The only thing I will ever have in common with Julie Andrews: comfort in material objects

Thoreau’s great environmental boast that we are rich in proportion to the things we can do without is consistent with two historical facts we know about him: he had no children to support, and his method of manufacturing pencils was not particularly competitive or efficient

Mark Sagoff, 1992

Conventional wisdom, spurred on perhaps by the onset of an age of austerity, would have us believe that material possessions do not bring us happiness. I must therefore be a somewhat spiritually and morally bankrupt person, for I am not ashamed to say that I take great comfort in the objects around me in my home.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sit around Scrooge McDuck-style laughing and cackling at the monetary value of the things I own. Even if were like this, I would become disheartened in fairly short order because the financial worth of my possessions is pretty low. But at the same time it would be disingenuous of me to say that without some of the objects that punctuate my daily routine, my life would be better. Whether it’s the memories they trigger, the connotations they have or just the very nature of their physical appearance, some of my stuff never fails to brighten my day.

What set me thinking about this was an odd incident a few weeks back where a seemingly ‘fake’ Lionel Messi popped up on Twitter and offered a signed shirt to a lucky re-tweeter. Whether it was the real Messi or not is beside the point. What matters is that my mind wandered from how cool it would be to have a shirt signed by Messi, to the idea that a signed Messi shirt really wouldn’t be so cool (in my view at least) if you’d just been handed it in a competition, auction or similar. Nor would it be quite so cool if I’d met Lionel Messi but hadn’t received any material proof from the encounter. What would be best of all would be something in the middle, like a Starbucks cup from the airport with the Barcelona maestro’s signature gleaned as the result of a chance encounter, or a shirt signed hurriedly as the result of a winning massive scramble at Row A in the pre-match buildup.

These thoughts running through my head, I wandered through to the living room and admired the toy car adorned with signatures of various rally driving heroes (see item two in following list), the pen strokes sharp and clear beneath the Perspex case. Yes, objects play a big part for me in perpetuating the memories of the most valuable moments of my life. Maybe that shows my imagination is defective and that I need to read more (which seems to be the solution for everything), but given that I have Japanese kanji and Chinese verbs to learn every night, it seemed easier to keep collecting stuff and make a big-ass list of the ten favourite things that are part of My Stuff. Apologies in advance for the self-indulgence that inevitably follows.

1. Wedding ring

Self-explanatory. And not just on the list because my wife would kill me otherwise. It’s made by a Dutch designer called Wiard Heijenga – no typos here – and is of the white gold variety. He also does rings containing intertwining bands of sliver, white gold and gold gold (is that what you call it?), but the white gold one is suitably subtle for me. There is of course a secret and cryptic message on the inside.

Even before I met my wife to be, I knew I wanted a thin, simple wedding ring, preferably silver, and this one fit the bill perfectly. We bought our rings from a small jewellers tucked away near the Ebisu station in Tokyo, and I brought them back to the UK the Christmas before our wedding. And in case anyone from HMRC is reading, I was a good boy and declared them at immigration.

2. Signed Manta

Vatanen, Pastrana, Waldegard, more on the back…

This is a 1/18 scale replica Opel Manta of average quality. It is, however, signed by three world champion rally drivers, a world rally champion co-driver, an X-Games gold medalist and many others. As soon as plans for the 2008 Colin McRae Forest Stages were firmed up, I knew I had to sort something special to capture the occasion. The idea, apparently announced by then-Subaru team boss Dave Richards over a dinner in Argentina, was that a suite of rally legends would head to Perthshire to contest the last round of that year’s Scottish Rally Championship. This was to be a tribute to the man who gave his name to the rally, who had been killed just over a year previous in a helicopter accident.

At first, it looked as if my plan would be foiled. The ‘legends’ were supposedly to be bussed in on the morning of the rally, get in their cars, then be bussed back out at the end of the day. But come the morning if the rally, I found myself in the pre-start holding area with a media pass hanging round my neck. I had good reason to be there, for after the superstars were a braying pack of juniors in Peugeots, but waiting alongside me at the start line were Ari Vatanen, Bjorn Waldegard, Hannu Mikkola and many others. It would have been rude not to whip the Manta and a permanent market out my bag, wouldn’t it?

3. Tag Heuer glasses

Copying the fashion trends of celebrities isn’t something I normally go in for. I know everybody says that, but I really mean it. Anybody who has ever seen my wardrobe will vouch for this – and in any case, Sebastien Bourdais doesn’t really count as a celebrity. But whilst it would not be a lie to say I wanted these glasses before I saw Bourdais sporting them during his ill-fated stint in F1, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired to get them when I saw the less-capable Sebastien wearing the specs during his ChampCar days.

