Car Booters


It’s high stakes at the Car boot sale in December. Everyone seems very on edge. Rain is surely on the way. All-weather stallholders – some of the hardiest, Teflon-coated people you could ever encounter, stand beside their Skoda Octavia with hands on hips to stare up suspiciously at a grey marbled sky. It’s going to rain. These stalwarts have no problem standing in a field in any type of downpour, it’s the delicate-flower punters being deterred that they’re worried about.

Sellers are grim-faced, resigned to the task in hand: which is alchemy by any other name. They peddle worthless detritus skimmed from their homes and sell it to the ambling hopeful as glittering gems. There is as much a romantic quality to their morning’s work as there is a hard-nosed desire to bring in some cash. Car boot sellers paint themselves as story-tellers, proffering long lost items, rescued artifacts and cherished treasure that can and will change your life for the better. Not just an eight-pack of blank cassette tapes and a motivational ashtray.

Car booting is invariably a long, cold, wind-swept slog for parties on both sides of the trestle table, but the thrill of being locked into a very low stakes game of cat and mouse with every person you meet is palpable. Everyone thinks they have cheated everyone else out of a fiver and won. “These mugs will buy anything “ smirks the seller to his left. “He had no idea what he had there!” hisses the buyer triumphantly to theirs.

In December, the Punters are suffering from their own kind of Christmas-dreading malaise; they hate their family, they hate Mariah Carey, and they do not want to spend that week’s wages on presents for anyone. December punters want nothing but to be lying on the grass with a bucket of wine, in June.

As such, they begin the day, at 6am in the dark in a school playground in Chiswick, pretty dour, and entirely unwilling to hand over cash for even the highest quality bargains. Car boot buyers share a uniting trait though and that is the soaring audacity of hope. After the ceremonial primer of hot chocolate and bacon sandwich has been applied, it is this quality which will inevitably win out and persuade them that £2.50 for a crystal duck is very reasonable indeed.

Once they’ve got their eye in, all the buyer needs to achieve full Nirvana is to happen upon the stall of a perennial pro-salesman. Traditionally, this will be a petite man, no more than 5’2, boundlessly charismatic in 2 anoraks and a neck brace selling candle-snuffers and butter knives with the words “it’s all pretty random odds and ends to be fair but that’s the beauty of gift-giving.” Go to that man, for he mans the entry point of car boot acceptance. In old norse mythology – he is Heimdall, guardian of the stronghold who signals the imminent arrival of giants. He may not have the “Resounding Horn” as my guide puts it, but in every other descriptor he fits the bill: “he requires less sleep than a bird; his eyesight is so keen that he can see for 100s of miles by day or night; his hearing so acute, he can hear grass grow on the ground and wool sprout on a sheep”. Once you have “got your eye in” by purchasing an 80% complete toast rack and/or an a5 oil painting of a small but plucky boat in grave peril on the sea from this man (I’m looking at you Mum), you may consider yourself *initiated* [read: screwed] and will continue on your path around the car boot, and indeed your life, simply happy, malleable, wide-eyed, and the owner of a great many vases.

A round up of characters I have encountered at the car boot:

– The guy who, brimming over with contempt, told me he had an absolutely authentic Ming dynasty vase for sale. “It’s Ming” he assured me, deadpan. “You’re ming” I secretly thought, hating him. I liked the vase, for about £8 to put on my mantelpiece. It had nice colours. I had been researching the Chinese dynasties at work at the time and had been wading through countless images of Ming artworks. In the most generous possible terms, I was not picking up what he was putting down. “it’s £40. Take it or leave it.” “THERE IS NO FUCKING CHANCE IN HELL you are selling me a 14th century hand-painted Chinese ceramic in a car park for £40.” I screamed. I always get carried away where vases are concerned.

– A furious old man who shouted at my mum when she tried to haggle him down 50p over a damaged teacup.

“but it’s cracked” she insisted, “will you take 30p?”

“SOD OFF!” he bellowed.

– Incredibly drunk apple-cheeked dude with beard tied into 2 long thin plaits who, plainly buzzing off his tits, sold my sister and I two tweed “Aquascutum” overcoats for a tenner and a pair of marble lamp bases. I think of him from time to time, and wonder where he is now. Whether he’s bubbling at The Miniscule of Sound, trying to get into that big silver box on Elephant roundabout where Aphex Twin lives, or just waiting for an egg bap at the lay-by caterer just outside Sunbury Cross.

