Clive Murphy’s Matchbox Labels
Clive Murphy, Phillumenist
Nothing about this youthful photo of the novelist, oral historian and writer of ribald rhymes, Clive Murphy – resplendent here in a well-pressed tweed suit and with his hair neatly brushed – would suggest that he was a Phillumenist. Even people who have known him since he came to live in Spitalfields in 1973 never had an inkling. In fact, evidence of his Phillumeny only came to light when Clive donated his literary archive to the Bishopsgate Institute and a non-descript blue album was uncovered among his papers, dating from the era of this picture and with the price ten shillings and sixpence still written in pencil in the front.
I was astonished when I saw the beautiful album and so I asked Clive to tell me the story behind it. “I was a Phillumenist,” he admitted to me in a whisper, “But I broke all the rules in taking the labels off the matchboxes and cutting the backs off matchbooks. A true Phillumenist would have a thousand fits to see my collection.” It was the first time Clive had examined his album of matchbox labels and matchbook covers since 1951 when, at the age of thirteen, he forsook Phillumeny – a diversion that had occupied him through boarding school in Dublin from 1944 onwards.
“A memory is coming back to me of a wooden box that I made in carpentry class which I used to keep them in, until I put them in this album,” said Clive, getting lost in thought, “I wonder where it is?” We surveyed page after page of brightly-coloured labels from all over the world pasted in neat rows and organised by their country of origin, inscribed by Clive with blue ink in a careful italic hand at the top of each leaf. “I have no memory of doing this.” he confided to me as he scanned his handiwork in wonder,“Why is the memory so selective?”
“I was ill-advised and I do feel sorry in retrospect that they are not as a professional collector would wish,” he concluded with a sigh, “But I do like them for all kinds of other reasons, I admire my method and my eye for a pattern, and I like the fact that I occupied myself – I’m glad I had a hobby.”
We enjoyed a quiet half hour, turning the pages and admiring the designs, chuckling over anachronisms and reflecting on how national identities have changed since these labels were produced. Mostly, we delighted at the intricacy of thought and ingenuity of the decoration once applied to something as inconsequential as matches.
“There was this boy called Spring-Rice whose mother lived in New York and every week she sent him a letter with a matchbox label in the envelope for me.” Clive recalled with pleasure, “We had breaks twice each morning at school, when the letters were given out, and how I used to long for him to get a letter, to see if there was another label for my collection.” The extraordinary global range of the labels in Clive’s album reflects the widely scattered locations of the parents of the pupils at his boarding school in Dublin, and the collection was a cunning ploy that permitted the schoolboy Clive to feel at the centre of the world.
“You don’t realise you’re doing something interesting, you’re just doing it because you like pasting labels in an album and having them sent to you from all over the world.” said Clive with characteristic self-deprecation, yet it was apparent to me that Phillumeny prefigured his wider appreciation of what is otherwise ill-considered in existence. It is a sensibility that found full expression in Clive’s exemplary work as an oral historian, recording the lives of ordinary people with scrupulous attention to detail, and editing and publishing them with such panache.
Clive Murphy, Phillumenist
Images courtesy of the Clive Murphy Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute
You may like to read my other stories about Clive Murphy
Clive Murphy’s oral histories are available from Labour and Wait