I’d had a desire for these for a long time, but had consigned the idea to the back-burner after my Mum, who likes me to wear tiny, tiny, square-rimmed specs, suggested the Tag glasses looked like safety glasses. My wife, however, had other ideas. After much discussion, deliberation and to-ing and fro-ing, we ordered the glasses last December and they turned up a month later. Suddenly, I’ve realized it’s quite important to spend time and money on choosing something you will literally be using every waking minute of every day.

There’s something subtle yet quite cool about the red legs, and their flexibility is also quite useful. Apparently you can bend the legs right round and fold the glasses in the case that comes with them, but I’m too scared to try that regularly in case I break them.

4. K’s Rally Factory jacket

There is no situation in which I will ever be able to wear this jacket. Yes, it is waterproof, but not waterproof enough for the daily, grinding, wearing rain we get in Scotland. It’s a motor sport jacket in red and black, so not an item one can wear when out and about for daily life. And above all, it’s a rather odd shape with a big bulgey bit where my stomach is.

What I like about it is its oddity and rarity. I was given it when I went to Nagano Prefecture in Japan by my friend Kazuya Suzuki, the boss of the K’s World Rally Team. K’s are essentially a team of enthusiastic and ambitious clubmen, but their exploits have taken them to all manner of places to rally, including Kenya, Malaysia and New Zealand. I occasionally help them with translation and ordering issues, and if I remember correctly this was a thank you for resolving a nine-month saga involving a Mitsubishi rollcage. Right now, K’s are out in New Zealand contesting a round of the World Rally Championship, and are the only entrant to field three cars. That makes my jacket the only piece of WRC team clothing I own!

A successful PhD thesis (in exam form, not hardback!)

5. Bound copy of thesis

Writing up a PhD wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe. There were no tantrums, no all-nighters and no need to go to any retreats or writing vacations. I did the bulk of the work over the summer and autumn of 2010, formulating detailed outlines for each chapter and then setting myself the target of 3,000 words every day. I had a full working draft by halfway through my final year and went through a series of steady revisions with the help of my supervisors. Because of the way things panned out, I was already working on something else by the time of my viva, and couldn’t get rat-arsed after I passed because I had to go back to the office and write a presentation that I would fly down to London and deliver the next day.

Nonetheless, looking at the hard-back bound copy of the thesis sitting on my bookshelf still makes me proud. One’s thinking develops so quickly that I can already think about things I would have done differently and points I could have developed further, but everything happened so quickly that it’s still nice to look at the big black book and remind myself: I did this. I’ve done. I’ve got a PhD. I’m a doctor.

If you think that sounds big-headed, don’t worry – it won’t get to me. All I have to do is look at the words inside this seemingly impressive document to remember I am always going to have a lot more to learn.

N3 pass + Yamazaki = celebration => sair heid

6. JLPT N3 Certificate

There are five levels to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Five is the easiest, one is the hardest. I’m only halfway through the exams, and as the title of this segment suggests, I passed N3 last December. Not a huge achievement it may seem, but it was the first JLPT exam where I have been really chuffed with the result. The reason is that whilst N5 and N4 are pretty easy – I walked out of both of those exams on previous years knowing full well I had passed – the step up to N3 is quite significant. There are no preparation classes in Edinburgh (yet), so I had to rely on a book I’d bought at a bookshop in Japan to teach me all the grammar I needed. Factor in some sloppy kanji preparation and having to squeeze in studying around learning about the storage of carbon dioxide in geological formations, and I wasn’t as well prepared as I’d been in previous years by a long chalk.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a big stiff white envelope dropped through the letterbox in early February. Given that I’d struggled with a lot of the test (a whole afternoon’s worth of exams on an early December Sunday!) and had only just finished each section in time, I was fully expecting to get a wee letter telling me I’d failed. Sometimes, just sometimes, success feels better when there’s an element of luck involved.

7. Heuer leather jacket

This falls into the category of ‘things I wanted when I was a high school student that my Mum wouldn’t let me have’ (see number 3). Ever seen the Steve McQueen film Le Mans? Know the jacket he wears when driving, the one with the Gulf logo and stripes? When I was about 15, I read in a magazine that a company was going to be making versions of the jacket. What caught my eye was not the bright-white direct replica, because that would just be a bit too much and in Scotland would lead to having abuse hurled at you, but rather the more subtle dark brown version.

Unfortunately this thing was very, very expensive new (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time, for I was working as a theatre usher). The idea largely went out of my mind, only to be rekindled on the odd occasion I saw the iconic still of McQueen giving the crowd a two-fingered salute. But every time, the notion perhaps thankfully went out of my mind before I had time to get to a computer connected to the internet.

