A key character in my latest novel is a devotee of car boot sales. Most weekends Nan drags her granddaughter Lori along to some windswept field at the edge of the city in search of tarpaulined treasure. I could tell you that car boots are central to the mystery in the story, which they are, but the real reason they feature has nothing to do with plot development and everything to do with my own dark agenda: I really like writing about car boot sales.
As with so many of my passions and interests, this doesn’t seem to be something I share with other writers. It’s possible that I’m alone in my surprise at how very little literature on car boots exists. The official origin story, such as it is, comes in a brief, unsubstantiated paragraph on Wikipedia citing Stockport Catholic priest Father Harry Brown as the man who brought car boots to the UK in the 70s – a kind of bric-a-brac St Augustine. Aside from that tantalizing glimpse I’ve come across virtually nothing: no major sociological studies, no novels, no poetry collections built around this collective experience. But where else offers the kinds of insights, revelations and premonitory visions of our society as a patch of edgeland filled with rows of cars on a Sunday morning?
There’s a widespread contemporary conflation of inner peace and joy with the purging of possessions. This is rivalled in popularity only by the other widespread contemporary conflation of inner peace and joy with the acquisition of more possessions. The resulting shrapnel is what keeps the self-store silos, charity shops and landfill sites fully stocked and what drives some to load their boots with tat and their money belts with small change and head to a vast, muddy car park. Most of us have probably experienced at least one car boot sale. For the majority though once is enough. Shell-shocked survivors tell of harrowing ordeals. Mad Max scavengers swarming vehicles as they park; Night of the Living Dead fingers poking through quarter lights grasping at magnolia lampshades. Many never return and I worry they’re missing out.
Data, we are told with deadening regularity is the most valuable commodity today. Jeff Bezos’s big bald head is filled with intimate knowledge of our wants and desires, his complex algorithms mapping our hearts and minds. Well, that’s one way of doing it, but I acquired that exact same terrible knowledge by simply traipsing around enough car parks. Each week a real world Amazon is laid out on groundsheets and fold away tables in a field near you, constantly evolving and shifting to match the minute twitches and spasms of the consumer muscle. Power tools are up, Prosecco-themed wall art down. Sylvanian detritus waning, vape liquid plummeting, face masks ascendant.
Car boot sales reveal what we value and what we discard – not in any fanciful metaphorical sense, just quite literally and clearly. They are the final filters catching the particles – VHS tapes, boy band merch, expired Monster Munch – as they tumble out of consumer society. Some slip through into landfill, some mysteriously linger for eternity and some rise again. Swop goods for souls and it’s exactly analogous with the purgatory I was brought up to believe in. The febrile nature of supply and demand creates the opportunities for margin that are the lifeblood of the car boot. Long before the gig economy was in full swing, car boot sales were a showcase of the fragmented ways many of us seek to make a living. This is the place for both buyers and sellers, who for whatever reason find themselves excluded from the mainstream High Street experience…including writers needing a second income.
The classic image of the household declutterer is only a small part of the car boot eco-system. Outnumbering them are the house clearance dealers, the ex-catalogue sellers, the memorial mini-garden bench vendors, the cellophaned teddy artists, the knock-off Under Armour dispensers and the butchers with microphones shouting about sausages. Even the domestic sellers are often not as they seem. The middle aged woman with a desultory selection pre-loved Dunelm objets and Next clothing isn’t having a clear out, she’s back the next week and the week after that with different, equally unprepossessing stock. Like almost everyone else here she is an aspiring entrepreneur. The black economy is out in broad daylight at the car boot.
Naturally this is true of the buyers too. No one is getting up at 5am on a Sunday morning in the hope of finding a nearly new ‘World’s Best Mum’ mug. The familiar ker-ching of eBay app alerts mingled with UB40’s cover of ‘Breakfast in Bed’ seeping from a tinny CD player form the soundbed of every car boot sale ever. For some the car boot to eBay trade is a bit of pocket money, a hobby that pays, for some it’s a full time job, but all of these wheeler dealers, no matter how fancy-free and fleet of foot they may see themselves, are first and foremost earning money for the international online auction site. If I ran eBay (something I often muse upon) I’d develop my infrastructure: plough some of my vast profits back into a bit of hard standing and shelter to extend the car boot season beyond the Summer months. That’s just me – always looking for ways to help billionaires make a few extra dollars.
I can promise you that you would have found the whole global situation of 2020 a lot less unprecedented and horrifying if were a regular car boot visitor. Car boots were way ahead of the curve in modelling how post-apocalyptic consumerism could look. The first car boot I ever attended was in the car park of Birmingham’s Wholesale Market. I’m not one for jingoistic civic point scoring, but even the seedier edges of flea markets like Mercat de les Encants in Barcelona, or Les Puces in Paris could never come close: no other city can do dystopian quite like Birmingham. There was a stall that sold nothing but thousands and thousands of large grey zips; another that was piled high with a mountain of identically useless metal offcuts from some forgotten industrial process, another vendor was hoping to sell a half-empty open jar of mustard. Alongside these were the more standard car boot staples: the breathtaking table top installation of every remote control ever manufactured; the obligatory melancholy man sat amidst hundreds of love-worn cuddly toys; ancient toolboxes tipped out on the ground with rusted nuts, bolts and screws spilling into puddles. This was a glimpse into another world that was both futuristic and medieval at the same time. Once you’ve seen shuffling, swaddled figures in a blizzard snatching at spatulas and family photographs from a house clearance van, then queuing outside Lidl to buy flour in lockdown barely warrants a needle twitch on your internal Apocalypsometer. And as you might expect, regardless of whatever shortages there may be in shops and online, car boots can be relied upon to stock everything you might need to survive Armageddon. The black market is good at that kind of thing.
I remember attending a literary drinks party in Holland Park a few days before the Brexit vote. The consensus was that Remain would win. I was less optimistic. Of course some would characterize this as the liberal media elite bubble being completely out of touch with the country. I don’t think anyone there was especially out of touch, I don’t think I was particularly in touch, but they definitely didn’t go to car boots and I did. Your antennae doesn’t need to be particularly attuned to pick up a kind of simmering tension in the air at car boot sales. The sound of Union Jack flags flapping in the wind competes with the sound of many different foreign languages. Various immigrant communities are represented in high numbers at car boot sales making them visibly more democratic and diverse commercial arenas than the average High Street or shopping mall. Despite or perhaps because of this there is often overt hostility, contempt and racism. It’s hard to know if these attitudes are just as prevalent but disguised in other situations or whether car boot sales foster a particular tribalism. I suspect that the truth is a mixture of the two. On bad days it can feel horribly like having travelled back to the 1970s. A stallholder who has been chatty and friendly to me, is surly and rude to the next non-native customer. Some stall holders make plain their distaste at having women from Asia or Eastern Europe touch anything on their stall. Haggling can be treated very differently depending on the colour of your skin. And yet deals are done, accommodations are made, money changes hands. It’s that complex blend of mutual-dependency, distrust and financial precariousness that captures something about how we live now.
I’m not sure any of this will win converts to car boot sales. Essentially all I’m arguing is that they have prepared me for some of the more depressing or harrowing developments of the last ten years – the gig economy, pandemic shopping, Brexit, squishies. They also helped support me when writing didn’t, but that raises another worrying thought. Maybe I’d earn more from writing if I stopped writing about car boot sales (current obsession), shopping malls (first novel) or growing up in a newsagent shop (everything I’ve ever written). Maybe if I ever got over whatever it is with me and the exchange of goods for money I’d be a best seller. But as I said at the start, this has nothing to do with plot development. We don’t get to pick our fascinations.