He was radiating good vibes, but we could sense a more tragic tale lurking just beneath the surface. His leggings said, *still functioning* while the lines of melted kohl under his eyes whispered, “I have made a huge tiny mistake”. His expressive hand gestures persuaded, “buy my lamp” but his entire being maintained, “I belong…in a cell.” He and my sister got on famously. I think he thought she might sell him some gear.

– Our most recent visit to a ‘boot’ brought us the joy of; The Japanese Stall. A wondrous pop-up selling at least 47 sculptures in a variety of sizes (from pocket to mid-life crisis) of the same auspicious bear catching a salmon, and a huge timberpile of traditional Kokeshi wooden dolls with expressions of benign surprise. Expressions of benign surprise also registered on punters themselves, drawn over like moths to a crowd of themselves, who had never seen the like, didn’t necessarily consider themselves “bear” people, and couldn’t for the life of them work out why they were buying all these carved teddies. It was like a natural phenomenon. The birth of an interior design zeitgeist.

– Woman obsessed with purple, selling lots of other-coloured clothes. I’m obsessed with People Obsessed With One Colour. They are a very specific breed and you never know when you’re in for the treat until it’s right in front of you. That’s half the thrill. I’m certain this level of colour commitment speaks to a deeper level of trauma rampaging through their psyche. But perhaps that is for another chapter. This woman had purple hair, purple car, purple legwarmers, purple coathangers. She was desperate for a fag, but purple in the face and flapping because she’d already smoked the one she was looking for. Nobody was showing any interest in her purple wares. I made a mental note to tell her about Sobranie Cocktail cigarettes – lilac papers with a gold tip.

– Man with a box of mannequin hands

Different man with a box of false teeth moulds

– Lovely, tiny, mad Chinese lady selling plants out of the back of her car. Something about elderly Chinese women is so beguiling. They can persuade you to do anything they want, and always have so many ingenius layers of packaging. I bought a 2 ft tall ceramic elephant from her which all of my family hated and a plastic bag full of artificial fruit. Look, don’t ask about the plastic fruit, ok. I had my reasons at the time.

– Unemployed (by which I mean, not specifically buying or selling anything) man leaning on someone else’s stall at 8am on a Sunday morning, cunting off Eric Clapton’s “haggard” appearance from the cover of his unauthorized biography in paperback, for sale on a collapsible table for 25p. “woaarrgh shit, he looks rough! State of him! These guys just don’t have it any more, can’t even play the guitar any more – you know that? He’s a raging alcoholic. Can’t even string together his own name” OK ok, you paragon of health, man with ketchup dribbling down one sleeve, bastion of wellness who by the look of you has seen fit to eat 10,000 suppers without thought or consequence for the last decade – give poor old Clapton a break.

– The Barbara Windsor understudy who tap danced over to my table as I was trying to sell a plastic rendering of the Millennium Dome as per the game “Nominate the Turkey”. [SIDEBAR: great game in which your competitor picks the absolute worst thing you have to offer and bets you lunch that you will never shift it] Babs razzle-dazzled her way across to my stall, picking a path through old baskets full of cds, clothes laid out on the floor like melted crime scenes, and a balding rocking horse, and fluttered her spider-leg eyelashes at me while she told me her history as “one of life’s great performers”. Her stories mostly involved a conspiratorial arm around you, while in a dramatic stage whisper;  “….I was dancing..[unintelligible] something rotten [unintelligible] The London stage and he fell right over the [unintelligible mad ramble] kablewy!” At the climax of the story she would turn, pause for effect, prod me in the ribs and declare, “I’M an entertainer! So let ME enterTAIN you!” Incredible! – A walking badum-dum-tish of a woman. The physical interpretation of lithium on your ice cream and jazz hands. I never sold the Millennium Dome though. Not even to that lunatic.

Things you can ALWAYS buy from the boot:

Old maps of places you would never go on purpose but would only ever arrive in lost, by accident

Grape scissors

Glove stretchers

Haunted dolls

£5 cashmere jumper from Florence and Fred

Phrenology head

Universal tv remote

Royal Memorial crockery

Beyonce perfume

Surprisingly serious looking agricultural equipment

Terrible plates with extremely detailed portraits of otters

At least 400 scart leads in a Morrison’s bag

[If you’re a fan of lists – there are more to be found here.]