By uniting Japan and the North East in friendship, the world is just one great big picnic, says Alastair Gilmour.
WHEN Japanese architect Hiroshi Ota saw what was being offered on eBay, he couldn’t believe his luck.
The assortment of 69 picnic hampers – mostly 1950s and 1960s vintage – were unmissable for a founder member of the 80-strong Tokyo Picnic Club and a man driven by the tradition of the quintessential British outdoor pursuit. His chance internet find was a 40-year collection gathered by Jim Coulthard, of Blyth, Northumberland, who was reluctantly selling up to chase another strand of enthusiasm.
“This is a 1910 picnic hamper that I took on the Antiques Roadshow,” says Jim, carefully easing out one of the two vacuum flasks in the only hamper he has kept back. “I bought it in Tynemouth Market eight or nine years ago. It’s identical to one my grandmother had, which really started me off collecting.”
Jim is a hunter-gatherer with that energetic outlook and indefinable spirit that mountaineers can only describe as “because it’s there”.
He says: “I also collect vintage go-karts and currently have 50 karts and 120 engines. I used to race them at Felton in Northumberland in the 1960s. I also used to collect cameras, so I suppose I’m a specialist in a particular market. The most expensive hampers can go for more than £2,000 – one featured on Richard & Judy a few years ago was in the shape of a table and it sold for £22,000. When Hiroshi saw them he said he’d have the lot.”
But if the life of an obsessive collector can be sidetracked by compulsive behaviour, the life of a wife of an obsessive collector is something else entirely. It takes an awful lot of patience, stoicism and understanding to share someone else’s enthusiasm, even that of a loved one. Fortunately, Jim’s wife Sue and Hiroshi’s wife Kaori are quietly proud of their husbands’ fixations and take their respective preoccupations in their stride.
Sue says: “When Jim starts something, it takes over his life. It’s not unusual to have engines being cleaned in the kitchen sink with kart chassis spread on the floor.
“He has three sheds full in the garden and you can just about see my washing machine at the back of the garage. We have a four-bedroom house but have never been able to use more than two of them. It’s not just lots of engines, either, it’s everything that goes with them – books, magazines, badges, helmets and racing suits.”
Hiroshi is in the North East promoting Picnopolis, a 10-day cultural event in Newcastle and Gateshead. His wife Kaori Ito says: “We keep the picnic hamper collection at my mother’s house. When we had the earthquake in Tokyo, we had piles of them on the bedroom floor and we were holding on to them, shouting ‘don’t shake, don’t shake’. We first came to Newcastle in 2004 to buy them from Jim; now this is our fourth time here.”
After starting his working life in the mines, Jim spent his career in the motor trade. Hiroshi’s track has taken a similar diversion.
“People don’t think of me as an architect any more,” he says. “I’m more of an installation artist.”
The Tokyo Picnic Club was formed in 2002, modelled on the 1802 London Pic-Nic Club. Its aim is to spread the culture of picknicking and put pressure on Tokyo politicians to change the laws whereby public parks open for only a few hours a day, with people discouraged from walking or sitting on the grass.
Houses in the city tend to be small and gardens with trees and flowers are rare, so the picnic is regarded as a great social convention.
Hiroshi Ota and his colleagues have developed Picnopolis, the unique event currently touring Newcastle and Gateshead with 100 aeroplane- shaped picnic mats. They will be reunited with their Mothership at Baltic Quay, Gateshead, on Bank Holiday Monday for a celebratory picnic. On Sunday at Baltic Square (2pm), expert Jim Coulthard will join Hiroshi to share the picnic hamper’s history and tradition over a session called Hampers From The Attic.
Details of Picnopolis events at www.NewcastleGateshead.com