Monday, February 4, 2013


The ponderings on souvenirs, (see ), raised the question of the importance that objects in our personal space can have for us. But how do we use souvenirs? How do they use us? My eye was caught by a simple potholder lying on the kitchen bench amongst the usual culinary clutter. It had been used for some years and really had never been given a thought. Now I am looking at it. The square holder is bordered with a repetition of 'NOOSA,' as if to make the point clear no matter how the square might lie. Inside this lettered border, a designer has cleverly manipulated a diagram of an aerial angle of the Noosa beach cove and its adjacent headland into a diagonal division of the square, with schematic shells and beach paraphernalia in one corner, and a diagrammatic sun in the other. Spiky shapes that look like pandanus fronds overlap the rippled ocean expanse. The design is printed on fabric in bright, sunny colours. This is Noosa, icon of the north coast beaches - those north of Brisbane - in sunny Queensland that promotes itself to tourists by boasting of being 'brilliant one day, better the next,' or something just as trite. It does rain in Australia too, as the reports of severe floods reveal; and devastating cyclones are not unknown.

How did we get this little piece of Australia on the kitchen bench in the gales, rain and sleet of sunny Shetland where all weathers can appear in one day? It is not something we would have purchased. It must have been left here by a 'friend or family' member. I am always intrigued by this common reference and its juxtaposition of classifications that seems to exclude the possibility of any family member ever having anything like a friendly relationship with another. Such are families. The potholder has been used as the stains show. Did it ever bring to mind the pleasant days we have had in Noosa? Surely this is the role of a souvenir.

 Well, frankly no. When I first noticed it - it must have been around for some time - the design caught my eye: maybe the colours. The repetitive linear lettering stood out - NOOSA NOOSA NOOSA NOOSA . . . - punctuated with a small diagram of the sun, a shell, a boat, a pandanus, etc., all themes from the main illustration, with a different image in each corner and between each naming. Then the bright emerald green squiggles of the ocean were observed . . . then the pattern of the whole: its ingenious diagonal arrangement. It is an 'interesting' design that exudes a certain brash confidence, a little like a Ken Done graphic. But do I feel any relationship or connection to the experience of Noosa? No. Does this potholder remind me of Noosa? No, there is nothing vital, essential, or necessary here. I can make myself recall Noosa and match the diagram of the design to its geographical features, but this is an intellectual effort. Perhaps I could also see the pattern as a beach at Penang? Nothing is immediate here. There is no connective feeling. It just is a coloured pattern with text repeating NOOSA frequently, as if it knows that the graphic design alone will not make this connection. It doesn't. One notices the stylisation before the subject, the colours and marks before the place. This is not Noosa; or Shetland. It is a decorated potholder with an advertisement on it.

So is the potholder useful? Well, yes. None of the letters, shapes or colours detracts from its function as a potholder. It even has a corner loop that allows it to be hung nearby for convenience. The 'souvenir' qualities of this small piece of padded fabric are intellectual rather than experiential. One has to think about the Noosa connection to establish any link. The potholder reminds one of the other classic souvenir - the tea towel. These are used unseen, un-thought-of. They are handled totally carelessly, whether they are carrying images of London, Sydney, dogs, or sketched self-portraits of the grandchildren. In fact a tea towel declaring 'Jenolan Caves New South Wales' has just been noticed hanging on the oven handle. One picks the cloth up nonchalantly with every attention being given to the task at hand - wet or hot. Occasionally 'Irish linen - Made in, say, Checoslovakia' will appear as the towel wipes the plate or brushes the bench, revealing information that bears no relationship to the reference of the images that could be Argentina or Africa. I look and discover that the 'Jenolan Caves' tea towel is 'Irish Linen, Designed in Australia, Hand Printed.' It cunningly avoids telling where it was made - Taiwan? India? Another tea towel covering a platter of cheese catches my eye. It displays an 'Australan Koala Bear' in a gum tree. The lower border bold text tells: - 'PURE IRISH LINEN, FAST COLORS, MADE IN IRELAND.' In Ireland, there was a tea towel souvenir of Dublin that was 'Pure Cotton.' I have never worked this one out. Just why Australian bears or caves should appear printed on Irish linen, while drawings of Dublin are screened onto cotton - possibly Australian cotton - remains one of those strange puzzles in our world today. Christy Moore sings of tourists passing: ‘They go here, and we go there,’ in the same way as Fritz Schumacher wrote of trucks with Edinburgh-made biscuits going to London pass the trucks with London-made biscuits going to Edinburgh. There is a certain lack of rigour and care here that seems just too blatant in the way the coherence of context is ignored, when product and place are both celebrated and neglected. Today, one sees 'Made in China' on most souvenirs everywhere.


