Five Go on a Treasure Hunt: Pat McCabe, please bag me a fortune

When asked for this series, in competition with four other bargain hunters, to pick up an old item that could turn a profit, I set out to find a decent rare volume

Donald Clarke with Music on Clinton Street: ‘It’s an underrated novel that engages with many obsessions found in McCabe’s later work.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Donald Clarke with Music on Clinton Street: ‘It’s an underrated novel that engages with many obsessions found in McCabe’s later work.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Tue, Jul 1, 2014, 01:00

We gave five treasure hunters €100 each and sent them off to bag bargains. At the end of the series, James O’Halloran of Adam’s Auctioneers will value the items and the winner will get €500 for the charity of his or her choice. Donald Clarke’s chosen charity is the Irish Cancer Society.


So our mission is to root around antique stores in search of some clock or rocking horse that, thanks to unlikely provenance, will prove to be worth many thousands of euro. I have never knowingly worn a spotted bow tie. I have never knowingly sported striped braces. I have never smoked a pipe. And I have never bought an antique for the purposes of resale.

I’ve purchased stuff from second-hand stores – everything apart from underwear – but that’s because, raised as an Ulster Protestant, I’m pathologically inclined towards meanness.

Mind you, I did once work in an antiquarian bookshop. Twenty-eight years ago, shortly after leaving university, I spent a few months toiling in the most vulgar corner of a distinguished establishment just off Piccadilly. As a temporary employee in the tiny “new books” section, I was viewed with all the respect due to a rag-and-bone man or a heroin dealer. But from that vantage, I got to soak up quite a bit of musty atmosphere and absorb some details of the business.

Long men (no women) in houndstooth suits and pebble glasses blew the dust off first editions while making remarks about “foxing” and “deckle edges”. I learned that everybody was on the hunt for a “fine” first of Watership Down. Laughter ensued when I wondered if my wages would cover an early Flann O’Brien. If, I pondered, Anthony Powell or Muriel Spark could just write me into this world, then I might go on to live a very agreeable life. Sadly, at the Christmas party, I got noisily drunk with Ed from “packaging” and felt it politic to leave under the nearest cloud.

Anyway, the point is that, when asked to pick up an old item that I think will prove profitable, I decide to forgo Edwardian rocking horses and seek out a decent rare volume that might retain its value.

The capital no longer teems with specialists in first editions and antiquarian books. The stupid internet has done almost as much damage to that trade as it has to poor wee newspapers. But such establishments do still exist.

A first attempt brings me tantalisingly close to the ideal item, before it is snatched cruelly from my grasp. I have vague memories of strolling amiably through the First Editions antiquarian bookshop on Pembroke Lane, Dublin 4, and, uncharacteristically, I managed to cycle straight there without getting more than a little lost.

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