Why I gave up cardigans for waistcoats - Michael Harding returns

I was hoping to make an impression in the world of polished grandeur

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

I spent a lifetime at car boot sales and open air markets in various locations near the Border, rambling around stalls of old broken clocks, delph ducks, rusting jackhammers in the back of Ford vans, with chainsaws and strimmers spread on the ground.

I was at it again last Sunday with my thumbs in the pockets of a new tweed waistcoat and a narrow-rimmed trilby hat cocked on the back of my head.

Men or women behind their stalls drank mugs of tea, munched doorstep sandwiches of onion and hard-boiled eggs, and poked their pudgy fingers into bags of chips. But they all saluted me. 

It’s amazing the effect of a good hat.

One stall was laden with dolls from India, rugs from Nepal, incense sticks from Tibet and country music CDs from Tyrone. 

A woman covered from head to toe in black was poking in the CD basket. Only her hands were visible as she touched the face of Philomena Begley on the cover of her greatest hits.

Mistaken for gunfire

I’ve lived along the Border all my life. Long ago the heat of war created a frisson among the market stalls, where Sinn Féin always had a presence, and the exhaust pipe of any old car could be mistaken for gunfire.

I suppose those markets will swell up again after Brexit, like the Erne in wet weather, as migrants slither in one gate and out the other, moving invisibly from the European Union to the United Kingdom by just dodging around the stalls and slipping down some hidden laneway into the next parish.

Open-air markets remind me of medieval Europe. I can still hold a duck egg in my hand as the seller shows me a picture of the hen that laid it. 

Not that photographs of hens were common in the Middle Ages, but there is a bawdy intimacy about an open-air market. Every sale is personal, just like commerce was in ancient times, when nomads sold goats, pilgrims walked in veils, and circus acrobats did tricks at the food stalls, all mixing in chaotic exuberance at the busy intersections of Europe’s greatest highways.

I know you couldn’t call the road to Clones a European highway, but Brexit might change that. I have heard people are already reinvesting in little white vans.

Last Sunday, as I walked among the stalls, I met an English man in a tidy trilby just like my own. He pushed out his chest like a pigeon to reveal a waistcoat identical to mine.

We examined each other’s head dress and plumage like uneasy cocks.

“Good morning, boss man,” he declared.

“Good morning yourself,” I replied.

“That’s a fine tweed waistcoat,” he said.

“I have given up the jumpers,” I confessed.

Being English he was confused by the word “jumper”.

“It’s like a cardigan,” I explained, “without the zip. But now I am converted to waistcoats.”

“Very glad to hear it, my son,” he said. “But what you doing here? Dressed like that you ought to be in London, checking the antique shops on Portobello Road. That’s where a gent like you would make a real impression.”

Polished grandeur

London wasn’t an option but Bundoran was just down the road. So that afternoon I stepped into the antique shop on Main Street, hoping to make a real impression in the world of polished grandeur and history steeped in boiled linseed oil. 

But it was the sensuality of other people’s things that overwhelmed me. The Edwardian book cases. The Victorian hall stands. The Georgian writing desks. Handmade objects from every corner of Ireland. And touching them felt like reaching deep into my own history.

What an amazing shop, I was thinking, when suddenly I noticed a yoke as big as a small hotel standing in the corner with three doors and two mirrors; all the glory of Ulster’s past confronting me in the dark carved mahogany of a Victorian wardrobe from Limavady. 

The owner of the shop caught my eye.

“A piece of furniture like that makes a real impression in any bedroom,” he declared.

“But I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night with that thing in the room,” I said. “I’d be afraid of who would walk out of it in the middle of the night.”  

“It’s a wardrobe,” the man said.

“And is it expensive?” I wondered.

“You never spend money in an antique shop,” he assured me. “You’re only making an investment.”

And as he spoke, I knew that suddenly, my life among the rickety stalls of the open air markets and the car boot sales, had come to an end.

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