I have rummaged round shops all over Europe and garage sales in America. I have hung about in Arab souks and Indian bazaars, but I have never seen anything quite like my grandmother’s elephant.

Magazine - Collecting things


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Collecting things – My Grandmother's elephant

By Chris Wilson

My grandmother had a beautiful elephant carved out of sandalwood on her dressing table which I secretly used to covet. I wanted it more than anything in the world. It was about the size of a football and had a cheeky smile. It was inlaid with tiny circular mirrors and mother of pearl, and had real ivory tusks and toenails. One day my sister said “Oh Grandma, please can I have it?” and, to my fury and disbelief, she just gave it to her! I immediately made two resolutions: 1) never to speak to either of them ever again. 2) To find another elephant just like it.

Ever since I have been scouring the world. I have rummaged round junk shops and antique shops all over Europe, I have been to garage sales and flea markets in America, I have hung about in Arab souks and Indian bazaars, but I have never seen anything quite the same.

Along the way, however, I have acquired all sorts of other elephants and my collection has grown and grown. I have got  black ebony elephants from Malawi, and a couple of ivory – all, I hasten to add, made a long time ago, before  the ebony trees were chopped down and the ivory trade was made illegal. I also have soap stone elephants from Zimbabwe, and an exotic  Congolese one carved out of bright green malachite. I have a whole family of wooden Thai elephants marching along the top of my piano – sometimes when I sit and play  I could swear they are marching in time to the music. I have two very heavy, long legged elephants which I bought in Khan el Khalili, in Cairo, which I use as bookends, and an enormous fat one from the Sudan which I use as a coffee table. My search goes on, but it gets more and more difficult to find really good pieces. On recent trips to Africa I have noticed how the quality of the workmanship has deteriorated. In craft markets all over the continent you can find thousands of elephants, but they are nearly all shoddily made, churned out for tourists by people who probably have never seen a real elephant in their lives.

Why do people collect things? Probably many, like me, don’t set out to do so. You just acquire something, then another and another and then, once you’ve got a small collection you just keep adding to it. I have an uncle who collects key rings – he has hundreds of them from all over the world – but he can’t remember how it started. Other people collect stamps, stones,  beer cans, beer mats, match boxes, all sorts of things. For some it can become a total obsession and they will go to any lengths to get something. One of my colleagues collects Royal memorabilia, which to me is the ultimate in bad taste! Her house is crammed full of kitsch things like Coronation mugs, ashtrays with pictures of Charles and Diana, British flags, tea towels printed with Windsor Castle and even a toilet seat cover with Prince Andrew grinning widely up at you. What is this urge to possess all these things?

I recently discussed this question with a group of students in Mozambique and what rapidly became evident was that few of them had such an urge. “Why not?” I asked. “I don’t know” said Anotonio. “It’s just not in our culture”.“Does that mean you’re not as materialistic as Europeans?”Antonio laughed. “No way! We want cars and houses and fancy things just like anyone else, but we don’t collect knick knacks, things we can’t use”.“I think it’s because of our recent war” said Maria “and the state of the economy. For many years there was nothing to collect, except shells off the beach perhaps”.“Ï collect shoes” said Teresa, who comes from Angola. “I have over seventy pairs. But I buy them to wear, not just for the sake of having them”.“Oh come on!” laughed Antonio. “Anything you don’t actually need you have for the sake of having it, and you can’t possibly need seventy pairs!”“I do, I need every single pair!” she insisted.“So you are a collector!”“No I’m not!”“Yes you are!” shouted the whole class.

Paula stuck up her hand. “I’m a collector” she said. “Ï am a fan of  Julio Iglesias and I have all his CD’s, every  one, even the latest  which, I have to admit, isn’t very good at all”. “So why did you buy it?” I asked. “Well, because I’ve got all the others of course” she said. “And my son collects those little plastic dinosaurs you find inside cereal packets. He’s only got to get T Rex and then he’s got the whole set.”“They are exploiting you” said Antonio. “They encourage children to become collectors so that you keep buying more and more. This is something new in our country. Soon we will all be fanatically collecting things, just like everyone else in the world”.

