My father used to tell me about a man he knew who collected Chinese porcelain. My father also collected Chinese porcelain but his means, or lack thereof, meant he was operating in a less exalted sphere.
The man he knew, according to my father, was at such a stratospheric level of both knowledge and ownership that, when he went to live in Peking, (as it was still then called), he decided, upon being offered the opportunity to acquire a particular piece of china, to sell his entire collection and replace it with that piece alone. Apparently, that single object exemplified the totality of everything my father's acquaintance admired in his favoured area of Chinese porcelain.
From then on, if you visited him, you would encounter no decorative item whatsoever, other than that one piece of china. Everything else, every vase and bowl, every dish and bottle, had been sacrificed. They had been distractions from the true perfection of that solitary thing.
I was reminded of this mythic tale the other afternoon when I was at my mother's house at teatime. She brought out a very good fruit cake that was clearly not shop bought. I guessed that her neighbour and friend, who is a famously good baker, had made it and given it to her. When I asked my mother if it was Sue who'd made it, she misheard me and thought I'd asked if she'd made the thing.
'No,' she said, 'Sue made it.' I answered that of course I hadn't been asking if my mother had made it, because I knew perfectly well that she does not make cakes.
'I made one for your christening,' she responded, slightly nettled. 'It was absolutely superb. It was a truly perfect cake.'
'That was quite a long time ago,' I pointed out. She then remembered that it had in fact been for my older brother's christening, which meant that this unique creative outburst had occurred even further back in the mists of time than I had originally thought.
'It was a most extraordinarily good cake though. I was exceptionally proud of it,' mum persisted.
Which set me once again pondering, as I had when my father had told me about the man with his one piece of china. Is one absolutely superlative creation worth more than thousands of perfectly good ones? In strict aesthetic terms, I suppose so, but on a day to day basis, where cake is involved, I'm not so sure.
30 January 2015: the year ahead - As the first issue of the Sydney Review of Books for 2015 has been taking shape, we have been contemplating the coming year in publishing. Given the rece...
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