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Obsessive collecting disorder

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During my team’s daily search for silly stories to turn into radio gold on my show, my producer recently stumbled across this: “Former milkman Paul Luke, 33, has been forced to build a museum in his back garden after his home became too small to hold his collection… of more than 10,000 milk bottles.” Now, I like a milk bottle as much, perhaps even more than, the next man, particularly if the next man happens to be the heir to the Tetra Pak packaging empire. But hoarding so many of them that you need to construct a museum to house them — could that be deemed as just a little bit odd?

True, whenever you read a story about someone who collects human hair/Alan Titchmarsh paraphernalia/the complete works of Finnish speed death-metal band Trollheim’s Grott, often you will discover that the protagonist is both ‘single’ and ‘jobless’. The piece’s accompanying photo will usually depict a person stranded somewhere in the hinterland between ‘kooky’ and ‘unhinged’. And usually it will be a man. I am here to defend and ‘normalise’ the compulsive collector. I am a man and I, too, have a collection. My particular weakness is guitars.

FIRST LOVE

I remember my mum taking me to buy my first guitar. It was 1987. It was a black Westbury Standard. The guitar was a bit of a lemon, but to my 15-year-old fingers, calloused and cracked through hour upon hour of trying to master Badge by Cream, it was a portal to another world; a sure-fire fasttrack to fame, fortune and fornication. Sadly, neither fame, fortune nor fornication followed, but what remained was a lifelong desire to own and play as many guitars as possible. Despite having a memory worse than a Mafia don in the dock, I can still remember what all the guitars I have ever owned smelled like. To a devotee such as myself, a guitar is a living, pulsating, biological organism. Hewn from the once-breathing timber of a far-flung tree, its entire raison d’être is to reverberate in sympathy with your own moods.

Whenever I sit down with my 1973 Gibson Les Paul (the anorak alarm has been sounded) and play it, and I look at the cigarette burn on the headstock and the belt marks on the back, I am there in the sweaty, smoky, Seventies clubs it was played in. Owning a vintage guitar is a Scott Bakula-style quantum leap into rock’n’roll’s rich past. I once interviewed bluesman Seasick Steve, who played us a song on an acoustic guitar that was 150 years old. To be able to play music on an instrument that pre-dates recorded music itself — man, that sh*t is cosmic.

As to why men gravitate towards compulsive collecting more than women, I have my theories. My years of psychiatric research (two Google searches) have uncovered the fact that men are much more likely to be narcissistic, mostly due to their testosterone levels. Their record, guitar or car collection is their mistress, the only thing they understand and that truly understands them, their emotional depth and intellectual greatness. They curate it. It’s their past, present and future, their Tutankhamun’s tomb, telling forthcoming generations who they were.

Does the record collector need to own all 16 versions of the song It Mek by Desmond Dekker? The rational answer is no. But we are not dealing with rational people here. I guess it gives them a deep-seated pleasure to know they have ‘covered off’ one small area of life. They may not know the answers to the big questions such as “Is there life after death?”, “What is love?” or “When will the satellite repairman come?”, but if someone asks them, “Do you have all 16 versions of It Mek by Desmond Dekker?” they will be able to deliver an emphatic, “Yes.”

Some psychiatrists say that the impulse to hoard is a natural and adaptive instinct gone awry. Indeed, the bowerbird collects shiny stones to impress females into thinking he is at the top of the evolutionary tree.

But let’s be frank, there isn’t anything hot about a man who has every single piece of Buffy The Vampire Slayer merchandise stacked perilously in towers around his sordid little griefhole (thanks Chris Morris). Saying that, it’s not just men that like to squander their precious wages on utterly pointless things purely for the sake of it, women like to do this too. Such talk of compulsive collection would be remiss if it did not mention some females’ desire to own Imelda Marcos-ian quantities of shoes — though I do know that a) most women do not obsessively collect shoes, and b) like so many things, it’s mostly Sarah Jessica Parker’s fault. One female friend had an entire wing of her newly renovated house specially designed as a repository for her thousands of pairs of shoes. After all, who on earth, apart from a fashion-conscious, narcissistic half-human/half-centipede needs 17 pairs of yellow patent-leather stilettos?

HARD HABIT TO BREAK

Understandably, few partners of people who share my guitar habit can comprehend why their other halves are p*ssing the annual GDP of Uzbekistan up the wall on guitars. (Incidentally, when you have amassed as many guitars as I now have, the wall is the best place for them. The only piece of DIY I have ever done in the house has been fixing brackets on to the wall in order to house my musical delights.)

As for the seriousness of my compulsion? It’s pretty serious. I have genuinely considered drawing on all possible funds, existent and non, to buy a pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster for about £50,000. I could see the objection coming a mile off from my wife, but I had the copper-bottomed reasoning all lined up to parry the challenge,

the simple and beautiful: “But it’s a brilliant investment. Apart from property, guitars are one of the fastest-rising commodities around. Oligarchs and Chinese billionaires love to collect them. It will double in value in 10 years.”

This is all true, of course. It’s just that there’s one problem with the plan — which is that once I have a salmon-pink 1954 Stratocaster, not even the possibility of my children being sold into slavery would cajole me into parting with it.

All this consuming flies in the face of my own half-baked, pseudo-hippy, quasi-Buddhist ideals. Those guys believe that to truly attain freedom and therefore nirvana, one needs to wrestle oneself from the chains of desire, especially the desire for inanimate objects to which we humans seem to ascribe so much totemic importance. Personally, I don’t consider myself materialistic — I’m closer to Rowan Williams than Roman Abramovich.

But when it comes to guitars, though it pains me to say it, balls to the Buddhists. For me, nirvana can quite easily be achieved on the front pickup of a sea-foam green 1959 Fender Stratocaster.

Images: Dan Matthews

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