Episode 4: The Pig Chase and the Pheasant in the Brown Paper Bag

I have noticed two things over the past few months.  The first is that I have inherited the ‘might-come-in-useful-one-day’ gene.  While sorting through dad’s things, I can’t bring myself to throw away anything that looks like it might be a part of something else even though I know that the likelihood of me recognising that ‘something else’ is fairly slim.  In true Plisner fashion I now have a pile of these almost-useful objects waiting for their long-lost counterpart that, for all I know, could be lying  in the very same pile.   One day it will have to be dealt with…………..but not today.

The second is that my once-large garage appears to be shrinking; strangely dad’s looks more spacious than usual.

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A couple of blogs ago, when I told the tale of the guns there was a suggestion that dad may have had them to try to shoot a pheasant.  This is the story of the pheasants at the end of the garden and one about the Agnes the pig; interspersed as usual with more drawers and collections.

After moving into the house near Cambridge, dad harboured ideas about using his one acre of land to become self-sufficient.  For inspiration a visit was paid to John Seymour, the 1960’s Self-Sufficiency guru on whom the TV series ‘The Good Life’ was said to be based, at his small-holding in Suffolk.  Mum recently told me that she and dad had been disappointed with the visit. While they were there, John’s wife returned from a day’s shopping in London having purchased lots of fancy cheeses.   This was not a model of self-sufficiency that mum and dad were particularly interested in subscribing to and anyway my mum always hated blue cheese.

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Not to be deterred from the ideal, in the years while I was growing up, dad used the garden to house beehives, pigs, one sheep, geese, ducks, chickens and rabbits and there was always a vegetable patch full of leeks and potatoes.  Having  lived off the land for several years, whilst hiding in rural France during the war, dad was quite a dab hand at killing, plucking and gutting most things and, apart from the occasions when my pet rabbits appeared as Sunday lunch, we were all quite happy to go along with it.

Agnes, our first pig appeared when dad realised that the school where he taught was disposing of large volumes of food on a daily basis.  Anyone who experienced school dinners of the 60’s and 70’s will remember why more was thrown away than was ever eaten and I am sure that a large proportion of the pigs-swill was tapioca and re-hydrated cabbage which at my school seemed to be on the menu every day. True to form dad decided that he could put this waste to good use.  He purchased a pig, two plastic dustbins and some wire fencing.  A pen was constructed in the back garden and before too long Agnes was in residence.  Each day dad would return from school, the two plastic dustbins in the back of his Austin 1300 full of the still-luke-warm food, along with that familiar school-dinner aroma.  Agnes would snort with delight as the dustbins were emptied into her trough.  That same pattern continued for several years, during which time we bred pigs and ate pork as an alternative to chicken and my rabbits were spared.  Then new regulations came in that stated all such food had to be re-processed before it was fed to animals.  At which point the pigs were recycled into the freezer.

Shaving

Much of my childhood was spent rounding up said livestock from other people’s gardens in the village (neighbouring villages in the case of the sheep).  The geese were the worst offenders and it was a regular occurrence for my brother Peter or I to have to go up to the village shop, where we would find them hissing away at anyone who passed.  One unforgettable occasion was when I was about 15.  My friend (Splodge) and I were going to a party and, armed with our 30p bottle of cider and dressed in the latest fashion of long wrap-around cheesecloth skirts, we were waiting for a lift.  Just as we were about to get in the car a pig wandered by. The next half-hour was reminiscent of a Benny Hill comedy chase, minus the scantily-dressed women: Pig; followed by Peter; followed by me; (with restricted movement in my long skirt and one hand on my head protecting the curling-tongued hair, that had taken several hours to perfect); followed by dad, who was shouting directions at everyone (including the pig); followed by friend also in long skirt and with curling-tongued hair).   The chase continued around the garden several more times: pig; Peter (who was now armed with a board to try to steer the pig in the right direction); me (skirt now embellished with leaves and twigs and hair slowly un-curling); dad getting louder and louder; friend who by now was wondering how she came to be chasing a pig in her new cheesecloth skirt on a Saturday night.  Eventually the pig was cornered and steered back to her pen.   Though slightly late, we did get to the party sporting a new rustic, unkempt look with just a mild aroma of pig.  Needless to say our pulling power was severely handicapped that night.

rulers

Always on the lookout for menu variety and free food dad had always had his eye on  the pheasants at the end of the garden.  They never came anywhere near the house and you rarely saw them, but you could frequently hear the squawking and fluttering as they moved from ground to tree.

