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Roses and diamonds

Considering concepts of value

"I'd rather have roses on my table, than diamonds on my neck" – so said Emma Goldman, Arnachist, Feminist, Revolutionary, counter-Revolutionary and general political activist.

I love this quote – and am puzzled that some many people around the internet seem to struggle to understand what it means. It is simple. Ah, perhaps there's the rub. We have lost the art of simple.

Emma would prefer flowers to jewels, the natural to the man-made, the freely pick-able (or at least home-growable) to the grossly expensive.

If I had to make a choice, I'd probably agree with her. Without attaching any political import, if I had to choose, I would rather have roses than diamonds.

The roses on the table scent the whole room, they bring brightness to gloom in corners. Even cut and confined to their vase, they insist on being themselves, growing yet, opening, blossoming just that tiny bit more…and they know when it is time to leave. They fade and die and remind us that nothing lasts forever.

I have roses on my table, and on my altar.

As it happens, I often have roses on my hearth when there's no fire to frazzle them.

I remember the roses in my mother's garden. She never cut them. Only in the very last years of her life did it occur to Mam that she was allowed to bring flowers indoors for no other reason than that she wanted their light and scent around her. Clearly she did want these things…she had shining cut-glass vases in which to display them, wedding presents from half a century ago…mostly unused.

I inherited those vases. They're not so shiny these days, and they have a few more chips and cuts than the designers put it, but that's because they do what they were designed to do: they hold the water and the flowers that I love to have on my tables.

But I do remember the rose bushes. Red roses, and white, and yellow. My favourite was a variety called Peace – golden primrose yellow with soft pink shadings. They were pruned yearly and bloomed as they saw fit. In June and through the summer, and then often again towards Christmas. Flowers were never bought for wedding buttonholes, they were simply snipped from the garden, with their leaves and a wrapping of kitchen foil if they were to be pinned with their stalks otherwise unhidden.

I don't remember why the rose bushes were ripped up, but I do remember how wrong the garden looked ever after. The first wrenching of the slow losing of my childhood home…but I'd already moved out and on…and held my tongue.

Still, I remember the rose bushes.

I would rather have roses on my table, than diamonds on my neck.

Only…the thing is…if I'm allowed to admit this…well…erm…I wasn't actually planning on making a choice.

I don't see the two things as mutually exclusive.

I don't see why I can't wander my local streets and be uplifted by the spark of spring in the crocus flowers and yet still delight in wearing pretty things. Pretty, expensive, things.

So far as I know, I don't own any diamonds. I don't know because I haven't checked, but I'm prepared to believe that all of my jewels are paste and that is fine too. But who knows, one day I may be rich enough to be extravagant enough not just to spend my hard-earned on travelling and experiencing but also on frivolities. Bits of rock that are only valuable because men deem them so.

What we lose sight of is that that is also true of the roses, and the crocus, and the sunrise, and a Van Gogh painting, and taste of fish-&-chips out of the paper with the scent of vinegar and salt-sea air, and all the other things we could and should and might and must value. We have a choice in other words. Everything fades and passes eventually, and values rise and fall. It is for us to determine what we value and how much.

I'm with William Morris when he said that we should have nothing in our homes unless we know it to be useful or believe it to be beautiful.

Believe it to be beautiful.

I believe some pieces of jewellery – which I have seen but would never aspire to own – to be beautiful. There are works of art that I admire – none of them by Van Gogh as it happens – that take my breath away. Were I ever to own such things, it would be because I believed them to be beautiful…for the way they captured or reflected light, for their sharing of the skill of the artists that went to make them, because they were made to be looked at and looking at them made me smile.

It would not be because I knew them to be useful, as stores of monetary value. That, for me, is an unfortunate consequence of the way the concept 'things are valuable because we choose them to be so' works out in the modern world. Someone decides that something is valuable – a bottle of old wine, a painting, a house – and it gets traded and re-traded and whilst its monetary representation rises, its true value is degraded. It ceases to be drinkable, viewable, liveable.

The joy of the rose and the crocus lies in their very transitory nature – they can ONLY be enjoyed in the moment, and then they are gone. We can choose to value them or not – but we cannot choose to capture their value and distort it. Oil of rose and crocus saffron are expensive products and have their place, but they don't stop the home-grown rose, the street-side flower, from simply being what they are and being just as beautiful. The nature of the oil and the spice is not the same as the nature of the flower.

The nature of jewels is that they have been cut to shine and sparkle, before that happens they are merely rocks. The beauty of a diamond is like that of a sculpture – it has, to paraphrase a great artist, been released from the stone. And what is the point of releasing it, if you are then too scared to display it because of some artificial construct of wealth?

If I had to make a choice, then yes , I would rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck…but I would rather have diamonds on my neck than locked away a dark vault sparkling for no-one.

Lesley Mason

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