One sunny morning when I was six or seven, I was sent to a corner shop near to where I lived, in Menzieshill, a big housing estate overlooking Ninewells Hospital, in Dundee. On my walk to the shop, I peered down at the pavement, looking for treasure. I wasn’t looking for gold doubloons or any other pirate stuff, just things I knew I might find. Things like ant colonies. I’d stare for ages at long lines of ants streaming out of and into round holes in the ground. The ants looked like ink squiggles which had come alive off a page of writing. Sometimes, one ant would be carrying a leaf bigger than itself. Most of the ants were following each other. I had to drag myself away to walk to the shop, but I walked slowly, my eyes still fixed on the pavement.
Other days, when I was walking along like this with my eyes on the pavement, I’d suddenly stop, and reach down and pick up a shiny U-shaped bit of copper piping, or 10 pence, or a half-full box of matches. If the treasure was small enough, I would put it in my pocket. Bigger treasure, I usually threw away. I wasn’t greedy.
That time I was sent to the shop, I can’t remember if I found any other treasure, besides the ants. When I got to the shop, I bought a big glass bottle full of sparkling lemonade. It was a kind of treasure. I was supposed to take it home with me. I felt like I could taste the lemonade just by looking into the bottle. Outside again, in the desert heat, I opened the bottle and it made a deeply satisfying fzztt. I felt a little bit guilty, but I tipped the bottle up and glugged down the sweet coolness. All the time I was glugging, and feeling gas bubbles in my nose, I was squinting up at the blue sky that seemed happy to be so high above me. Things around me were like that back then – everything had its’ own character.
In my life since those days, I still look out for treasures. I sometimes look down at the pavement when I am walking, but I rarely see anything I want to pick up. Even ants seem rarer. Sometimes, I spot something, and it makes my brain light up like a metal detector. I notice a bright yellow leaf or a glowing red leaf, or a smoothed fragment of green glass – I imagine someone rescued it from Broughty Ferry beach, and then dropped it on the way home. Some of those treasures, l may decide to keep. The small pieces of glass sit on my desk, surrounding an ornamental polar bear. Individually, the pieces of glass don’t look much like Arctic ice, but when they’re all jumbled together – they look right. Leaves, I generally carry home in a pocket, thinking I will photograph them later, but then I forget, and I end up with the opposite of treasure in my pocket: rotting rubbish.
I was thinking about all of this, and I thought – how different my ideas about treasure are now I’m an adult. I’m more likely to see books and words as treasure. Ants may look like squiggles escaping from a page, but words are squiggles on a page, and they don’t seem to escape, nor do they appear to be treasure, at first. For example, look at the words here. Do you expect them to jump onto your living room carpet, and start creeping about in long lines? Or maybe you’re reading these words in a café; if so – you don’t expect the words you are reading to suddenly hop off the page or screen, run on to the table, and start marching around coffee cups. Well, normally you don’t think like that, but I bet you are now. Look at that ‘normally’ jump out of the sentence and onto the table. Watch it scuttle around the table like an ant, disappearing behind your cup and then reappearing, remarkably quickly on its spindly little letter-legs.
I suppose that’s always been the magic or treasure of words: somehow, they make us imagine and value things. Remembering a day fifty years ago. Seeing sunlight broken up into little stars in a big glass bottle of lemonade. Words can even let us gaze up at a 1960s blue sky with some of the excitement of a little boy/ treasure-hunter. No wonder then that the ‘treasure’ I now collect involves words: words in books written by other people, and words written by me.
I have kept journals, on and off, for most of my life. One run of journaling began for me in October 2017, with a series of 17 A5 notebooks, each one 158 pages long. I finished the 17th journal on Christmas Eve, 2021. Then, I spotted another kind of A5 notebook, which had 700 pages. It’s black so it looks like a large bible. I started using it in January 2022, as my 18th journal. By September, I had written 400 pages of entries. Altogether, those 18 notebooks amount to 3069 pages and around 306,900 words.
That’s a lot of treasure, or a lot of rubbish if you’re a critic who has sneaked into my collection. Please don’t do that again, or if you must – don’t leave chocolatey fingerprints on the pages.
I’ve written many other words: in a few dozen short stories; in the first 8 chapters of a novel called ‘The Tay Mirror’ about a small team of campaigning journalists, and in notes I’ve written for other books. I could add up all these numbers of words written, but the number is not very important. It’s like counting the numbers of legs on ants in a large colony: it’s enough to say: “there’s a lot”, and then you can get on with watching what they are doing.
Moments are treasure, aren’t they? In life, in books, in words.