Phil Collins, the British pop star, is in the limelight again for donating his private collection of about 200 artefacts from the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo to the state of Texas so they can be stored and displayed at the historic site of the Alamo in San Antonio.
"I have to be careful I don't sound like some trainspotter or someone that hangs out at airports collecting airplane numbers, you know, because I think they are crazy," Collins said, sounding both worried and amused. "I arrive on a plane, I look at these people sitting there. They've been there all day and they're just taking the numbers of the type of the plane. Get a life, you know? I feel guilty of that sometimes because I go into detail and someone just wants to know the greatest hits of the story."
He said as much at a media conference in front of the building on Thursday morning, surrounded by several hundred onlookers who cheered when he spoke – as much for his generous contribution to Texas's cultural wealth as for his status as one of the biggest-selling pop-rockers of all time as a solo artist and with Genesis. The Texas land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, called him a "true Texan".
Over the years Collins has amassed the largest-known private collection of its kind, reportedly spending a seven-figure sum. The British equivalent of this gesture might be Hall and Oates pitching up at Traitor's Gate to hand over fistfuls of crown jewels to the Tower of London. This small shrine across the street from some tacky T-shirt shops and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium in downtown San Antonio is among the Lone Star State's most popular tourist attractions and has a profound historical and emotional significance for many Texans.
It also has meaning for Collins, despite the fact that he comes from the London suburb of Hounslow, which is a long way from San Antonio on many levels.
"I think the thing that resounded with me was the fact that people came here and made a stand here – for good or bad, that's another political can of worms – but for good or bad they came here knowing they were going to die, hoping they weren't but knowing they probably would, and that appealed to me even at six or seven, the idea of being that brave," he told the Guardian, sat in the Alamo's sacristy next to two swords and a knife, a sample of his collection.
As a child, Collins would recreate the battle with toy soldiers and avidly watched the 1950s Disney miniseries, Davy Crockett. His interest in collecting memorabilia started in the 1990s when he was given a birthday present of a receipt for a saddle owned by John W Smith, an Alamo courier.
The artefacts are stored in the basement of Collins' Swiss home but will be taken to Texas later this year, with the ultimate plan to display them in a new visitor centre.
"I'm just an enthusiastic amateur. What I know is out there to be learned, it's just that I took the time to do it, because of the book and to find out what I was buying," said Collins. In 2012, the year after he announced his retirement from music because of health problems caused by drumming, Collins wrote a 384-page book, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector's Journey.
Now a museum, the former Roman Catholic mission and compound was the site of a key event in the Texas revolution. Mexican troops laid siege to it in 1836 and killed the heavily outnumbered defenders, including Crockett and Jim Bowie, celebrated for his prowess with what is now known as the Bowie knife. Collins has Bowie's weapon, along with one of four remaining rifles owned by Crockett.
News of the courageous resistance helped coalesce support among the rebels, who defeated Santa Anna's army at the Battle of San Jacinto amid cries of "Remember the Alamo!" The win cemented the status of the newly formed Republic of Texas, which (to the ongoing regret of many Texans) was annexed by the United States in 1845. The Alamo story was subsequently immortalised in popular culture, including a 1960 John Wayne epic and a 2004 version with Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton, which no one wants to remember.
"I think part of me feels embarrassed that there are millions of people starving in the world and I've been buying old bits of metal. This is why I wrote Another Day In Paradise: whether you're well off or poor you still have more than the man on the street," Collins said.
"I'm not extravagant in other ways, I live a very simple life. Pretty simple. I mean, I came down here from New York in a private plane so it's not that simple. But on the other hand, I don't buy extravagant items like cars, expensive houses, jewellery. I've got no other expensive interests. My interests, for the last 25 years anyway, have been relics, buying things that are attached to something that I feel very interested about. Even I have a limit … I was offered something once for a million dollars."
Collins seemed in fine form only a few days after a hoax Facebook page, RIP Phil Collins, generated, in a rather ambiguous indication of his ongoing appeal, a million likes.
"I didn't hear about that," he said. "This has happened to me before. My brother rang up and said, 'is this true? Because why don't I know?' He was genuinely alarmed, and he had a heart problem. These things have repercussions at my age."
That age – he is 63 – is a major reason why he has not toured since 2007 with Genesis, while his last album, a set of cover versions called Going Back, was released in 2010. But without his Alamo collection to occupy his time, might he be tempted back on stage?
"The short story is, my young kids want to see what dad does. They listen to the music and one of them has never seen me on tour and the other one only has vague memories so they want me to go out on the road again," he said.
"And I thought, well, now they're living in Miami it would be interesting to think about the possibility of doing it. I'm not saying I am, but I am saying that I will be rehearsing for a couple of weeks, just to knock tunes around and play with my friends. That's what it boils down to, having a bit of fun for two or three weeks, playing the music that we've all played over the years and seeing how it feels.
"If it feels good … sometimes these things feel great, but you think, do I want to go out there and be in hotels? I'm flattered people want to hear it but I'm the one who's going to be going round hotels unpacking and packing and there comes a point where you think, I've done that."
Then again, he clearly loves to revisit history and listen for the echoes of men who defied the odds.
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