Dad described the pheasant in his book:

He allows me to get within ten paces, pretending not to notice the stealthily approaching homo ineptus, after which he deposits a dropping and withdraws lethargically.  Should I start running, he would lift himself angrily over the hedge, swearing while airborne”

Over the years he tried numerous tricks to entice the pheasants closer to the house so he could bag one for the pot.  One recommended method involved sewing raisins onto a thread, which in turn was attached to a brown paper bag.  The idea was that the pheasant would eat the line of raisins one by one until it got to the last raisin in the bag, by which time it would be inside the bag.  Being the stupid creature it was, once it could not see where to go it would stay put on the ground and could be easily caught.  Unfortunately for dad, nobody had informed the pheasant of its role in this plan and it gaily ate the thread and raisins, shook the bag from its head and disappeared with its raisin-filled gullet back to the hiding place at the end of the garden.  Dad also tried leaving out bowls of brandy in an attempt to make the pheasants too drunk to run or fly away.  The brandy was drunk, but the tolerance for alcohol clearly higher than expected as there was never any sign of an inebriated pheasant.

And, here is the strange part of the story (cue title music to ’Tales of the Unexpected’).  The morning after dad died, just outside the kitchen window, closer to the house than they had ever been seen before, were 5 or 6 pheasants strutting around.  You could almost hear them calling to all their friends “He’s gone; it’s safe to come out now”.

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I add the following four pictures in response to comments made on my blog and an article on Hidden Museum (http://www.hiddenmuseum.net/ihre_post.html).  The article makes references to something that I had always thought was one of my dad’s many eccentricities.  He enjoyed playing with the postal service and as well as sending letters and postcards (mostly addressed back to him) with minimal address details, he would also try various stamp combinations.  For example, he would cut a stamp in half to represent half of its value or he would use foreign stamps in the wrong country or a combination of different country stamps on one envelope.  He would also stick something in the corner of the envelope that wasn’t a postage stamp at all.    If ever I went abroad I would be given a batch of postcards with the request to post them when I got there.  Dad would have already stuck on his assortment of stamps and added odd message.  A lot of these cards and envelopes form part of  ‘the hoard’ and that has enabled me to illustrate his actions and quote a couple of the messages.  “We have left the cat in the oven with enough food and tranquilizers for five days”  was closely followed by “No need to look after the cat, the tranquilisers ran out and she did not survive the trip”.  I can confirm that no real cats were ever subject to either the oven or the tranquilisers.

Australiam and German stamps used for UK postageThis postcard shows the use of both Australian  and German stamps  for postage within the UK

Cut UK stamps This one shows the usage of stamps cut to show a new value

letterA ‘To Pay’ stamp is used here amongst the more usual postage stamps.  These stamps used to be added to the envelopes by the Post Office if the correct value of stamps was not put on the letter.  In this case the ‘To Pay’ stamp has been franked  as if it were a valid postage stamp.

Green Shield Stamp

This is my favourite.  A  letter posted and franked with a Green Shield Stamp.

For those of you too young to remember, Green Shield Stamps were not postage stamps at all, but loyalty stamps, issued by many shops and petrol stations each time a purchase was made.  They were collected and stuck into a book (I’m sure I’m not the only person of my age who remembers being responsible for all the licking and sticking that required).  They could be  exchanged for items that were chosen from the Green Shield Stamp Catalogue and there were  shops of the same name dotted around the country.   I don’t remember anyone who was  patient enough to save up the 375 books required for a colour television, but in 1965 you could exchange just one book for  ‘A set of six mugs in pastel colours’, ”Stainless steel salad servers” or ‘A set of six lager glasses with gold rims’.  All vital items for the 1960’s households!

I leave you with the good news that I have found the stash (I knew there would be one!)   A neat little bundle of damp fifty pound notes was retrieved from under a floor board and came just in time for mum to pay the man for trimming the trees.

