I took my button box out of the cupboard a couple of weeks ago. Ever since then I’ve found myself wandering over to look at it, or gazing at it when I’m sitting nearby. I don’t know exactly why. Am I remembering times past? Family life? My childhood?
Or perhaps it’s simply an affectionate fascination with the old toffee tin – yes, a tin not a box – and its contents. Which are not only buttons – and not only useful.
Buttons are in the majority – there was an amazing variety but at some stage I decided to make a necklace using the best. And where’s that necklace now? Ah, well. There are still plenty to remind me of my mother’s old coats – big, bold buttons that are so 1950s, that speak of three quarter sleeves, fur cuffs and long leather gloves.
Other odds and ends bring back uncomfortable memories of girly adolescence. Contraptions of plastic, elastic and metal for holding up stockings. The bits that would eventually tear away from the suspender belt. We had spare ones in the button box for mending.
And, forget sexy, by the way. Thick, ribbed, grey school stockings were not remotely sexy. Nor were the suspender belts that held them up.
Worse were the flesh-coloured elastic belts that restrained the bulky pads we resorted to once a month. I always found it slightly creepy, that flesh-coloured elastic. A remnant of it lurks within the tin.
A younger friend asked me what a button box was for – her family has one, too, and she’d never thought to ask. Like many family things, it’s just there – rarely used, these days. I suspect that sewing-on buttons and mending are chores that have gone with the wind – or with Primark and its ilk, more like.
But back to the box.
Inside – perhaps one of the reasons it was always so enticing – was a small, very dark blue rectangle. It was made of two pieces of tough fabric sewn together tightly, by hand, around all the edges.
This rectangle contained a holy relic. I’m sure someone told me whose and what – I used to hope it wasn’t a piece of skin – but I forgot long ago. I’m guessing it was from one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
But now, whenever I look at the tin, along with the affection and urge to scrabble through its contents, comes an uncomfortable feeling of guilt.
I took the relic out. And now I have no idea where it is.
In the old days, anything that had been blessed and was to be disposed of had to be burnt. Imagine what you had to do to a relic! If you had the temerity to rid yourself of it in the first place.
I didn’t want to rid myself of it, but I didn’t think it was the ideal location for something holy.
What did I know?
If I’d left well alone, it would still be there, where it rested for tens of years, untroubled except by amber glass beads and mother-of-pearl buttons.
But now I’m beginning to see the button box as something bigger even than a receptacle for a holy relic.
A symbol of a different world.
A world where my mother’s dressmaking scissors are still my favourites – sharp, heavy, a perfect ergonomic design – after who knows how many years. Where the crimson, satin-edged, Witney wool blankets that warmed the night for my parents still grace my bed today.
Where if something worked, you carried on using it. And if it broke – and if you could – you mended it.
I still use a mobile phone I bought more than ten years ago. It doesn’t do email or movies or take photos. I don’t need it to do that.
But the commercial world’s conspiring against me.
One day I’ll have to buy something that does all the things the PC and laptop I have at home – where I work, where I spend most of my time – do. I’ll end up either being inconvenienced or disadvantaged – or both – if I don’t acquire a ‘smarter’ phone. It feels like a conspiracy. Like Microsoft giving up on XP felt.
Think conspiracy’s too strong?
The BBC (with the Open University) has just begun running ‘The Men Who Made us Spend’ on TV. Watch it if you can. It’s on iPlayer. It proves what we all really know – the commercial world does conspire to make us spend, or, more specifically, to make us buy – and buy again. Built-in obsolescence, that’s the thing.
It gives a classic example. Way back when, light bulb manufacturers, led by Osram, got together and decided to reduce the length of time their bulbs would carry on working. To make us buy more. That’s a conspiracy, in my book. (And, yes, I know the thickness of the filament makes a difference to the brightness as well as the life of the bulb – but their profits increased, I rest my case.)
Whether you could call the incessant launching of new, slightly different, annoyingly revamped phones, tablets, computers and software every five minutes a conspiracy is a moot point. I guess it can only be such if you accept that consumers willingly collude in a conspiracy that ultimately makes them spend.
Whatever it is, I’m tired of it.
And one day, when the earth is covered by waste metals and plastics, polluted by chemicals that damage our very existence, maybe someone will hold the lead conspirators to account. And not just by taking their money to fix it (if it’s not too late).
Paying their fair share of taxes would be a good start for some of them, don’t you think?