It’s strange how something can disappear from life almost without its absence being noticed. It was a small knitted dishcloth in the bottom of a drawer in our kitchen which started me thinking. It would have been bought by my mother, perhaps fifty years ago, in the village hall which we lived opposite during one of the annual Buy From The Blind Guild sales. Those sales happened once a year, but there was always something going on in the village hall and my mum’s cousin was the caretaker so we heard about most of it. Usually it was a jumble sale on behalf of one village organisation or another. Today we have professionally organised charity shops on every high street and a host of car boot and table top sales but forty or fifty years ago there would not have been enough unwanted stuff to fuel an industry of that kind. The parents who were bringing up my generation had been raised in austerity Britain and their parents had been through the second world war. Nothing was thrown away lightly and if it could be reused it would be. The rest would be dumped at the door of the village hall on the day of the latest jumble sale and piled up on tables to be resold.
These jumble sales were taken quite seriously. They were social occasions and the back room of the village hall was used to sell tea from a huge silver urn and biscuits from a red family circle tin while they went on. Whole afternoons could be spent there setting the world to rights after you had finished filling up your basket. The sales always started at two o’clock in the afternoon and by the time two o’clock arrived there would be a few dozen eager ladies in hats waiting outside the hall and gossiping. They always began in the same way. The opening of the heavy red double doors was followed by a single charge across the parquet floor of the hall to the cake stall which was always set up in front of the far wall. The cake stall was where “you made most of your money” as an organisation and if you didn’t get to it early the best cakes were gone and you were left with only a few chocolate cornflake buns and crumbly lemon tarts to choose from. It was considered quite acceptable to ask who had made the cake before you bought it and the person asking would often already know the answer just by looking at it anyway. Those who made good cakes were known by reputation and their cakes were priced more highly. Working on the cake stall was a job which was only given to the most experienced helpers as this pricing was tricky and people could get quite worked up about it if they thought that they were being overcharged or couldn’t get what they wanted. Intense discussions had to be held before the doors opened and advice was sought. If a helper had saved themselves a good cake before the sale started this was widely regarded as unfair and it was best kept out of sight.
While the ladies in hats all clustered round the cakes I would make my own lonely charge towards the book stall. This was almost always a disappointment, full of Barbara Cartland, Phillippa Gregory, thin books with sultry looking doctors and nurses on the front and strange lost books from somewhere far far away which told you much more than you ever wanted to know about a subject that you had never heard of. Sometimes I was lucky. I can remember finding an annual from the early days of television that I became very fond of with articles about exotic sounding programmes like Dotto and the Television Toppers but that was a rare success.
Most of the tables were filled with heaps of roughly sorted clothing which I found deeply boring. Skirts, trousers, dresses and so on. Things so well worn that they would never find their way into a charity shop today. Back then you didn’t pass on something just because you had got fed up of it and fancied a change, it was almost always well past its best. Some of the shoes would have at least a fortnights wear left in them. They had been donated just to get them out of the way and they would be sold for a few pence for exactly the same reason. Some of the individual items even became quite well known as the unsold leftovers from each sale were boxed up and passed on to the next one. There was usually a rail with the “better stuff” hanging on it but almost everything was just piled up in heaps ready for a glorious free for all. If the sale was well organised the tops of the tables might have started off neat and tidy but ten or fifteen minutes after the single minded women in hats had elbowed each other out of the way to get at them they would be trashed. None of the clothes on the children’s pile ever fitted me and I used to dread my mother calling me over to stand there while something was held up against me to see if it would do. I liked to scuttle around on my own with my silver sixpence from my granddad and avoid the people who liked to tell me that I would “shoot up” one day. I was all right as I was.
I always liked the white elephant stall best. You might find absolutely anything there and I usually managed to come home with something. Once it really was an actual elephant, even if he was moth-eaten and grey rather than white. I called him Tusker and I thought of buying him as a re-homing rather than a purchase. I have no memory of ever finding anything wonderful, but I might have done- that was the point. I never gave up hope.