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Dad’s Drawers Part Three – The Fat Nude and the sea of bubble wrap

The Fat Nude (with the uneven knees)

….. and, how I ended up in Christie’s Auction House surrounded by a sea of bubble wrap, with a fit of the giggles.

The Fat Nude (my title, not the artist’s) is a pen drawing measuring approximately 100 x 60 cm framed.  It was drawn by an Indian artist called Francis Newton Souza [i] in 1962 and it has spent much of the last half century face against a wall.  You can see why.

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Poor woman appears to have some terrible deformity in her left calf

This isn’t the best photograph, but I had to take it through the glass to avoid any risk of damaging the picture.  Actually, at one point I nearly ruined the picture and the story.  It’s really difficult to take a photograph through glass without getting a reflection of yourself, lights or windows.   I carried the picture around from room to room to find a light place with the least reflections and finally settled on my bedroom.  The room was light and there was a white duvet cover.  There I was standing (wobbling may be a more accurate description) on the bed, one foot either side of the picture (remember it’s size) so that I could get a shot directly from above. My camera slipped from my hand and with a fine tuned, ninja move I caught it  only to come perilously close to landing in the centre of  the ‘work of art’.  All that effort and you can still make out the shadow of my arm holding  the camera above the picture.

So, some background first…..

Dad fancied himself as a bit of an artist and the house and the garden were full of his creations and sculptures. Following his waste-not-want-not philosophy, all of these sculptures were made out of re-used materials.  Nothing ever went to the rubbish tip from our house, in fact other people’s rubbish seem to find its way there.  In the garden were upturned washing machine drums with items placed strategically on top.  Attached to the ends of old curtain rails that were stuck into the ground were plastic dolls heads, skulls (usually animal), pieces of flint and the ever useful two-pint plastic milk bottles.  In fact walking in the garden in high winds could be a hazard without a hard hat as the curtain rails would waver quite violently from side to side throwing off their chosen adornment.

Inside the house there would be creations made from polystyrene packaging, stones, bits of wood, plastic lids, old cd’s and yet more two-pint plastic milk bottles.  These creations would be pinned to the notice board, suspended from the ceiling and glued to the walls, as well as filling  any gap or free surface in the house.  Now, even I recognised that there was a limit to how much of dad’s stuff I could keep so, sad to say, many of the creations from plastic and polystyrene were duly recycled.  All that remain now are a few small items dotted around the house and some of the metal structures in the garden.

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I don’t think this one, made from old plug pins, would look particularly out of  place alongside the Carl Andre’s Bricks or Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal (Fountain) in the Tate Modern 

Some time in the early seventies my dad organised a Bring-and-Buy sale to sell some of his sculptures and raise money for charity.  As was the tradition with these sales (many years before charity shops took off and well before boot sales),  people who attended these events also brought with them things to donate for sale.

……..and that was how I came to have the Fat Nude.

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Dad’s poster, that I found amongst his papers (I told you he didn’t throw away anything) was duplicated in foolscap on the school Gestetner.  Anyone under 50 will probably not remember foolscap-size paper or duplicating machines.  Foolscap was the irritatingly-sized paper that was too big for A4 ring binders, so at school you ended up with a bit of your sheet sticking out of either end of your folder and it eventually became so dog-eared it was useless.  Duplicating machines (Gestetners) were what we had to use before photocopiers were widely available.  I can’t remember exactly, but there was something pink involved and you had to type on a special bit of paper which was attached to the duplicating machine.  You then turned a handle and your copies came out of the other side like magic – oh yes we really knew how to live in the seventies!

Bob Cobbing  [ii] was one of dad’s old friends who had made the journey up from North London.  He brought with him the eponymous drawing, as well as some of his own works, to donate to the sale.  I only recently discovered, when trying to find some link between Bob and the drawing, that he was one of the movers and shakers of  the London poetry, writing and arts scene in sixties London and quite probably rubbed shoulders with Souza.  Dad had met Bob through a writing group  which was run under the umbrella of the Hendon Experimental Arts Group and later led to the formation of the Writer’s Forum.  Among dad’s papers I found a programme from a play that had been put on by the group and in which my dad had appeared.

diary of a scoundrel programmw

Check out the Producer!

On with the story….

