Auctions with Mam
Quite often as I have lunch with my sister there are shows like Bargain Hunt or Flog It! on the television. I’m interested in antiques, so these are pleasant enough to have on in the background. I’ve learned some things too, and even grown to hate a word, tantalus, because the objects have been described so many dozens of times. When the expert says “Do you know what a tantalus is?” now, I want to scream at the telly “Please say yes!!!!” But they always say no, they’ve never heard of it. Do they never watch these shows? Ahhhhh!
The auction parts always take me back to my childhood, though.
Having lived in a large town in Yorkshire for much of my adult life, I’m now kicking myself that I never visited the auction house there. How crazy. Now I’m in the middle of nowhere and have no chance. Having had so many years of missed opportunities, I can’t really be surprised about how many people on Flog It say they have never been to an auction.
The odd thing is that by the time I was 10, I was already an auction veteran. The reason was… my mother loved them. She saw them as a trip out and looking back I see how interested she was in old and unusual things. Her problem was that she had so little to spend, but she still enjoyed looking and every now and then she had enough to give herself a little treat, though always with the excuse that she was only buying household stuff that we needed anyway. Not for herself personally.
Apart from liking textiles she had a great interest in china and pottery. Not that she had any great interest in the brand names. It didn’t matter to her what the marks on the base were. It was all about colour, design and pattern. It must have rubbed off on me, even though at the time I fully understood my brother’s and sister’s frustration at the amount of time she’d browse whenever she encountered any shop selling china. “No thanks, I’m just looking” she’d say when the assistant approached asking if she could help. We’d all either lean against the window ledge outside thinking the time excruciatingly long, or I’d hang on to her sleeve as she picked one cup or dish up after another to show me. The trouble was, she could look at one thing for a LONG time, and sometimes there were tables and tables of the stuff. It was the same in a museum. A china section would draw her in like a magnet. At museums I usually wanted to look at the stuffed animals. I liked stuffed animals because I saw them as my only real chance of drawing wild animals that were ‘in the round’ as opposed to copying pictures in books. It helped too that they also stayed still. I’d have taken a pencil and paper to a museum, so my mother would settle me down in a quiet corner to draw a bison or something, get my brothers and sisters to take turns sitting with me, and indulge herself for an hour with her urns and tiles, plates and goblets.
Sometimes she’d come and get me because she wanted me to see an animal she’d found painted on an item. “Isn’t he lovely?” she’d ask as she pointed to some odd looking lion or tiger which she said was stylised. As I was trying my best to perfect my accuracy, these animals she liked puzzled me a great deal. None of them looked like the real thing, and I’d say so. I thought some of them had the silliest faces and dodgy expressions. I thought they looked like cartoon animals, but my mother thought they had what she called character and charm. It would be years before I understood what she was getting at, what really appealed to her, that she had a deep appreciation of naivety. She’d point these out to me in old carpets too. She was a woman in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong financial circumstances. There was so much beyond her reach. But just looking at these simple animals gave her a strong feeling of connection with the person who made the thing, much more than with the highly skilled artisans who, say, produced fine things for palaces (though she was interested in those too). She used my plasticene sometimes to make animals for me, and they had charm too. I see now what they were all about for her, making the connection with these unknown craftspeople more real. Showing herself that she could have been one of them.
And so her love of the auction house. She’d make sure she took me to the public toilet just before going in. She didn’t want to have to come out again and miss something. We’d be there in good time because she wanted a good spot. All the chairs and sofas being sold were arranged in rows for everyone to sit on. She’d choose a row but let me choose the sofa because she knew I was not happy about sitting anywhere that looked a bit unsavory or smelled funny. Most people smoked. Some people brought sandwiches and started to unpack them as if they were having a picnic. My mother would wish she had too, but she’d have worried about getting jam on a sofa and being made to pay for it. She knew I would never have eaten under those circumstances, or in front of all those people. She’d tell me I had to sit still in case we bid on something by accident. She needn’t have. I was the only one she’d have trusted with that. I could sit for hours with no squirming, until people started commenting on it, saying I was like a doll or something.
The stuffed animals in glass cases were what I was hoping to see at the time, and they would generally go for six or seven shillings. Every time I’d tell my mother which one I’d love to have, how I could draw it from all angles, but she’d always have to put me off. I knew she didn’t have six shillings, but she’d always try to make light of it by saying that we couldn’t have them in the house. My aunt Liza always insisted that they brought bad luck. Especially the birds for some reason. I knew that Aunt Liza wouldn’t even allow a cushion in the house if it had a bird embroidered on it. No bird figurines, bird pictures, no birds at all. Here though, my mother stressed that stuffed birds must be the unluckiest of all.
We’d sit for hours while mum lapped it up, the excitement of seeing all the things raised up and finding out how much they went for, until near the end we’d come to the real reason we were there, and the most exciting bit when she would very nervously raise her hand hoping against hope we’d be walking home carrying a box of treasures.
It was a box of tat she was hoping to buy. The sort you’d see on the floor being kicked every time someone went past. She didn’t know what was in them but saw them as lucky dips, hoping to get one for thruppence or as much as sixpence on a day she felt flush.
Oh, the excitement as we walked home on a day when she’d got one of these boxes. You could see it in her face and feel it in the bounce of her step. She couldn’t wait to set the box down and see what she could find in there. She’d pick them out one by one, mostly cracked and crazed old plates and the occasional cup. Once she found a cut glass oval salt dish that didn’t even have a chip on the rim that we had on the table for years. Once there was an ivory coloured grubby plastic toast rack. Each plate she got out of the box she’d examine closely and at length. Plain white did nothing for her. She was after pattern and anything a little bit different. So would I now, but then I wanted to be like everyone else. When I went to friend’s houses they all had sets of plates. Everything matched, everything relatively new, everything had come from the Co-op. In our house no two plates had the same pattern, or were even the same size and shape. Stacked one upon the other the dinner plates in the cupboard made a curiously wobbling column that could be toppled just by trying to take the top plate off. Worse than that, my brother told me that dead people had eaten off these plates. When after that I refused to eat from one he said he only meant that they were dead now, but promised me they’d been alive when they had their meals. Just to be safe I’d only use the ones we’d had a long time. They had to have been washed MANY times in the soapiest, hottest water before I deemed them clean enough.
I think my mother probably hoped she’d one day find something valuable in one of these boxes she bought. She never did, but she did manage to turn them into something valuable for me. I never pick up a patterned old plate without thinking of her and muttering “Mum would like this”, and I’m glad we didn’t have two plates the same. I’m glad we spooned salt from the glass dish with a tiny spoon. And I’m glad I can see the charm in the stylised and naive animals she used to point out to me.