Many visitors to Greenwich will be familiar with the weekend scrum in the covered market. You can hardly move for people milling around the food, arts and crafts and occasional antique stalls. The smell of bodies blend with the aromas of foods from as far afield as the Caribbean and China, and the children’s cries for sweets fuse with the foreign tongues of the food sellers and tourists.
Although I am partial to the salt cod cakes and pasteis de nata from the Portuguese stall, I much prefer wandering around the market on Thursdays when it is transformed into an antiques market. Purchases are rare. I simply enjoy looking over objects from the past.
Some have definite aesthetic merits, like the Clarice Cliff tea sets with their splendid yellows, oranges and angular shapes, or the battered Lloyd Loom linen basket complete with its original Lusty’s label. Other objects are handsome implements of a mechanical and analogue age: a set of chisels that judging from their condition were somebody’s pride and joy, a Kodak Box Brownie or a hand operated Singer sewing machine. And then there are the many objects that through the passage of time have acquired a patina of interest.
As I wander up and down the cobbled rows of stalls I am aware of a mix of feelings and responses. On the one hand, I enjoy looking over the relics of twentieth century social history but surprised to see so many items that made up my youth: Homemaker plates, Ladybird books and heavy grey plastic telephone sets with proper dials were all part of my childhood. On other hand, I am reminded of and charmed at how modest my youthful treasures were and saddened that the relentless onslaught of consumerism has now deprived many youngsters of the same delight in simple things.
On one stall, amongst the handbags, gloves and vanity cases, I spotted a leather pouch, lined with red fabric, containing manicure tools. At fourteen, by which age mum had lifted the ban on coloured nail varnish (but only for certain colours!), I received just such a set for Christmas from my adopted godparents. I was delighted. Together with the nylon tights I wore to school, this manicure set was another outward sign of my march towards womanhood.
My little nail set was treasured for years. It traveled with me on our last family holiday and the early ones without my parents. As the years passed the scissors died and the plastic cuticle scrapers split. By the time I started university the zip on the pouch had given way and only the nail clippers, nail file and tweezers survived. I reluctantly relinquished the pouch and moved the surviving implements into my blue paisley wash bag, which survives to this day.
I had not thought about that manicure set for years but seeing a similar one in the antiques market brought back a train of memories associated with my teenage years. I contrast this with the Christmas gifts we buy for Mr M’s teenage nephews: usually HMV vouchers so they can replace a passé video game with the latest one.
Now I am not a Luddite advocating the destruction of computer games and I am the first to admit that my MacBook is an absolute joy. But maybe that is exactly where I part company with modern consumerism. My laptop is an IT tool that I use and appreciate on a daily basis. Just like my previous one, I shall use it till it is broken beyond repair, in the same way that my nail care set was not replaced till each item had died. I wonder whether the same can be said of the latest “eagerly awaited” video game or iTunes download, or the clothes in the Primark bags that teenagers seem to be clutching every Saturday? Will today’s young consumers ever know the delight of buying one vinyl single and playing it till it is scratched through use, or painting the last drops in the nail varnish bottle onto their manicured nails? And will the video games and Primark fashion make it to the antiques stalls in twenty-five years’ time?