Harshill, who is of Indian origin, had been silent all this time. He cleared his throat. “One good reason to collect things is that a collection is worth more - how do you say in English? More than the sum of its parts. If you sold your elephants one by one you wouldn’t get nearly as much as if you sold the whole collection. So it is a way of saving money, a good investment.”

On the way back to my hotel a young boy was selling a badly carved elephant by the side of the road. I didn’t want it but I bought it because I felt sorry for him. Later I thought I should just have given him some money and let him try to sell it to someone else. It would never be part of my collection, each in its own special place in a different part of my house. I imagined walking round looking at them all and thought about what Harshill had said – it’s a way of increasing the value of what you already have - but as usual there was that niggling feeling that my collection, not matter how valuable, would never be complete. Not without my Grandmothers elephant! What a waste for it to be with my sister when it could be, should be,  with me!“Oh well, never mind, try not to be obsessed” I told myself.

Ever since though, I have been lying awake at night, thinking of it standing there on a brass table in her hallway, next to the window she always leaves open  for her cat. Her dogs know me, so they won’t be a problem when I climb over the wall in my gloves and balaclava. The whole operation will be over in less than five minutes. The only problem is, having acquired it, what will I do when my sister comes barging in to nose around, as she periodically does, and sees it in pride of place in my house? I’ll have to keep it hidden and then what will be the point of having it? Oh dear. Perhaps I could have a special alarm that would only ring when my sister is on her way. No that’s silly. I’ll just have to move. To another country, under another name, far, far away. But even then, knowing her, she’ll track me down. Oh  – dear Reader, what would you do if you were me?

Task 1

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Thanks for explanation Peter.

If i were you i would speaking with my sister and i will hope that she would understand me of all this collecting things.I think that when people done somesing bad to get things that they wanted, it is not normal for our soсiety,it is not normal for us.Collecting should bring to us happiness not making us obsessed.So, frankly speaking the best way out of this situation, if i talk to my sister and trying to explane to her how it is fatefully for me and if she like me she will realize me but if not i will not be upset because i have very, very great, huge collection of wonderful,beautiful elephants.The matter is that one good reason to collect things, stams,beer mugs, postcard,figurines is that a collection is worth more than the sum of it is parts.You must fnd the way of increasing the value of what you already have and learning how enjoy what you had already have.This story is very useful, thanks a lot )

When I was ten years old, I began a key-ring collection.  The first ones were with the images of the Astronauts.  The purpose was not to start a collection but to have the images.  After that, I collected the key-rings found with the coffee « Grand-mère ».  The collection has been launched.
Today I have begun a collection of old cameras.  The purpose is to have a real collection.
Conclusion : two different ages, two different types of collection, two different reasons.
I appreciate particularly the last paragraph with typical english humour.

I would like to tell you that I really appreciated your story, full of poetry and humour, really well written. I would like to add that this text made me love your grandma, because the elephant on her dressing table was a link between her and you, and I think that's why you were obsessed by the fact of having it. I am proud to tell you that I have a house full of such links, even kitsch things like Royal teaspoons. And I wish everybody lived surrounded by souvenirs from their families or friends.

Could you tell me why the writer says "not just for the sake of having them" (paragraph 5th, line 6) but not "not just having them"? By the way, could you tell me more about "sake"?
Thank you!

Hello Duc Tran,
Have you tried using the Cambridge Dictionaries Online tool for this?  If you type in 'sake' you'll find a list of phrases in which it is used, definitions and examples. I think that will answer your question very fully, but please do reply if you have any questions about the information there.
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

i like stamp collecting. 

I think reason for this is unlimited temptation in our mind.It's different person by person and unfortunately we  all can't understand about that .Grief ,enjoy.bereavement, these all are In our mind.So what is your  Idea?

Yes, I also agree that differences between people , make "collecting" an unlimited issue. I also think that this is beautiful :)

hi Iam kawthar from syria I am be interesting about this article