Christie’s have a page on their website where you can upload a photograph of an item and request a free valuation.  I have to say I wasn’t expecting much of a response; I had previously sent them details of a pair of binoculars and they had not considered them to be of any value.  That’s another story, but I eventually exchanged them in a museum car park for over £1000, so what did they know?

Anyway, they were apparently Souza experts, having sold a large portion of the Souza estate some years previously and they were really interested in seeing the picture.

So, that is how Paul and I came to be sitting in Christie’s in London; drowning in a sea of bubble wrap and brown tape, and not taking  proceedings with the seriousness befitting of such a grand place. (Yes, we were giggling like schoolchildren).

As yet another aside to this story, I have to tell you about the bubble wrap.

This bubble wrap represented a hoarder’s success.    A few years ago, much to my mum’s horror Dad had gone for a browse around  Staples and had exited carrying a roll of bubble wrap that was nearly as big as him (not too hard when you are only 4ft 11ins).  “It will come in useful one day” he told her.  The roll then remained in the living room of the house for several months, unsuccessfully blending in with the furniture and not having come in useful on any occasion so far. Eventually when mum could stand it there no longer, I agreed to take it away to store in my garage “until they needed it”.  Needless to say it had sat in my garage for several more years again without ever  “coming in useful”.

It was while I was rolling out metres and metres of the stuff onto my hall floor to wrap the picture ready for its journey to London, that I had to smile and say out loud “You were right dad, it did come in useful”.

Christie’s is one of these places that when you enter through the doors that have been held open by the doorman, you feel like you have stepped from reality into an alternative universe.  Objects of desire are sold for vast prices, by people from privileged backgrounds to people from privileged backgrounds.  It felt somewhat surreal and vaguely comical.  Here we were with our bubbled-wrapped fat nude, sitting in the lobby watching projected images of paintings that had been sold for millions of pounds.  By the time Anastasia and Damien  had escorted us into a room to unpeel the numerous layers of bubble wrap and enthuse about the drawing,  the giggles could be suppressed no longer.  They clearly hadn’t spotted the deformed calf  when  gave us a guide price of  £3 – 6,000 and I wasn’t going to be the one point it out.

Some more drawers for you…..

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…and more collections

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I leave you with my Christmas card photo which this year is made up of an assortment from Dad’s Drawers.  Anyone visiting the house over the last few weeks would have found it laid out on the floor of the conservatory with a rather complicated ladder structure to enable me to get the best aerial image possible.  Don’t tell Paul, but I was up a ladder when nobody else was in the house and there was lots of leaning involved. (I am not allowed a chain saw either).

I will leave you to play ‘I Spy’ the ‘Ban the Bomb’ badge, the razor blades, the farthing and the florin…
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Oh, and just to keep you posted.  Gun number four was found yesterday.  Fortunately, it has ‘Starting Pistol’ written on the handle so no panic needed.


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Dad’s Drawers: Episode 2 – The Gun

Dad’s Drawers: Episode two and the story of the gun.

Some background first and then the gun.

My dad was an Austrian Jew, born in Vienna in 1919. Hoping to keep one step ahead of Hitler he, in his own words: “Dressed in 1938 rambling outfit; Lederhosen, hobnail boots, rucksack and Mandolin I set forth from Vienna’s Westbahnhof into the unknown[i]”; he made his way over the border into Switzerland, then over the Alps into France and later over the Pyrenees into Spain.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like to ‘up stumps’, leaving your family and worldly belongings behind; but maybe that alone was the influencing factor to his hoarding habits later in life.  I know that dad found it impossible to part with anything.  As far as he was concerned everything would have a use someday (though not sure what plans he had for the Austin 1100 that is, as I write, slowly sinking in their garden 40 years after it last saw a road).  Growing up, my brother and I had bicycles made up from wheels and frames that had been ‘rescued’ from lay-bys and rubbish tips. Living as we did in the flat countryside of Cambridgeshire; there was never a need for any fancy gears.  Just after I was married, and living in a house where the previous occupants had taken all the curtain rails (and light bulbs), we passed a rubbish tip on the edge of a building site. After some rummaging, dad presented me with a very dirty curtain rail.  “Bit of a clean and it will fine” he said.  We took it back to the house, but never made it inside as Paul, my recently acquired husband said: “I am not having that junk in my house”.  This was to be a familiar pattern in our household over the next 30 years!

