The Great British Museum of Culture

Appearing in a field near you very soon, the car boot sale is quintessentially British. Jules is a lover.

"The Car Was Much Emptier For The Journey Back". Photo by Martin Belam, released under Creative Commons.

Jules Slingsby

Jules Slingsby

Friday 17 March

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March sees the start of many carboot sales across the UK. For those of you who are not familiar with this popular tradition; it is similar to the American ‘yard sale’ except that in this case, what happens is that a crowd of total strangers turn up in a field or car park, early on a Sunday morning, and spread their wares on the ground or on picnic tables for the public to gather and haggle for a bargain. But what you’ll find in these pop-up public markets is much more than a random display of unwanted goods, it is in fact a cultural museum, holding a huge art deco mirror up to popular tastes of yesteryear and domestic furnishings of a bygone age.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that car boot sales are little more than home-spun markets full of rubbish but in my opinion you’d be quite wrong. My fascination with the ‘great unwanted’ spans back to a time, long ago, when I was a young lad accompanying my father on his weekly trip to the ‘dump’. As he was involved in the building trade he always had a van load of scrap to get rid of and for me the journey was always an adventure as I knew that we’d find something exciting to bring home. 

Of course, this was in the days when you were allowed to pick through other people’s cast off items (as, I am assuming, it was seen as a form of recycling and also it was regarded as trash so – who cared?) More often than not, dad would find a nice dining chair, a useful picture frame or a copper saucepan which still had a few years life left in it. I was captivated by the idea that the ‘Corporation Dump’ was a treasure trove of not only broken and useless stuff but also the vast amount of objects that people simply no longer wanted in their lives. 

How wonderful it was for me then, in later life, when the popularity of car boot sales spread across the country bringing with it the tide of bric-a-brac – and I relished each wave as it washed up a treasure trove on a concrete beach in car parks everywhere. Now, I thought, I can browse legitimately amongst the many items from ordinary lives without the shame and inconvenience of having to delve amongst the filth and grime of a dump.

I began to realise that these markets were much more than an opportunity for the seller to make a quick quid and the buyer to grab some needed or desired item at a knock down and haggled price. I saw that they are museums of contemporary culture. Aside from the clearly obvious ‘market traders’ and those who sell ‘dodgy’ videos or outgrown children’s ephemera there are countless stalls which sell household things which have outgrown their welcome and it’s there that the rich vein of cultural observation lies. 

I find it compelling to see cultural artefacts from the whole of the twentieth century laid out for our consideration and a great amount of it reveals much more about the owner than it does about us for looking at it. I see hideous ornaments which were once lovingly selected and paid for but now are despised and relegated to cardboard boxes to be kicked and argued over for pence. That ghastly thing which makes you recoil in derision was once the pride and joy of someone’s sitting room and, when it was new, was exchanged for the hard-earned cash of its owner. 

But the most upsetting and revealing of all of these are the ‘house clearance’ sellers who take the entire contents of some recently deceased person and lay it all out on the grass for all to see. Amongst its vulnerable folds we can see everything about the people who once lived amongst this detritus. It is startlingly easy to paint a larger picture of their habits, concerns, dreams, aspirations, activity, lifestyle and occupation and the pangs of sadness at the rudeness of it all grips me every time.  The most poignant aspect has to be the collections of orphaned photographs; weddings and babies, young soldiers and holidays – as they flutter in the wind with no family to cherish them any more. The end of the line for this particular set of memories. 

As I looked through the boxes at one particular trader’s stall I could see the entire contents of a couple’s lives. Every shred and fragment of their happy time together was now scattered amongst the mud for strangers to pick through and haggle over. Perhaps, I wondered, I was the only one who could see between the boxes and picture the people who owned all these things. I could see family photographs of long forgotten holidays; trinkets bought for fun but no longer laughing; much loved vinyl records and clocks which ticked away their fate day after day until the end, even though they still ticked on. 

I saw that she loved sewing and flowers and that he smoked cigars and enjoyed photography. They loved African art, country walks and animals. I saw the books they read, the prints of paintings they decorated their rooms with and even the cups and plates they had their meals from and the weight of a certain, intimate, realisation brought a stillness to the scene. 

More than anything else, however, is the overwhelming feeling I get that this ‘stuff’ is society’s great ‘unwanted mountain’ of artefacts. The fact that modern life allows us to have useful items which we do not need is a very telling symptom of the age of consumerism. Walking the aisles of any car boot sale will show you decade after decade of styles and fashions which have come and gone and amongst it all are – sometimes – icons of design which remain to this day both useful and attractive but still, for their current owner at least, unwanted. And therein resides the joy for me – selecting or observing those things which, even if just for a moment, were signifiers for a time long past. 

So beware, dear reader, when you next browse the shelves of that gift shop, electrical store or clothes outlet. My mantra has become that of William Morris who said; “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Failure to do this will surely lead you to the path where one day, when you are gone and forgotten, your earthly chattels will be laid out in a field for all to laugh at, poke through and haggle over. At that point you will have become an exhibit in the ‘museum of culture’, so my advice is: be careful what you gather. 

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