Friday, 8 May 2009

Cover Aversions

David Quantick, that repository of chart-oriented bile, once memorably described Menswear's Johnny Dean as something you'd get 'if you wanted Brett Anderson for Christmas, but your mum had gone to the covered market in town and bought you a crap knocked-off version with the wrong hair and a leg that fell off as soon as you got it out of the box.' While this just about summed it up for Johnny, I’ve never forgiven his slight against that bastion of loose change consumerism: the covered market.

I’m not talking about those lovely Victorian covered markets like those quaint arcades you get in Leeds and Oxford. To get to the right kind of covered market you need to take a long walk down a shallow concrete ramp. It's about 4.15PM on a Saturday, by the way, the only time to pay a visit. It'll be a heavily overcast sky above, lowering clouds scudding lazily by forever teasing with the portent of a downpour that never quite arrives.

Atmospherically oppressed from above, overcoated folk hurry about to get their 'last minute bits and bobs' before the various joys of Saturday evening are upon us. Already it's getting dark. The Grandstand teleprinter is warming up, kegs of Hemmeling Lite are being plumbed into pub cellars, and the master tape of Russ Abbott’s Madhouse is being loaded into the ITV network's central reel-to-reel player. There's no time to linger, which, on the face of it, is just as well.

If the atmosphere above deck is one of gathering storms, unsupped pints, unclaimed dividends and unspooled impressions of Mavis Riley, at the bottom end of the ramp it's altogether more intense. I'm getting concrete, I'm getting sawdust, I'm getting freshly gutted mackerel. I'm getting... yes, all right, piss.

But the olfactory overload is nothing compared with the headache engendered by the criss-cross network of strip-lighting that illuminates the scene. Council officials have diligently ensured that a mandatory thirty percent of the overhead lighting is set to a permanent wild flicker, giving certain corners a definite 'epileptics keep out' air. God knows how the old dears manage to keep body and soul together as they browse the haberdashery stalls in ambient conditions that would have been deemed 'a bit much' at Studio 54.

The concrete cavern may be solid enough, despite being only twenty years old (FACT: all covered markets were opened by either Prince Michael of Kent or Vince Hill), but the stalls themselves are permanently on the verge of collapse. The favoured building material is pegboard. All the better to hang loads of packets of wool and rawlplugs off, certainly, but it doesn't half give the impression of a Mexican shanty town, eking out a meagre existence under the feet of the mighty 'proper' shops, which hum with an assured briskness that will never be echoed in these little numbered cubicles with the proprietors’ names spelled out in one-size-fits-all municipal stick-on lettering, those council men having dislodged a regulation one character in ten.

Quantick's hypothetical mother, despite sounding like something the Large Hadron Collider should be looking for, would head straight to the toy stall, a cubicle no more or less dour than those offering fresh meat or plumbing supplies. Eschewing a cutesy nom de commerce like ‘tots’ wonderland’ for the more reliable ‘Alan’s Playthings’, the range of products crammed into this 8 x 8 foot magic kingdom is not in doubt. But they’re Johnny Deans all the way.

Where Alan really excels is in the novelty department. The kind of practical joking tat eschewed by the more respectable emporia is here in abundance, making Alan’s gaff the nearest you could get to those mythical 'joke shops' the folk of the Beano were ever dashing into. Only without the abundance of on-premises chuckles. Novelty vending is a serious business, and customers implicitly understood that any joy to be extracted from said goods is only to be done when said goods are well out of the sight of Alan.

All this surly transaction is good practice for the progress from black soap to Black Sabbath, and a trip to the second hand record stall. The intimidating atmosphere of second hand record shopsis famed in novel and film, but the stall’s an even bigger ordeal. After all, in the shop the tubby know-all with the PiL t-shirt and the thousand well-argued reasons why compilation albums are for the mentally deficient is up to six feet away. At the stall it’s more like six inches. And he knows the contents of those punnets back to front - every hesitation you make in the lengthy flicking process is read, deciphered and facially disapproved of while you sweat. Bomb disposal operatives have a more placid time of it. Inevitably you leave with nothing, pining for a fantasy future where buying music involved no human interaction whatsoever.

In fact, best to get out of the covered market altogether. The stalls are battening down their unwieldy plywood hatches and that miserable bloke is disconsolately pushing a hinged double broom arrangement in your direction - a final ‘clear off out of it’ gesture if ever there was one. Time to get back to the surface people. The Pink Panther’s on in a minute.


Five-Centres said...

Brrr! I feel a shiver. I find covered markets menacing.

My experiences include ruddy butchers' apprentices mocking you as you pass by, the invetible slippage on discarded chrysanth stems that have wandered away from the floristry, lean-tos full of jars of ancient dried herbs and spices, antique stalls with their terrifying 10p boxes at your feet that contain horse brasses and pipes and matchbox covers, to name but a few nightmares.

I'm getting into the open air at once.

Planet Mondo said...

Norwich has a cracker of a covered market - all the regulars stalls are their ...

The mags 'n' books (3 for 1).
Outsize underwear
Tools (who really put's their faith in a market tool-set)

Matthew Rudd said...

There's a good one in Huddersfield. I remember once there was a stall there flogging Gary Lineker #9 England shirts. Nobody bought one as a) it was the 1982 Admiral kit, which Lineker never wore, and b) he was always #10, never #9.

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