Dad couldn’t even throw away plastic containers and in his kitchen the storage jars were cleaned out, 2-pint plastic milk bottles stacked very neatly on top of each other (quite attractive in their own way once filled with rice, lentils and beans).  Well before the green revolution encouraged us to ‘recycle and reuse’ my dad was doing so because he could not bear the thought of any moulded plastic item going to waste.  To date I estimate to have thrown away (into recycling bin of course) several hundred of these plastic milk bottles!

Some of those plastic milk bottles in use

I already knew about the air rifle.  It had belonged to my brother and as children we had spent many an enjoyable afternoon firing air pellets at coke cans in the garden.  Some years ago dad had put the gun under his bed, along with the flash gun from his camera, in case of intruders.  I am not sure what he would have done with the gun had he ever needed to use it.  It wasn’t loaded and too far under the bed for him to reach, maybe the fact that it was there gave him a sense of security.  The flashgun, however, was closer and charged ready for use.  He told me that if anyone entered the bedroom he would fire it off, temporarily blinding the intruder while he made his escape.

Having cleared a corner in his workroom I was ready to shift some furniture (still looking for that elusive stash of money which I was sure I would find somewhere.)  I moved a shelving unit away from a wall and, lo-and-behold, no money, but a handgun!   Now, I have no knowledge of guns but it didn’t look very interesting, was going to add nothing to my growing collections or displays; nor did it look like something I would be selling on Ebay.  I threw it in a box destined for my house and the rapidly growing collection of ‘Not-sure-what-to-do-with-this-so will-deal-with-it-later’.  ‘Later’ meaning that it would sit in a box for several years until space ran out or, as in the case of one house we lived in, until the surveyor warned us our ceilings would fall in if the loft wasn’t lightened of its load.

Anyway, I digress; back to the gun.  A couple of weeks later I was chatting to Julian, a neighbour, who had come over to look at the various ‘large items’ in the workshop (One lathe, several drills, three saws, two grinders, an engraving machine and some machinery as yet to be reached and identified).  We were looking at the remains of a third gun, an old rifle riddled with woodworm, when I told him about the handgun.

He said “Check on the internet, it may be worth something”.

So I did.  I found the make and model of the gun and duly tapped ‘Saxby Palmer Revolver’ into Google.

Imagine my horror when one of the first search items was headed:

“PENSIONER NARROWLY ESCAPES 5 YEAR PRISON SENTENCE FOR POSSESSION OF ILLEGAL FIREARM”

(Not since I had used Google to search the sentence “What can you do with a dead deer” have I been so shocked, but that’s another story altogether).

Further reading of the article told me that: a) The gun was illegal and b) It definitely would not be advisable to try and sell it on Ebay.

What to do next?  Clearly I couldn’t leave it where it was.  Some suggestions on the internet were to saw it to bits with a hacksaw or bury it in the garden; neither of those options was particularly appealing.

Then paranoia set in.  If I took it to the police station, would I be arrested there and then for illegal possession?  What would happen if I got stopped or had an accident on the way to the police station?  My friend Ann, a magistrate, offered to accompany me to the police station and vouch for me.

But, as paranoia faded an over-active imagination stepped into its place.  What if this gun had been used in a crime and my dad had hidden it for somebody?  Would they have to search the house (that my mum still lived in)?  It wasn’t such an outlandish thought.  For most of his working life in England, dad had been a metalwork teacher and, as a teacher of a non-academic subject he attracted the ‘drop-outs’. They would, instead of going to Maths or English hang around the metalwork room pretending they had a free lesson.  Dad never asked any questions, giving them jobs to do to keep their idle hands busy.  After leaving school these same boys (it was always boys as us girls were not allowed to do metalwork in those unenlightened days and I am still very bitter about that!) would regularly drop by the house for a chat with dad.  He always had time for them and vouched for them when he could.  Education had chewed these boys up and spat them out with no qualifications or skills, and several of them ended up in borstal or prison.  It crossed my mind that if one of these boys had turned up at the house with gun in hand asking dad to hide it, he probably would have agreed.

I now wanted to be rid of the gun as soon as possible so telephoned the BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation).  Julian had told me that they would be able to advise me.

