Hook Road Car Park, Epsom – 24th October 1999

The cars drag themselves through the 7am rain like a parade of slugs, into the multi-storey. It’s cold, everybody’s wearing cheap waterproofs or knackered jumpers, most people have an expression halfway between habitual wiliness and gutted defeat. Fair enough: either you do this for a living, in which case even the slightest spark of life is a minor miracle, or you’re like me and are realising how professional and hardened every other seller seems to be. Suddenly, asking fifty pence for a Dalek I Love You cassette seems an act somewhere well to the left of folly. All through the day, I wince when people look through the records I’ve brought, half-expecting a growled “You’re taking the piss, mate”. As it happens, nobody talks to me about the music I’m selling at all, apart from one guy buying a Quad City D.J.s 12″. “Is it disco, this?” “Um, no, well kind of,”. He contemplates the proposed 20p outlay, his red face millimetres from the record sleeve. He looks like a veteran of the Fun Wars, of a hundred weddings and a thousand office parties, the kind of guy who might ‘spell’ rap ‘c-r-a-p’ and then laugh at his own joke. A discussion on the topic of Booty and its shaking would leave us both the poorer. “Yes,” I say weedily, “Yes, it’s disco.” He buys it.

There comes a time when every record collection outgrows its home, and if its old home was your parents’ detached Surrey house and its new home is your more… compact Southgate flat, that time comes suddenly and without mercy. I have about ten boxes of records and tapes which there is, essentially, no room for, and in a strange fit of wanting to Do Something about this, I suggested a Car Boot Sale. I’m probably wrong, but I think of the Car Boot as a basically British phenomenon, maybe because of the apologetic crappiness that hangs over it. (Nobody actually tries to pitch their shoddy goods to anyone, they merely stand and nod in silent, glum agreement over each rejection. In America, the people next to us selling their awful rubied-glass salad bowls would have been slicing fresh pomegranates into them and crawling like howling beggars after anyone who so much as tipped the garish things a wink.)

In its pure form, it involves loading up all your junk into the back of your car and then pitching your car somewhere in order to sell said junk. Most records are indisputably junk, but even so flogging them is a painful act, only to be undertaken in times of vicious spatial need. The Car Boot is a more efficient way of getting rid of your records than taking them to a record shop, not because the punters are any more discerning or generous than the scowling trendies behind the counter, but because the one absolute inevitability of the Car Boot Sale is that you will come to hate your stock. At the record shop, spasms of remorse and guilt may rack you as you hand over your collection, and so the phantom piles of quality gear you see yourself offering in your head inevitably dwindles to two old Paul Young tapes and a Debbie Harry solo 12″ with an odd stain on the sleeve. But in a Car Boot there is always the chance that nobody will buy your precious babies, and so fate will decree that they remain yours, and so you can afford to be a lot harsher during the intial wares-selection. By the end of the day, though, misery has taken its toll on you and you start a frenzy of price-cutting – everything 20p! everything 10p! A fiver the lot? Anything, anything, to avoid bringing them home again.

Most of the action at a Car Boot takes place within ten minutes of getting there, as the spyglass-eyed dealers cluster round you and fillet your stall. I’m here with my mother, who is selling some semi-antiques she’s inherited in a roundabout way. The good stuff – a hip flask, a silver object of indeterminate use, a rather cool old lighter – vanishes before I’ve even finished arranging my CDs. The only good things remaining are those which she’s actually priced at anything near what they’re worth, two bits of china and a neat antique camera. Everytime somebody pokes at the china she says “They’re Wedgwood.”, and the person says “I know,” and doesn’t spend any money. Once the dealers have gone, it’s still before eight in the morning (when the sale officially opens) and the ill-lit multi-storey feels damp and horrible and demeaning and a little creepy, like a Morlock market.

The other thing you learn at a Car Boot sale is that the value of things warps in curious ways this far down the economic ladder. My mother says after a quick look at the other stalls that Car Boot sales are the black economy in action, but I always hoped the black economy would be a bit more vibrant, a bit more exciting or dangerous, than this. This is more like the Grey Economy, and the only thing trickling down to the people here is the rainwater from the deserted rooftop parking level. Down here money stretches in two directions at once – the smallest coin becomes something to be fiercely guarded (a fifty pence sale turns into a big deal) but at the same time the value of things distorts. The British public, subdivision Car Boot Sale goers, has an infinite appetite for tat, not just ceramic dogs or bad hippy art or novelty tit and bum gags (though all those are well in evidence), but cracked lampshades and mildewed toys and jigsaws with the bits spilling gutlike onto the concrete floor. The lampshades were to our right, the toys to our left, both did much better business than middle-class me with my collection of quite-good-really indie records. Opposite us sat an unimaginably horrible painting of the Virgin Mary cradling a puppy-eyed macrocephalic Jesus: to our amazement and relief, it sold by nine o’clock.

This floored my pricing strategy completely. I had naively believed that after working in book and record shops I would be able to cannily price my unwanteds to ensure a quick, but fair, sale. But nobody coming to a Car Boot, at least not this Car Boot, has been near a record shop, or even a new record, in years. I’d put a generous £2 tag on last year’s Nick Cave album, The Boatman’s Call – a fair price for the many vain efforts I’d made to like the wretched thing, I thought. Not a sniff. My two hours of careful vinyl pricing, writing “Coldcut Remix” or “Rare Ex-Wire Member” neatly on tiny stickers, was exposed as absolute futility: by ten, everything in the record box was 20p and still nobody was biting. A thin, nervy man bought a Mekons CD for a £1 and I could quite easily have hugged him.

The fault wasn’t theirs – standing in front of your car, getting colder and colder, you start to hate yourself for buying into ‘alternative music’ in the first place. The music we listened to all our teenage years was sold to us as a music that could speak for the outsiders and the excluded, the fearful and the angry. It’s built on the idea of ‘the masses’, and you still get people justifying their shitty complacent tastes by casually sneering at ‘the masses’. Well, where are these ‘masses’, anyway? You wander along to the Hook Road Car Park on a Sunday and there are plenty of people who’d probably fit the bill, but the thing is that what’s happened these last twenty years is that ‘the masses’ are the ones who’ve ended up the most excluded of all. Overweight and ugly and badly dressed, their votes and opinions courted by nobody, the demographic equivalent of some idiot sister you keep out the way of guests, these people have found their culture played back to them as freakshow by an ironised, contempt-fuelled media that reserves its praises for marketable disaffection and design-heavy rebellion. The dark skeleton in the cupboard of the alternative is its secret conviction that this world is a natural state of affairs, that there will always be ‘the masses’ and hence there will also always be the cool people too. It’s no use complaining about how alternative culture is always being co-opted by the establishment, kids, when it’s halfway there already.

By the end, my mother is feeling it too, her pricey Wedgwood an unwanted anachronism here. We made about £35 all told, and left half an hour early, following out the man with the toys and his tiny, enthusiastic kid, dragging a box of unsold records with us. “It’s all part of Life’s Rich something,” she said. I didn’t reply because I was planning this article, trying to work out how I could get the absurdity and awfulness and amusement and pointlessness of the Car Boot Sale into one piece without it coming out disjointed, and wondering whether maybe it ought to end up that way anyhow. And then she said, “We could do a book fair next time…”