FRANCES FYFIELD asks: How to develop Criminal Tendencies?

Written by Frances Fyfield

...Become a Collector.

The world divides in many ways.  Those who have children those who don’t, those with one kind of aspiration, those without any, those who are honest, those who aren’t, those who prefer argument to debate and those who would just as soon knock you over the head.  There are those for whom ill-gotten gains are infinitely preferable to the fruits of hard earned labour, and those to whom debt is anathema.  Those who believe in heaven and those committed to hell. 

For me, beyond moral judgements the older I grow, one of the greatest dividing lines between human beings of my wide acquaintance in fiction and real life, is the line of comprehension between those who Collect Stuff and those who Don’t.

The minimalist versus the Acquirer would be one way of putting it, though it’s more complicated than that.  I’m talking about the Collector, the one who has the bug for amassing things of a particular type. Motor cars, stuffed animals, (v fashionable now,) ceramics, fabrics, bus tickets, cigarette cards, photographs, works of Art.  Paintings, in the case of my last and current story.  Paintings and the collection thereof, have driven people mad. History is full of nutcases who’ve gone mental in pursuit of works of Art.  Why do they do it?  Why is it that collecting paintings, or other stuff, can turn a person into a criminal?

How Collecting as a pastime ever began is as mysterious as Art. As soon as humankind learned to draw and paint, they collected, even if starving.  As soon as man was stirred by things of beauty, he wanted to own them, be they gemstones or drawings in caves.  The Romans were collectors of Greek aniquities, (see Lindsay Davis) the English were collectors of European Art since ever they crossed the Channel.  Individuals have ever been addicted.  Theses have been written about why people Collect.

Collecting can be a Vice, a disease.  One academic, studying the phenomenon in the 1950s, had no hesitation in calling it a disease, defining certain strands in the obsessive collector’ psyche.  First, the possessive instinct, the desire for the hunt, the need for spontaneous activity/ risk in an otherwise passive or isolated life.  The desire to break boundaries, to go out gambling and a desire for social standing.  Others studying the collecting phenomena say that the Collector is a lover of risk, wanting to conquer the object he desires to own, his appetite made sharper by adversity and rivalry.  The Collector may have little self confidence in anything other than this strange way of mastering his own inferiority complex.  He/she will go to any length to acquire and add to the collection.  He is the native obsessive, will resort to theft in the blink of an eye, just to get IT. The Collector in pursuit of social standing and self worth in a Society which has hitherto ignored him, may be the most dangerous of all.  If his Collecting does not impress, fails to do what he wanted it to do, he becomes bitter and twisted and hides it away, himself also.  The Collector can be a Winner, but can also become a lonely loser, with his house collapsing in upon itself under its own weight.

He may be one who stabs the canvas and burns his house down.

Then there are the other Collectors, like Thomas Porteous, and me, who collect out of sheer love for the Painting, and a desire to rescue a beautiful thing and look after it for as long as it takes.  Thomas Porteous, the Collector in Gold Digger is one of these.  He knows he doesn’t own the thing: he is caretaker only. His widow, Diana, knows this, too.  She also knows that a Collection has to grow and change in order to stay alive and maintain it’s function of looking after, delighting the onlooker, getting people to share the joy of it. 

But, as I said at the outset, the world divides between those who collect Stuff and those who don’t.  Collecting, Art or otherwise, is not for the rich.  Its for everyone who falls in love with something and wants it to survive in a good home.  It does not matter what you collect.  In the case of the characters in my book, they got the bug early on.

Thomas collected paintings long, long before he got rich by inventing computer games.  He had no ambition to collect masterpieces, he was drawn only by images.  That sudden shock that comes when you see something wonderful, don’t care who did it or why, just love it.  And then, after years of doing this, you have a collection of stuff which is a responsibility, a family to replace your own, and something of such value that it may be worth killing for.

There is no certainty in the value of collected things, unless they’re named.  Beauty demands provenance if it is to command money.  Thomas Porteous and Di have collected things because they love the painting.  They do not care who did it: they only care that it was good.  It is assumed that what they have collected is worth a fortune.  Since most of what they have is by unnamed Artists, rescued from basements, it isn’t.

My collecting, (and I am a collector to my bones) for instance, began with my mother’s thrift and her instinct for fine things. (My mother may well be related to Di’s mother, as featured in this book, albeit only as a memory).  Di Porteous grew up with fine things, purloined off scrap heaps by her mother.  Thus in my case.  There was absolutely no money in my household, but there were lovely things, prints and paintings collected from markets, nothing that was not second hand, make do and mend.   Always something lovely and challenging to cover the cracks in the walls.

All of little ‘value’ and subsequently stolen.

This is not going to happen to Diana Porteous, who knows the importance of her inheritance.

Like other Collectors, she’s as mad as a sparrow in flight, of course.  I’m just trying to keep her steady, and with the odd million in her pocket, and the Collector’s instinct in her heart, God knows what she’s going to do next. She may stay thrifty; she may not.

Collecting paintings has been the most consistent love affair of my life, yielding the greatest number of friends.  It has not yet provoked me to steal, but it will.  I am infuriated by great British Artists hidden away in the basements of the Tate, and lots of other places.  (Look up Your paintings. Etc). 

Published on: 2013-11-28, Sphere £13.99 Trade pbk


About the book:

A year after her husband's death, young widow and art collector Diana Porteous listlessly roams the beach near her home. Her friend and agent Saul takes action, introducing her to his stylish, anarchic sister, Sarah, to pep her up.

They plan that Di should rediscover her talents as a thief, as well as art expert, to recover stolen paintings - and begin with Steven, the neighbour's son, who is amassing works of art in a strange building in London, including work stolen from his mother.

But if Di is interested in his illicit treasures, he is equally fascinated by hers - and in the secrets still held in that house by the sea...

About the Author by the Author:

I grew up in rural Derbyshire, but my adult life has been spent mostly in London, with long intervals in Norfolk and Deal, all inspiring places. I was educated mostly in convent schools; then studied English and went on to qualify as a solicitor, working for what is now the Crown Prosecution Service, thus learning a bit about murder at second hand.  Years later, writing became the real vocation, although the law and its ramifications still haunt me and inform many of my novels.

I’m a novelist, short story writer for magazines and radio, sometime Radio 4 contributor, (Front Row, Quote Unquote, Night Waves,) and presenter of Tales from the Stave.  When I’m not working (which is as often as possible), I can be found in the nearest junk/charity shop or auction, looking for the kind of paintings which enhance my life.  Otherwise, with a bit of luck, I’m relaxing by the sea with a bottle of wine and a friend or two.


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Frances Fyfield

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