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A world objectified

23rd June 2011 - Emily Best

Jacket image for A History of the World in 100 ObjectsIn A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor exhibits the material products of the past two million years as souvenirs of the human race. All man-made items, they act as portals to previous worlds, taking the reader to the moment of their creation. MacGregor's 'objects' are singular, isolated products, out of their context, re-appropriated to reveal the circumstances under which they came into being. MacGregor offers a unique perspective: the incomprehensible spectrum of, basically, all of human history is refigured in a selection of entirely comprehensible, appreciable artefacts.

In the right hands, a piece of clay pot can give clues to a thousand years of Roman History; a note found in an old diary can encapsulate the lasting emotions pertaining to the past love that defined your teenage years and, when you're cleaning out your elderly mother's cupboard as she moves into a nursing home and you find a jar of sandwich paste that went out of date in 1972, you come to realise that that jar also contains a life that you're both leaving behind. We have a gift for imbuing the small, incidental, forgettable objects with the things that cannot be uttered, or even perceived, on their own terms.

One writer who has a particular knack for marrying the incidental with the monumental is Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was his follow-up to the incredibly successful Everything is Illuminated. Set in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York, it tells of Oskar Schell, a 12-year-old boy whose father, killed in the attacks, leaves him a key to which he must find the corresponding lock. Before his death, Oskar's father had set him challenges ("Reconnaissance Expeditions") but no instructions accompany the key: it is just a key in a vase. It is Oskar, his memory of his father and his notions of the world as a thing that must be mastered, that set the lockless key up as a challenge.

The critical reception for this book was not altogether positive, and there were definitely moments of self-conscious, self-referential quirkiness that made me feel a little ill, particularly having read, and loved, Everything is Illuminated. The Lock and Key as a metaphor is, perhaps, as obvious as they come, but throughout the book I found myself willing Oskar to find that lock, to find a resolution, just as we will ourselves and the people we love to find peace in monumentally difficult situations. I was so determined for Oskar to solve this puzzle because I couldn't begin to imagine how he would solve the puzzle of grieving a parent; of coming to terms with something as unknowable as the events that killed his father. Also, though, the key represents the very dangerous game that we play when we attach significance to items that may not have been there to begin with - all too often the floor of our presumptions falls away from under us. The result can be both devastating and incredibly liberating.

Jacket image for On Tremendous TriflesG K Chesterton's essay 'A Piece of Chalk' (which can be found in On Tremendous Trifles) recounts an episode one summer holiday where, having ventured out into the countryside to draw, the young Chesterton suddenly realises that he has forgotten his white chalk! Drawing on brown paper, white is as important a colour as any other ("as fierce as red, as definite as black") and, importantly, the presence of white chalk on brown paper illustrates a tangible representation of something that had hitherto been characterised purely as an absence [of colour], and therefore holds great moral and symbolic importance. Chesterton falls into despair. His pictures become meaningless without this so essential colour, facilitated by a stick of mineral perhaps a couple of inches long. He looks around him, pondering where he might be able to obtain such an important item. Breaking off a piece of the rock on which he is sitting, he has a revelation: the whole of Southern England is, effectively, a piece of chalk.

Objects can, on occasion, be utterly lovable, utterly brilliant, completely on their own terms. Nobody achieves this with such glee as Ivor Cutler. Cutler might just be my favourite man in the entire world, mostly because he has an inimitable knack for making the utterly incidental and frivolous so enjoyable it becomes essential. Where other writers utilise the small and seemingly inconsequential to point to the epic and monumental, for Cutler the small and inconsequential is epic and monumental, because what could be more important than feeling this happy?

Cutler's output is wide and varying and he is perhaps best known for his songs and radio works, but when it comes to small, incidental objects, I think A Wet Handle is a winner. The book itself measures only 12.5cm by 8.5cm , so is ideally portable for moments when frivolity is required. The poems cover vests, kettles and men, as well as more lofty subjects such as the Thatcher Generation and the joy of going on holiday aged twenty-four (because you can climb hills right to the top).

Cutler does not ask his reader to make any jump, logical or otherwise, to anything outside the poem - there is no need. Everything that is important about the subject is at once contained and extraordinary. So much so that, rather than say any more, I would just refer you to the poem on page 51, describing a mother's reaction to her son's request for a heptagon.


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