After the first recognition of the message and the initial enthusiasm for the souvenir, which could be appropriate 'Oohs and Aahs' in astonished praise for the piece of memorabilia, it eventually becomes just a functional object, whether linen, cotton or hemp; birds, bears or buildings; Australia, Argentina or America. Its value lies in its effectiveness as a tool. Linen is better than cotton sometimes. Some potholders are better insulated than others. So, given this outcome where the function of the item is all that matters, why would anyone bother about the souvenir print? Perhaps it made someone happy; or maybe it solved someone's dilemma: 'What will I buy Bill - and Mary?' Maybe the delight of the tourist, freed from 'everyday' concerns, cast a beneficial glow, and made this particular piece immediately irresistible? Whatever it was, as a potholder or as a tea towel, the item could have had anything else or nothing on it. It would make no functional difference.

The flipside of the souvenir - what it becomes in its end context - shows a fast-fading vision that turns into a functional reality. Just what happens to souvenirs that have no function beyond being a 'thingy' thing is anyone's guess. The charity shops are full of these pieces that just get given away when their original interest fades, or when the dust becomes just too much of a problem. Such is the life of a souvenir. Some linger on into a life of their own, like the cup from Baltaound, Shetland from the early 1950's. It is of historic interest now as it reveals the promotions of another era - a more polite time that labelled its decorative items in lovely descriptive script: 'A Present from Baltasound.' The role of this cup now is to form part of a display in the Unst Heritage Centre. Ah, those were the days!

Other objects continue with their sad declaration of, say, 'Katoomba,' in dark drawers of wonderful clutter to be discovered by others who have never heard of the place, (in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney: 'gateway to the Jenolan Caves'), and who have no interest in knowing about the place where the silly little knife apparently came from. The original driving desire to purchase the fruit knife has long dissipated or has disappeared. The object now stands alone in the world of dross, or has been gathered into a collection of similar discards in the local junk store. The pathos of the box filled with teaspoons, each declaring an origin and a destination that no one now cares for, is just overwhelming. These were once more than loved. They were once the markers of happiness; the embodiment of delight and memories. They each once recalled an exact time and place of purchase, now forgotten and irrelevant. They are just a pile of tired, neglected kitsch that is not given the dignity of even ordinary use. The very best that these dull instruments can hope for is to become someone's quirky decorative piece; or for one item from the messy mass to reignite as a flicker, that original fire in someone who knows and has a love for a recognised location. The most likely outcome is that the tarnishing and corroding tangle of metal will remain as an embarrassment to folk by reminding them of the time when they too once purchased such silly and expensive items with a mad enthusiasm.

Such are souvenirs, doodads, that the dictionary more rationally describes as: n. keepsake; memento. v. sl. purloin. The verb is interesting. Souvenirs themselves eventually purloin one's dignity. The circumstance is most frequently revealed in the self-consciously nonchalant explanation, "Oh, that was purchased when we were in . . . ," words that seek to overcome humiliation and responsibility by revealing that the choice was made when one was a tourist - when one was emotionally distracted and differently irrational - see

 But a few souvenirs redeem themselves. They embody usefulness and quality; they inspire and inform.  The word souvenir comes to us from the French:
 sou·ve·nir  (sv-nîr, sv-nîr)  n.

A token of remembrance; a memento.

[French, from Old French, to recall, memory, from Latin subvenre, to come to mind : sub-, sub- + venre, to come; see gw- in Indo-European roots.]     (The Free Dictionary)
Does this explain why these French souvenirs remain both beautiful and useful even after being discarded in a charity shop? Is it their modesty; their genuine interest in nature and people that makes them more than kitsch?


see also

Another thought arises: is the re-enactment of the past a kind of performance souvenir? - see

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