a sign of moving on, makes me realise just how little I will leave behind. One box of vinyl, six boxes of CDs, and a lot of books - mine, my father's, my grandfather's, and even my great grandfather's books on policing, still out on loan from Bantry RIC Barracks, now overdue by 140 years.
My father always said that he grew up in a time when you threw nothing away, and things were built to last. I've grown up in an age when everything is either disposable or digital. It feels odd to let go of so much, like a betrayal, but I try to tell myself it is only 'stuff'. Some day my kids will have to go through the same process as I have, albeit digitally, deactivating my Twitter account, deleting my blog, and wiping the internet clean of my presence. There will be nothing left to sell, and my kids will probably see me as the Topper Headon of the Linnane family line, flogging the family silver to buy Ikea furniture that won't last a generation.