A few days ago our friends Janet and Adam came to visit for morning coffee. This was quite a big deal: allow me to explain why. Here in Central Scotland we are (at the time of writing and who knows for how long henceforth?) partially locked down by Covid-19 restrictions. Our local rules mean that we aren’t allowed visits inside the house from people from another household, but we may entertain them in the garden under certain conditions.
It’s early November. Autumn has taken a strong grip, and the weather is cool and often damp. Entertaining visitors outdoors isn’t quite as much fun as it was during the earlier hope-filled lockdown days of spring and early summer. Shops and online retailers have been overwhelmed with orders for gazebos and patio heaters, pergolas and chimeneas, pavilions and fire pits. Flimsy nylon-sheeting- and-tubular-aluminium shelters have appeared in local back gardens, and our largely retired suburban populace persists undeterred in the pursuit of its principal daytime form of social intercourse: coffee and scones. But instead of indoor comfort by a warm November fireside, we make do outdoors with cold scones, hard butter, tepid coffee and teeth-chattering conversation.
At our house the position is slightly different. We have a timber shed which we like to call a summer house, and it has wide double doors on two sides, so that when all the doors are opened there’s a roof to protect from rain but also a sufficient throughflow of air to blow any stray corona viruses safely into next door’s garden. We place our guests inside facing outside, while we sit outside facing inside, under a parasol at two metres distance. We believe this arrangement is safe(-ish) and within the rules(-ish), and, with a radiant electric heater poised a few centimetres from our guests’ lower limbs, it’s possible to carry on a pleasant conversation for anything up to, say, two minutes before hypothermia sets in. Thus the scene is set for Janet and Adam’s visit.
Outside looking inside, and inside looking outside
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I admit to being a marginally obsessive collector of (among other things) ceramics. Every surface within the house being full, I have installed additional shelving inside the summer house. Upon these surfaces I display pieces of pottery of the middling sort – halfway between the best pots which are on show in the house, and the “research collection” stored in the attic. The summer house assortment currently comprises around 70 specimens. Most items can be described as studio pottery, but there are also a few odds and ends which you might call country pottery, some Art pottery, and one or two pieces of European pottery. Please don’t ask me to define these categories: you will regret it if you do.
On entering the summer house, our guests took note the shelves of pottery (you can’t miss ‘em), and Adam, who has read my book Random Treasure and has heard some of my stories of ceramic discovery, remarked: “I expect there’s something precious hidden in plain sight on those shelves”. I hastened to assure him that, on the contrary, there was nothing whatsoever of any commercial value amongst these particular examples of ceramic middle-of-the-roadness. I added, however, that even if a pot has no market value it still has its own individual story, and that if he was interested I would be only too delighted to spend the remainder of the morning running through each of the 70 pots in turn, providing a detailed physical and technical description and an account of its history, manufacture and provenance, with accompanying opportunity for handling.
Frances, ever the solicitous host, noting a glint of panic in the eyes of our guests, rapidly turned the conversation in another direction – our families, our government, the virus, the weather, the scone recipe, Brexit, whatever – and nothing else was said about the pots. But Adam’s remark stayed with me.
As it is in the summer house, so it is also with the better class of pots inside the house and with the third-rank pots stored in the attic: there’s nothing of great value. Readers of Random Treasure will be aware that on each of the very rare occasions when I have bought an object of especial value, I have rapidly re-sold it. I have my reasons for doing so, which I set out in detail in pages 199-205 of my book, so I won’t rehearse them here.
Suffice to say that I do not currently possess any great treasures. My pots (and other objects) can for the most part be valued at single-digit price points. A few might be priced in tens of pounds, a very few at a hundred pounds or more, and many at zero pounds. However, I wouldn’t expect Janet and Adam or any other non-specialist visitor to be able to distinguish at a glance between specimens worth £100 and those worth £0. You really need to know something about my stuff to be able to understand that some of it isn’t what most of it looks like, i.e. trash only fit for landfill.
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One particular kind of non-specialist visitor might be the uninvited kind: a house-breaker. If a burglar entered my house seeking objects of value, how would he or she be able to identify the best pieces to place in his or her swag bag? Note that I’m being strictly hypothetical here. Don’t try it. The house has very good door and window locks, a very sophisticated intruder alarm system linked to a call centre, and very vigilant owners. So keep out!
But, strictly hypothetically, let’s say that you are Burglar Bill. Just in case you aren’t familiar with Burglar Bill, it’s a picture story book written for children by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and first published in 1977. I read it frequently to my daughters when they were small, and now read it regularly to any and all of my five grandchildren.
