On Nice Stuff

I started this on a whim and it took me in directions that I could not have guessed at. I’m happy that it did. 

Theres some thing about owning something really good and rare that that is difficult to explain. Trout fisherman know the feeling – they’re the biggest horders you’ll ever come across. 

We’ve all got that one (some of us may have more) items that are totally indispensable to us and which have a value far more than what they are worth. I myself own very little by the way of rare or expensive tackle. That which I hold dear are really very little, insignificant things by comparison to most. 

I am always amazed by the dichotomy of thinking when it comes to things of great value. We tend to want to offer money for things that we hold to be priceless. It’s a really strange thing; let me explain with an example. 

My wife’s grandfather lived in Worcester in the Cape for most of his adult life. By the time I met him he was already of some considerable age. He was a simple man and was well loved and respected in his community. He cared for his neighbors and they, in turn, looked after him in his old age. 

Oupa Hannes was renowned for his garden and orchard, the fruits of which he and Ouma Bettie would turn into wonderful jams and preserves. Much of the bounty of his orchard he would share, as a gift, with his community. I can still not get over his genuine surprise every time one of the community would reciprocate. Their relationship with the world was a rare and special one. 

Worcester is where the KWV brandy cellars are situated. They are the producers of brandies and ports that are in many cases far superior to cognacs or ‘real’ ports. Of the gifts that he would regularly receive I was most interested in those that came from this cellar. He obviously had a relationship with someone at KWV and had been receiving gifts from them for many, many years. 

On one visit to Worcester we took Oupa Hannes on something of an outing in the district and, as we do, stopped into a large wine co-op. In a glassed-off display within the store was, among others, a bottle of extremely old KWV port. While the exact age of the bottle I do not recall this particular vintage would by now be very close to being a century old. 

Oupa Hannes stood looking into the display until a member of their management arrived to ask if he could be of assistance. 

“How much is that port?”

“It’s not for sale”

“If it were to be for sale how much would be asked for it?”

“It’s not for sale.”

“I understand that, but what would be the price were you to sell it.”

“I said that it is not for sale.”, came the familiar response, but this time more tersely and with a certain rolling of the eyes. 

“Yes, it’s not for sale, I understand that. All that I want to know is what it’s asking price would be were it to go on sale.”

“Oom, let me explain this. That port it very, very old and it is very, very valuable. It is of an exceptional vintage and there is not a lot of it left in this world. Many people have tried to buy it from us. The only time that it would go on sale would be at an auction and the bidding would determine the price. The price will be beyond the means of most people. Why do you persist in asking, are you trying to buy it?”, came the slowly enunciated response of a younger person frustrated with an aged one.  

“Oh no, it’s just that I have at home a case of the same port of exactly the same vintage and I was wondering if they were worth anything.”

“What do you want for them!”, was the quickly fired-back response. 

“I’m sorry, young man, they’re not for sale.”

This is exactly what I’m talking about, how we try to put a price on that which is intrinsically priceless. We covert most that which we cannot have; the ownership of which we somehow believe will make us unique or special. 

I like nice stuff. No, I really, absolutely like nice stuff. I think however that I just have a very different idea of what nice stuff is. It is very hard for me to try to put into words what for me constitutes nice stuff, but I know that it’s not simply expensive items. 

Expensive stuff isn’t necessarily dear to me. With a suitably swollen wallet I could easily own a picket fence of cane rods and fine, handmade reels. I would appreciate them and would be awed by their workmanship, but other than for the recognition of the hand of artisan they would not be of any great value to me. You see, things need to be bound to oneself in a different way to really be of value. 

As a teenager I met a man who later employed me for a few years. Peter Thorburn was a civil engineer and a partner in his own extremely successful practice. He was also a devoted fisherman and was proficient in many disciplines of the sport. He was an amazing guy; unbelievably intelligent, a former Springbok athletics captain, a farmer and completely off the wall in many ways. 

I remember driving up to his farm one day and finding him welding up a broken trailer. He couldn’t find his welding mask so as he held the welding rod in one hand he held an empty quart beer bottle up to his eye with the other. With Peter this sort of thing wasn’t unusual. His trousers were hemmed with staples and superglue and he would trim his nails with a large knipmes. 

I think that he entered into fly fishing later on in his life and he took to it like most things he did – with a singular ability and unique perspective. His flies were really basic, simple things. He used to use crab patterns made of old carpet fibre to deadly effect on trout. His saltwater flies were just as crude but he took great fish on them. I think that he would be cast out of most fly tying clubs the second he opened one of his boxes. He knew his stuff though. In the age of fast sinking rocket taper lines and Walker’s Killers he only fished a floater; in our eyes this made him truly eccentric. 

He passed away suddenly and his death affected me profoundly. He wasn’t a mentor in the “come let me help you” way. In fact, he would tell myself and a friend when we’d talk about learning the double haul or clever techniques or smart flies “that’s your problem, you want to be a bloody hero”.  I think that it took his death for me to realize that he was at all a mentor to me. I was in my mid twenties and thought, like most of us did at that age, that death happened to old people. The church in his adopted hometown, Komga, couldn’t hold those at the service. Neither could the tent they erected for it. I was a poor married student at the time and I spent the last of our grocery money that month to buy petrol to drive up from Port Elizabeth for the funeral. I arrived just in time and stood outside the tent and cried; as I am now. 

His wife, for reasons I will never know, saw fit to mail me some of his things a few months after his passing. It was nothing of any value. It was just some priceless things; some flies, oddities of small tackle and a poem that he wrote. 

In the package was something liquid. I’m not sure what it was, but the package was clearly badly mishandled and the liquid drenched the contents. Much of it was damaged. I marched into the postmaster’s office and vented at her with much emotion. 

“Wasn’t it insured”, she asked’ “is it worth much?.

How do you even begin to answer that?

I think that to reach the end of your days and to have collect just a little of what is truly priceless is the mark of a life lived well. I’ll let you in on a secret; it’s not that collection of rare tackle – that stuff is going to go for a song at a garage sale a generation hence. No, while it enriches your existence and is a joy to have near you it isn’t priceless. 

While I write this (excuse me my emotions – this was intended to have been something entirely different when I started it) there is a bigger sign of a life well lived, and it has stuck me like an epiphany. 

When you have left someone else with something priceless then you have gone some way to enriching the world by your time spent on it. That, I think, is the challenge of life. 


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