Things took a step change when I went to get my specs from the Tag Heuer shop – by the way, this was purely coincidental, in no way is this intended as an advertising piece for Tag! Strapped to a headless, legless mannequin on a high shelf in the shop was one of the jackets I’d wanted when I was younger, albeit still for a ludicrous price. This time, however, I didn’t drop the thought, and over the next couple of months started sniffing around that big, bad place where a fool and his money are easily parted called the internet. After several weeks, a second-hand version miraculously came up on eBay matching my specification perfectly. A bid was duly placed, and not long after a big cardboard box arrived at my flat. And goodness, was it worth the ten year wait.

8. University colours, half-blue and trophies

I was hopeless at sports at school. I could run fast, but there was little support for high-school students to do 10k distance races. I later found out that’s because running at an early age stunts your growth, but nobody told me that at the time. Anyway, the point is that I was pretty inept at Highland state school sports. Which means I wasn’t good at football, hockey, rugby or any athletics discipline that used only cheap equipment. When I got to university, however, I discovered it was possible to compete in a whole range of sports to a fairly high level. By a whole range of sports, I really do mean a whole range of sports – including things as exotic as skydiving, gliding and motor sport.

I don’t need to tell you which of these I signed up to in my Freshers’ Week. Over the next four years I flew over jumps in my tiny Fiat, went wheel-to-wheel against other universities on the karting track, and traveled the length and breadth of the country to compete on navigational rallies with my clubmates. I also got involved in organising events and running the club. We weren’t as ferociously competitive as some of the ‘bigger’ uni sports clubs, but we were damn good at what we did.

Come the end of my university years, therefore, I found myself eligible for colours and a half-blue. For the unaware, colours and blues are honours for sport that universities in the UK give out for outstanding service and achievement respectively. Each club has their own set of standards that one has to meet to be eligible, and I met most of those standards. So at the Blues and Colours Dinner that year, there were three people from my high school receiving awards: a high-flying member of the hockey team, a near-professional footballer, and a nutter who crushed the secretary’s flowerpots with his VW Polo.

In an equally touching gesture, my clubmates presented me with a trophy on my graduation. It was a big model Citroen DS mounted to a slab of Caithness flagstone, in recognition of outstanding contribution to Scottish motor sport.


9. Massive samurai

This bad boy sits in a glass case in the living room of our house. He is a foot-high plaster cast of a Japanese historical figure by the name of Kuroda-bushi. A long, long time ago, he would have been the top dog in the city of Fukuoka (where my wife is from) – kind of like Boris Johnson with better hair and a spear. He carries a massive red dish under his left arm, in which he would pour booze to drink – and we think the Scots are bad for excessive alcohol consumption.

My in-laws brought four of these to the UK from Japan in their hand luggage. Every time I look at him I think not of the history he represents, but of what an amazing piece of craftsmanship he is. From the perfect paintwork to the glass case through to the little balsa wood sign with his name on it, the Kuroda-bushi is awesome. He’s so well-constructed, precisely painted and has come to Scotland as the result of so much effort that it would be a travesty to leave him off this list.

10. Fernando Alonso’s Minardi

As my friends will tell you, I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Fernando Alonso fan. In fairness, I like him a lot better now that he’s got his teeth into turning Ferrari round and has adopted a sort of elder statesman role in F1, but for a long time I couldn’t stand him. Nonetheless, this little Minardi always raises a smile as much for my luck and foresight as for its appearance.

When I was just wee, I went on a family holiday to the Netherlands. Part of our vacation involved a day trip to Aachen across the border in Germany, and part of this day trip involved a trip to the factory shop of model-maker extraordinaire Minichamps. This being in the days prior to the internet, only the most obvious Ferrari and McLaren models were readily available to a young man living out in the sticks north of Inverness. I therefore jumped at the chance to get something super-rare and super-obscure on a rare visit to civilization – and what could be more obscure than a replica of the slowest F1 car on the 2001 grid, the Minardi PS01?

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that the driver of the particular model I’d bought was a precocious young Spaniard by the name of Fernando Alonso. I was much more interested in the fact it was a Minardi than in the fact the driver could one day be a legend. Alonso moved on to Renault and took a year out as a test driver, Minardi faded and disappeared, As the novelty of the model wore off it was consigned to a cupboard in my folks’ house, only to be rediscovered when I finally moved out last year. Only then did the significance of this dawn on me, for what I had sleepwalked into possession of was an ultra-rare edition of the first ever F1 car driven by someone who is now one of the sport’s all-time greats.

A quick eBay scan confirmed the value of the car (it’s not worth that much though, so don’t go breaking into my house for it). As Alonso’s status continues to rise and rise, so too will the value and significance of this tiny Minardi. I just thank my lucky stars I didn’t buy the Tarso Marques version instead.


If you’re still reading, you’ll realise I have a love of motor racing, Japan and unashamedly my wife. More crucially, you will perhaps have realised I am an immensely shallow person with concerning materialistic tendencies. I’ll remedy this by going and reading some Mark Twain, but first I’ve got some new Chinese vocabulary to learn…


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