Burglar Bill spends his days sleeping and his nights breaking into people’s houses and stealing their nice things. One night he finds on a doorstep a nice brown box with little holes in it. He takes it home and discovers that it contains a baby. The next night (when he isn’t out on the prowl himself) Bill is awakened by someone breaking into his own house, and he discovers an intruder called Burglar Betty. It turns out that Betty, a widow, is doubly bereft, having recently left her baby in a brown box on a doorstep while burgling a house, and returned to find box and baby missing. Betty is reunited with her baby and bonds with Bill over a cup of stolen cocoa. They decide jointly to go straight. They take back everything they have ever stolen, and then get married. Burglar Bill gets a job in a bakery and becomes Bakery Bill. Bill, Betty and the baby live happily ever after.
It is a favourite book for me and my family, but not everyone approves. “Some readers loved the book’s charm and unique story, while others did not see it as being morally acceptable for a young child to read, as the subject of burglary is taken fairly light-heartedly without serious consequences”. My greatly-loved late mother-in-law shared this opinion, but my own feeling is that the book and its characters have so much charm and provide so much amusement for children, that I really don’t worry about Bill and Betty avoiding punishment or retribution prior to their redemption.
Nogbad the Bad and Cut-Throat Jake
Compared to other children’s book villains such as Cut-Throat Jake (the nemesis of Captain Pugwash), Nogbad the Bad (the arch-enemy of Noggin the Nog), or, indeed, the unspeakable Lord Voldemort, Bill and Betty are easily forgiven their relatively petty transgressions.
So, let’s say that you are Burglar Bill. It is the dead of the night immediately prior to the events related in the first pages of the Ahlberg’s book. Wearing your signature blue-and-white striped jersey and Lone-Ranger mask, and carrying a sack over your shoulder stencilled with the word SWAG, you enter my house through a carelessly-left-open window, and you take a look around. First, you check out the technology: computers, mobile phones, televisions. No good. All too antiquated to be of interest. Then, you look for jewellery, but find nothing because all the jewellery is locked in the safe and you aren’t a safe-breaker. Then you seek out cash and find nothing but a small bowl full of trouser-pocket change.
Disappointed, you realise that this house doesn’t contain much in the way of gadgets, trinkets, gewgaws and valuables which are easily negotiable or fencible down the pub. But your torch reveals that the house is nevertheless unusually brim-full with stuff. Books overflowing bookshelves, pottery on all other surfaces, pictures all over the walls, rugs all over the floors. But not much of it looks familiar to you. It’s not really like how normal people fill their houses, and frankly much of it looks like junk only fit for the tip. You think about climbing back out of the window empty-handed and moving on to the next house, but then you hesitate and think to yourself: It stands to reason that this can’t all be rubbish. Somewhere around here, hidden in plain sight, there must be some treasures. Now where do I start?
* * * * *
Burglar Bill’s swag
Burglar Bill’s swag-bag is almost full from visits to other houses. He calculates that he has space left in it for one small vase, one china plate, one book and one small picture. He can also take one small rug, which won’t fit inside his sack, but he reckons he can roll it up and strap it to the outside using a stolen belt removed from a stolen pair of trousers.
How does Bill make his selection?
Object #1: one small brown vase.
Burglar Bill sees a row of five small vases. “Those are nice small vases”, he says to himself, “I’ll have one of them”. But which one?
Three are cylindrical, one is round and one is sort-of bulbous. They are all similar in colour (mainly a dreary 1970s brown) and with similar scratched or pressed surface decorations. After a moment’s thought, he decides that the cylindrical ones are a bit boring, which leaves the round one and the bulbous one. But the round one looks messy and unfinished. There’s something a little child-like about the scratched lines. So he chooses the bulbous vase (on the right) and puts it into his sack.
Has Bill made the correct decision? Amongst these dull pots, has he chosen the treasure hidden in plain sight?
Object #2: one china plate
Burglar Bill sees four pretty plates. “Those are nice plates”, he says to himself, “One of them would be good for my stolen breakfast toast. I’ll have one of them”. But which one?
One is white with a crinkly edge and green flowers painted on it; one has a blue pattern which Bill thinks he recognises as Willow Pattern; one has luscious painted flowers and lots of gold; and one has a spidery blue pattern with a bit of gold round the border. This one’s a no-brainer. The one with the gorgeous flowers and gold paint is obviously the treasure. By comparison, the others are just ordinary. So he puts it into his sack.
