I delivered the final draft of my memoir a few months ago, and as a result of watching too much television, I decided to reinvent myself as a “divvy”. This is what Lovejoy (currently repeating on Yesterday) calls diviners of the genuine article. A divvy will get a tingling feeling running down his or her spine, a “shiver-me-timbers there’s Spanish gold to be plundered” intimation that thrills the nerve ends and focuses the senses. I felt it when I found my first jardiniere. Deep in the bowels of an arcade on Portobello I came across a pitch selling eastern artefacts. The proprietors were as dark-eyed and mysterious as T.S. Eliot’s merchant and I sniffed a story. A genuine antique tells a story, and divvies love a story. This story, as Lovejoy would have it, is about greed, desire, love and death. There amongst the rugs and hookahs was a stoneware buxom pot glazed in sky-dipped blue with a slip-cast frieze in modest greys and taupe running round it. Doulton Lambeth in the Byzantine! The proprietor wanted sixty; I got him down to forty-five. Result! I love to haggle — it makes my nerve ends tingle with the derring-do of it. I took my jardiniere home and did the research.
Initials engraved into the clay revealed the designer to be Louisa Wakely. She was one of many female potters hired by Doulton at the turn of the 20th century. This pot was Transition period — moving from Victorian to Art Nouveau. The frieze reflects this in its organic scrolls and flower stems burgeoning into the trumpets of lilies. The ceramics industry was one of the few employers of young women that allowed them to express their artistry. In the world of antiques you get all the best stories – but like the stories behind scrimshaw, pig benches and oliphants, it isn’t always pretty. But it makes you feel alive.
Lovejoy was made in the Eighties when our dearly departed national treasure was ruling/ruining/running the new-brand UK, and Ian McShane had a mullet. There was still a cash economy in those days and there were still abandoned barns that could be filled with loot, Staffordshires and armoires. Where are these spaces now? These spaces that have evaded regulations? There is only one left in London, as far as I know. But my little wilderness is under threat. Portobello Road, at least the patch under the Westway, will soon come under the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s remit as a Community and Enterprise Hub. In other words, the strange and motley crew of divvies, poseurs, nostalgia freaks and part-time fences (don’t ask) will flee in diverse directions as clipboards and committee meetings have their wicked way. As a result, the weekly flea market will lose its scruffy charm in much the same way Shepherd’s Bush has been submerged by steel-and-concrete walkways and vertical gardens. London is always building itself, adding layer upon layer with relentless regularity, all the while disregarding its citizens’ laments.
Fret not. I have found a way to hang on to the past in the form of my ever-growing plunder; objets trouvés, seconds, jumble, bric-a-brac, rubbish and scrap.
It took a while to realise I was no divvy. But it was too late. I learnt a lot from Lovejoy (he was always broke, too), and the hit he gave me was good. But the plots got in the way of the story. I’m an addict. Lovejoy was my gateway drug. I got bored with the characters who got in the way of the booty. Now I’m on the hard stuff: Bargain Hunt, Flog it!, and when the cravings get too much, Dickinson’s Real Deal. I have to be desperate to get my fix from the man who coined the phrase,”Cheap as Chips” — too many gold sovereigns on his show. I have the sensibilities of a Paul Martin — ooh it’s handmade and it’s old!, and the aspirations of a bow-tied Wonnacott drooling over stately homes.
These daytime TV presenters, Tim, David and Paul, have spurred on my addiction to cheap frills (I love a bargain!) and colluded with my delusion that I am a divvy.
Reality is biting and the word takes on the meaning it had when I was in the playground. I am overloaded with 18th-century Chinese tea bowls, pearlware ditto, Staffordshire flatbacks and pink lustreware. I’m frightened to move in case I break some early Victorian tea paraphernalia.
It’s time to divvy up. The cash economy is where all us addicts end up. Collecting is a mug’s game. Faster than a cash machine in downtown Nicosia, I am emptying out my cabinets in an effort to maintain fiscal responsibility. I’m doing what all collectors do when they see the light: selling up; deploying loss leaders (for example, an 1845 figure of Wesley in the pulpit surrounded by putti and gothic scrolls – “come and get him while stocks last!”) and hopefully offloading old bits of china.
Tomorrow morning I become a “casual trader” specialising in 18th-century ceramics, my late uncle’s tailored suits and handmade shirts from Jermyn Street, old amps and vinyl and anything else I can find, divvy or scrounge along the way — like a replica, full-size skeleton and 14 vintage Barbie dolls plus wardrobes and other essential accoutrements. I shall turn up outside Roly’s cafe in Thorpe Close and ask for Danny. He will guide me to a vacant lot where I shall set up probably next to a stall selling windup gramophones, needles, postcards, old letters, stamps and other ephemera — my favourite things. Oh dear, I’ve spotted another bargain and I haven’t even got there, let alone started selling off the last lot.
The past has a romance that I cannot resist. My latest MS revelled in it so much that I forgot to put myself in my own memoir. A fault that has been rectified, one year later. That’s how long it took me to disentangle myself from the arms of siren dead. As I found my way into my story I could see my editor’s point. There was an awful lot about my forebears and ye olde times, but the “I” of my story crumbled under the rubbly remains of the past. Perhaps as a result of this endless literary recreation of what has gone, chancing upon relics becomes a way of making art without the hassle of having to write it. Shopping as artistic endeavour is a new one even to me but this is what it feels like. Rescue and retrieve the past; make it my own and feel myself come alive in its musky aroma. Wikipedia calls it oniomania, and cites Imelda Marcos as a notable sufferer. It’s good to know I’m not alone.
“Compulsive buying,” the entry goes on to explain, “seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers”.
Oh dear, that’s me, then. I’m a 20th-century consumer in a 21st-century world where rioters go on the rampage not for principles but for trainers. The sad thing is that the stalls that do the best business under the Westway are the ones that sell second-hand designer identity-markers, or schmutter, as my great-aunt used to sniff. Voices from the past prevent me from keeping up but at least I’m not married to a dictator. My divvying days are over but I retain a passion for the past. Maybe it’s time to start writing my long-dreamed-of novel based on the real-life Sherlock Holmes, which will take me back to coal fires, whiskery emigres and mantelpieces shimmering with bone china.