Caught by the River

Boot Sale Harvest

Ken Worpole | 11th June 2023

Read Ken Worpole’s introduction to Adrian May’s ‘Boot Sale Harvest’ — a seasonal journey through the boot sales of Essex, which explores the human stories to be told by books and pens, ukuleles and harmonicas, soup bowls, strawberries and tins of paint.

If we ever thought a book was needed on car boot sales then poet, folklorist, literary academic, hobbyist, musician and collector of trifles, Adrian May, was clearly the writer to do it. And now he has, quite wonderfully. Exploring the lost and found of everyday life in early 21st century Britain, he has alchemised base lead into anthropological gold. As May writes early on, ‘everything is interesting’. This is his home counties’ version of Marx’s famous dictum (based on the Roman philosopher’s Nihil humani a me alienum puto): nothing human is alien to me. Stuff may be simply stuff to some people but it is made up of memories, affections, interests, transitional objects, souvenirs, relics and icons — of lives led, lost or relocated to pastures new.

The author sets out his stall at a respectful distance from the academy, where material culture and ‘rubbish theory’ are now serious areas of study, though he is too lively a thinker and writer not to have also learned from the insights of anthropology and semiotics. In the serendipitous inventories of purchases which introduce each chapter, May magics up strange, timeless worlds where stop watches rub shoulders with children’s poetry, second-hand radios, OS maps, music hall records, Royal Doulton soup bowls, and bargain-price tins of beans. A whole set of novels could be conjured out of the inventories in the book, so rich is this harvest. May further reclaims a 20th century folkloric tradition of his own, crossing the divides between comic song, folk song, ancient myths and legends, fairy tales, rock and roll, and the essays of now overlooked authors such as Richard Church and Richard Hughes, or more recent esoteric writers such as Dawn Ades or Dion Fortune. We also learn that he seems to survive on a diet of new potatoes and fresh strawberries.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas once famously wrote that ‘dirt is matter out of place’, and though the concept was already familiar — if less pithily expressed — Douglas gave it lasting significance. Thus, she argued, a newspaper on a breakfast table is a high cultural object but when using to wrap a portion of chips, or laid on the floor to stand a pair of muddy boots on, it loses status instantly.  The objects at car boot sales are clearly in an ambiguous position: out of place but still in transition, and currently of no fixed abode. Furthermore, they now mix promiscuously with other objects of equally indefinite status, no longer part of an established ‘order of things’. And finally, they are outdoors, where most of them don’t belong, but which, paradoxically, the Covid pandemic legitimised as a new safe space, when most other public meeting places were fenced off by a cordon sanitaire. Boot sales have popular antecedents, being new versions of the traditional street market, flea market or ‘waste’, the last being an even poorer version of the same thing, historically held on bomb-sites or derelict slum land.

There are in Boot Sale Harvest similar elements of the delight which millions found in the critically acclaimed television series, Detectorists.  A large part of May’s own treasure trove trawls up related local searches and gazetteers — of local history, parish churches, guides to flora and fauna, archaeology and myths – all of which point to an abiding interest that many have with the minutiae of local life stretching back to the mythical past. Like metal detecting, this passion for knowing who came before us and how they made sense of the local inhabited landscape — the homes they lived in, the way they dressed, the beliefs they held, religious or mystical, the troubles they had, and the catastrophes visited upon them — is largely beneath the radar of an increasingly globalised media culture, but it is still felt by many to have a continuing bearing on the way we live now. The investment people still have in the idea of ‘the local’ often finds its own rewards close to hand.

It appears that boot sales have expanded the market in second-hand goods to include a multitude of new buyers and sellers, creating another niche in the recycling and repair economy. These range from occasional sellers who may be moving house or down-sizing, to semi-professional dealers. In addition, there are the house clearance specialists who, according to May, usually occupy their own patch. A degree of unsentimentality is required when it comes to certain items, particularly the many anonymous family photo albums now common on some stalls. This have now been cut adrift from their original owners, leaving the people and scenes portrayed cruelly nameless and homeless. I am told that there are now people who voluntarily or professionally offer to re-trace the original owners of unidentified albums that have ended up on second-hand stalls, and if that is true this is an interesting new development in the ongoing renewal of family history. The aura of melancholy that surrounds these and other personal items recalls Hemingway’s famous suggestion, when offered a bet to write the shortest story ever: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’

One question goes unanswered in the book.  Where does the author find room for this never-ending list of acquisitions? All we know is that he has a deep stairwell in his flat, room enough for a long ladder and space for hanging new pictures. But where does he put the rest of the stuff — all the second-hand books, notebooks, guitars, ukeleles, crockery, and numerous accoutrements of the never-ending folk music revival in which he has always played his part? Readers of Boot Sale Harvest will wish him well in ‘curating’ his many new acquisitions, and thank him for the pleasure of reading this quirky, affectionate account of one of British culture’s more recent outdoor ritual gatherings, which as the author confirms, is less about commerce and more about community.  What goes around comes around.


‘Boot Sale Harvest’ is out now and available here, published by Dunlin Press.