But is he correct? Is one of the ordinary plates in fact something extraordinary?
Object #3: one book
Burglar Bill isn’t much of a reader, but he likes books and thinks that every respectable burglar’s home should have some stolen books on display in some stolen bookshelves. In a room with two big desks in it, his torch illuminates a shelf of dictionaries. “Those are nice dictionaries”, he says to himself, “I’ve got space on my shelves for one of them”. But which one?
One is a Chinese-English dictionary, one’s an ancient-looking English dictionary, one is Arabic and one is Hindustani. What kind of household has an assortment of books like that? Bill thinks it’s a very strange household, but he wants to take the best of the books, and he reckons that the oldest one will always be the most valuable. So he heaves the bulky leather-bound 1812 English dictionary into his sack.
But is it true that looking for the oldest is always the way to choose the best?
Object #4: one picture
The swag-bag is getting full. There’s room for one small picture. Burglar Bill isn’t too fond of landscapes or of depictions of animals – he prefers to look at portraits. What he would like most is to steal the Mona Lisa, but he’s deterred by the difficulty of burgling the Louvre. This particular house has tons of pictures but they are mostly abstract modern stuff and some landscapes. His flashlight picks out just four pictures with people in them, and disappointingly they are all black-and-white engravings. Bill doesn’t especially like any of them, but he came out tonight with an urge to steal a picture, so he makes his choice solely on the basis of which one he thinks he might be able get the most money for. But which is that?
There’s a po-faced chap called Thomas Campbell; an old bald bloke with a beard and glasses; a set of four old-looking prints framed together, each print with a group of slightly caricature-ish faces; and a harassed-looking lady in a headscarf carrying a big jug. It is a difficult choice but on close inspection he notices something interesting about the set of four small caricatures: each one bears a tiny monogram Rt followed by the year 1641 or 1651. Bill has been a burglar for many years and along the way has picked up some rudimentary knowledge of how great artists sign their work. “Rt? That’s Rembrandt, innit? I’ll have that”. And he puts it into his sack.
But has Bill made the best choice? If he has discovered four Rembrandt etchings, then tonight’s burgling expedition could be the most lucrative of his career. But are they really Rembrandts?
Object #5: one rug
Bill needs to steal a rug for his stolen cat to lie upon in front of his stolen fireplace, and the floors of this house are covered with rugs of all sizes. “There’s some nice rugs ‘ere. I’ll have one of them”, he says to himself. But which one?
He takes note of four red rugs of a size which he will be able to carry. All are quite similar in their colours and geometrical patterns. Which one should he select?
He finds the choice quite simple. Two rugs are quite dirty and worn-out, one has a big tear and fraying edges, but one (upper right above) looks quite fresh and unworn. That’s the one! “Surprising these people have such tatty old rugs” thinks Bill, “perhaps they can’t afford new ones”. So he rolls up the new-looking one and straps it with the stolen belt to the outside of his sack.
It seems sensible that when it comes to choosing between similar-looking rugs, you would go for the one in the best condition. But if you’re looking for a treasure hidden in plain sight, is it the correct choice?
* * * * *
Sleep well, Burglar Bill
His night’s work completed, Burglar Bill climbs back out of the window and goes home.
“Every morning Burglar Bill comes home from work and has stolen toast and marmalade and a cup of stolen coffee for breakfast. Then he goes upstairs and sleeps all day in a comfortable stolen bed”.
His well-earned rest is not troubled by concerns that last night’s burglary choices might have been sub-optimal. When he rises in the evening, he unpacks the sack and takes a closer look at his swag, including the five pieces pinched from that very strange house with all the unfamiliar stuff in it.
He places the vase on the sideboard, the plate in a kitchen cupboard, the dictionary on the bookshelf, and he lays out the rug in front of the fireplace, where it is immediately appropriated by the stolen cat. He sets the picture frame with the four etchings aside for sale to Fred the Friendly Fence.
Bill regards the results of his night’s efforts with satisfaction. But could he have made better choices? Find out in the next Random Treasure blog post: Hidden in plain sight: Part 2.
 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Burglar-Picture-Puffin-Allan-Ahlberg/dp/0140503013. Note that all images and quotations used in this piece are stolen from my well-used copy of the book, a paperback edition published in 1979 in the Picture Lions series by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd. I haven’t sought the publisher’s permission to use images from the book, on the principle that since it’s a book that legitimises stealing, they aren’t really in a position to object to my making fair use of their copyright.