The sellers pull up at the gate from around 9am, every Saturday and Sunday, and the buyers are already there, in packs. Drive in too slowly and your car will be mobbed. People bang on the windows anyway, yelling “Watches? Any watches? Jewellery? Any clothes?”. It’s mudlarking crossed with Mad Max, the engines gunning, Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” curdling the air, huge men wandering around with burgers and plastic bags full of, well, crap. And tools.
Why are there so many tools, in among the discarded children’s toys and damp-fattened books and boxes of armless sunglasses and remote controls for screens so remote they no longer exist and terrifyingly stained overalls? A part of the answer must be that car-boot sales have an obvious kinship with travellers and the idea of trade as a way of handing on useful skills; with ironmongery and agriculture. Here are boxes of files, knives, spanners, pitchforks, angle-grinders, claw-hammers, rotavators and chisels. These heavy goods are by no means the only desirable objects. Everything goes. “This is insane”, says my friend Stuart, who has a car-full of stuff from his garage to offload.
The woman next to us, on the touchline, is cross because someone has nicked her shoes. She looks round, outraged. “You, thief!” she says, pointing at a young girl with a pram. “I never”, the girl replies. Someone reminds the woman that the shoes weren’t nicked: she sold them a minute ago and has forgotten. “Oh.” The young mother rolls her eyes, pushes on and stops at our mat. “How much for the lamp?” It’s an orange metal standard lamp, with a fitting hanging out. “Five quid. It’s vintage”, says Stuart. His honesty gets the better of him: “It needs rewiring.” The girl nods, unperturbed. “My boyfriend’s an electrician, but I’m on a budget.” She smiles. She comes back later. Four quid is still too much, and so, later still, is three.
Euphemisms for “broken” are part of the sale’s inventive dialect. “It’s still in its box” (because it doesn’t work) is a popular one. Along with “They’re Adidas / Nike” (with the tread worn away) and the occasional bespoke understatement. My first typewriter, which I loved, was a Silver Reed Silverette. In Fisher Athletic FC’s goalmouth, a part-time psychic – I know this because she has a card – is selling an identical model and I’m tempted to buy it. The carriage goes one way; the release catch won’t release. The back of the typewriter is staved in. It has been hit or bashed with a tool, or perhaps thrown across a room. Maybe the psychic knows. “What happened, here?”, I ask. But she’s having none of it. “You can write nicely with that”, she says, flatly. “It’s just . . . unclipped.”
The whole place is unclipped. It’s not the objects so much as the silent relationships between them and their sellers that gets me going. When Stuart invited me along, I thought “Great! Material!”, as you do if, like me, you’re pondering a new story. Not that I expect to be writing a novel set in SE16 about a car boot sale; but I do expect to overhear suggestive remarks and glimpse predicaments. The mats and trestle-tables are laden with the no-longer wanted – an attractive idea in itself and one which raises the question “Why?” or “Who says?”. As I walk away from the woman with the typewriter, I turn a “different quality of attention “ (Hilary Mantel’s guarded phrase) on the chaos of the sale, and find myself considering not simply what is being said or done, but how the adrenaline and suspicion driving it might animate a trial, a fight, an opening scene. Paying this kind of attention is important, and rather heartless. It is a form of staring, and I’m not sure I approve of it.
The buyers are poor. When they knock on the car window, shouting “have you got any clothes?”, it’s because they need clothes, not because they’re some sort of scenic metaphor for the end of the world. Who do I think I am, wandering about looking for the links between things? What kind of twisted self-indulgence is that? Feeling good about feeling this bad, I’m suddenly free to spot a dartboard next to an unrolled sight-test, with its big letters dwindling to small ant-like characters, and a man sitting alongside both with several sets of spare legs – not prostheses, but the legs of display dummies. I can’t quite piece this lot back together. He’s also selling some tubs of aqueous cream and a book: Dancing in the Light, “another” #1 memoir by Shirley MacLaine.
Perhaps these things aren’t connected and there isn’t a story. Stuart has brought along two golf-clubs, which don’t belong to him. They are the casual bequests of his flat’s previous owner. Of course, some stories do appear to suggest themselves, like objects at a sale. Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds” “began” after the author saw a flock of seagulls circling, menacing, a farmer in his field. Anna Karenina “began” with a newspaper clipping about a suicide. Most are not startled into life, however; their authors may see or overhear things, but those things await a context, which tends not to be a product of excited invention but of patient stitching-together.
It is an uncertain, dreamlike process, starting a novel, and one which, like the sale, has no official beginning. I know that what I’m waiting for is an emotion from the past, echoed in the present. A moment of joy or bewilderment, and exposure, often allied to feelings of culpability: What have I done? What will I do next? How can I put it all right? I’m not particularly interested in the origins of that feeling. What I care about is the quality of the emotion, its electrical sensation as I make the memory circuits come alive. When that happens, I might be on to something.
The craziness of the sale recedes, like a swift tide. People and objects disperse. Tina Turner is on the Jubilee Line back to Nutbush. Before it is quite over, the girl with the baby, who eventually bought the orange standard lamp for £2, taps me on the shoulder as I’m packing up. “That lamp is f***ed. My boyfriend can’t do anything with it”, she says, and for a second I’m speechless with remorse. It isn’t even my lamp. Stuart has made himself scarce: so much for his honesty. I manage a kind of cough, and dig into my pockets for a refund. She laughs – and she’s gone. With the pram and no boyfriend that I can see. I feel apologetic, with no one to apologise to.
When I was about six I fought with my brother in the kitchen and we broke a Mexican dish. My father is an even-tempered man, but on this occasion he went beserk – eyes popping, spittle flying, the works. I never found out why. Was it valuable? Perhaps – in more ways than one. What came back to me was how sorry I felt. And now I’m left with this feeling, in a new setting, about broken things and the effort of others’ lives: what they can’t say, because they’re protecting you, because it runs too deep or because the gulf between you is too wide. Fisher Athletic FC, “The Fish”, was wound up in 2009. Supporters formed a new football club, Fisher FC, which still plays in Dulwich. The old grounds hold a car-boot sale and ragwort curls in from all four corners at once. Over the water is Canary Wharf, which looks unbreakable, but isn’t.
First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 2012