They confirmed that: yes, the gun was illegal; no, I couldn’t sell it; but yes they would be able to dispose of it for me and better still they would arrange for it to be collected.

So this is how I came to be visited by a very friendly Firearms Officer from Essex Constabulary who, much to the relief of us all, took the gun away saying “Happens all the time, if you find any more just give me a ring”. It turned out that the gun was an air pistol that until recent years was quite legal until they discovered that the cartridges could be adapted for more lethal purposes.  I still don’t know when and why dad came to have the gun and why it was hidden; maybe, as my friend Heidi suggested, it was for the pheasants (that’s another story), but we will never know.

Next week off to Christies of London with the fat nude….


[i] ‘Gravity is getting Me Down’ Fred Plisner. ISBN 0434590789

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Dad’s Drawers: The Story

It was nearly a year ago when I started to tackle, what I lovingly refer to as, ‘Dad’s Treasure’ and the rest of my family refer to as ‘Fred’s Junk’.  It has been an interesting journey with much humour and many a surprise.  One that has seen me exchange goods for cash in a museum car park, has  involved a house call by the local police firearms officer,   has seen an accumulation in my own house of much of the aforementioned junk/treasure, and which, later this month, will see me delivering a ‘work of art’ (otherwise known as a vulgar drawing by a famous dead Indian artist) to Christie’s of London for auction next year.  All I can say is thank goodness we have the internet; it has helped me to identify objects, find and speak to specialists and unload unwanted items.  As I write this I have been watching bids on a couple of old brass handles (Dad’s Treasure) on Ebay raise to the astonishing sum of £107.77.  Quite a nice price for junk, thank you very much.

My father died on the 28th December 2011 at the grand age of 92 and soon after, on a bleak January morning, I started to address the problem of my dad’s accumulations.  The first assessment was that I was dealing with the result of a lifetime of the hoarding of anything and everything,  with drawers and boxes full of random bits and pieces.  As the weeks and months have passed it it is clear that, although some of the things I that have found are unusual (why would anyone collect the silver foil seals from the top of plastic milk bottles?), there was much more order to the chaos than I had first thought.

As well as being spread around  the family home, where he and my mum had lived for 45 years, the hoards took up one (quite large) room which dad used as his office/writing room and  a workshop that had been designed as double garage but that had never  even caught a glimpse of one car, let alone two. To date I have just about finished the ‘office’ but have a long way to go with the workshop which is full of all those bits of machinery no self-respecting engineer could do without, in addition to all those bits and pieces that a self-respecting engineer could easily have been done without but did not.  Many of which bear no relation to engineering of any type, shape or form!

The very first search was to look to see if there was any money stashed away.  Dad would occasionally hand out money to any of the six grand-children and crisp £50 notes would emerge from the finger of a rubber glove or a bag of oily rags.  I was certain that I would discover money secreted all over the house.  There was one hiding place that my mum knew of; a small hole by a light fitting, in the ceiling of a store room.  With anticipation I tentatively put my hand into the hole.  BINGO!  A heavy bundle wrapped in rags and a supermarket carrier bag was pulled out.  Big disappointment when it turned out to be a collection of manky looking, cutlery oddments.

 

Why this particular ‘treasure’ was hidden away we will never know.  It doesn’t appear to have any sentimental or monetary value that I know of.  My suspicion is that it was a decoy in case the house was ever burgled; if these were the prize possessions of the house it would be unlikely that there would be anything of any value anywhere else.  For many years  dad walked around with a ‘dummy’ wallet in his back pocket in the hope that a pick-pocket would steal it and find only cut up newspaper and dummy credit cards.  It had been a standing joke that said wallet was never stolen.

Further searches for cash in oily rag bags and all the rubber and gardening gloves in the house revealed nothing, so with some disappointment and apprehension the real sorting begun.

What follows are pictures from one small set of drawers and a few of the various collections to whet your appetite.  There are more to come…

Who knew padlocks could be so beautiful?

……or meters

That’s why he always carried a screwdriver around with him!

This is a very small selection of the bones he had collected there was also an assortment of skulls

What follows is the first chest of  ‘Dad Drawers’

 

There are more…..many, many more…..

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