In Shena Mackay’s The Orchard On Fire, set in the Kent countryside of 1953, there are references to kids buying books, wonderfully unsuitable ones, at jumble sales: Valley of Doom by C.B. Rutley, a “terrifying tale of espionage in the Balkans”, and also Lucifer and the Child by Ethel Mannin, and Deathcap Cottage by V.L. Preedy which was about a woman who poisoned her crippled husband with “its once yellow cover engrained with grey and a smell of mildew came off its rust-pin-pointed pages and a long-dead spiders egg in a gauzy net was found half-way through the book.”
On into the 1960s, still in the Kent countryside, in the village of Filston where Old Crow was set, Shena describes a fete in the village hall: “People crowded into the hall where old Coronation bunting and silver twigs hid piles of refuse from many jumble sales. A little bald boy sold them tickets at the door and Coral with the children clinging pushed in among the steaming hostile coats. Old Mrs Fairbrother, crossing the hall to avoid her granddaughter, came upon her husband sorting through a pile of old clothes until he found a loved cap she had given away years ago. People who took off their wet coats risked having to buy them back at a Scout jumble sale three weeks later, or meeting others wearing them in the street.”
In An Advent Calendar, set in Finchley as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the wonderful Uncle Cecil admits: “I haven’t actually got an overcoat at the moment, there’s a good Jumble on on Saturday. We’ll all go.”
By the time of A Bowl of Cherries, set in Dorking, Surrey, a decade later, charity shops had arrived. Shena describes the twins who are central to the story thus: “Rex’s body, lissom from regular games of squash, was clothed in soft silks and cashmeres. Stanley’s corduroy trousers had come from Tesco and his yellowed linen jacket and shirt were from the Help the Aged shop and still bore a faint sour smell from rubbing shoulders with the clothes of the dead.”
And in Redhill Rococo, most of which is set in the Surrey summer of 1982, Luke Ribbons thrusts “his hands deep in boredom and despair into the pockets of his Oxfam overcoat” as he stands in the wrong queue of the sub-post office before his moment of madness.
By 1989, in which Shena’s Dunedin is set, “on summer Saturdays and Sundays, south-east England is one gigantic boot sale”. Boot sales recur in Shena’s short story collection The Laughing Academy, published in 1993. The antique dealers Vivien and Bonnie, in A Pair of Spoons, are wonderfully described having breakfast like “two stoats sitting up to table”, and as a duo who “moved through antique fairs like weasels in a hen house”. They have a shop in The Old Post Office in a village in the Hertfordshire hills, and are always on the lookout for a bargain or two. When Vivien asks how a car boat sale was, Bonnie replies: “Like a car boot sale”.
Also in The Laughing Academy is the story Cloud-Cuckoo Land, in which wayward daughter Petula passes a pair of “rhinestone butterfly-winged” glasses to her father: “I don’t need them – they’re from my fifties period. Found them at a car boot.” Her dad, Roy Rowley, a retired bus conductor turned inveterate do-gooder, a menace like Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles, puts in “two mornings a week at the Sue Ryder shop” among his many other activities. Meanwhile in The Artist’s Widow, set in the summer of 1997, the lovely Lyris Crane has a couple of black sacks ready to take round the local Geranium Shop For The Blind.
In Heligoland, Shena’s most recent novel, the appealing aged poet Francis Campion struggles with his memoirs, conceding that at his age, when the world might view him as just another “doddery old geezer with a string bag”, it would be easier to write a book about “mad old men running amok, the mad old men of London in the crazy baseball caps of their dotage and ladies’ raincoats from charity shops, the roaring drunks who fall out of the bus at the wrong stop, shouting, ‘Thank you, Driver,’ so that nobody will know they’re drunk. Men without women, going to seed.”
Back in 2008 an uncorrected proof copy of Shena’s short story collection The Atmospheric Railway turned up in one of the local charity shops here, oddly, even before it had been published, which was a lovely surprise. Among the new stories in the book was Swansong, about Louisa who returns to where she grew up for a schoolfriend’s funeral, a town already haunted by ghosts. To kill time, naturally, she does the rounds of the local charity shops, after being the victim of a hit-and-run attack by an old lady with a mobility scooter.
Louisa buys a cashmere jumper for £2.99, before becoming fascinated by the number of swans on sale, in one form or another, in one shop after another: “Where did they all come from, all these white swans a-swimming to the hits of yesteryear? They were like the white swans at Golders Green Crematorium, placed there by loyal fans of Marc Bolan, in memory of his song ‘Ride A White Swan’. They were the sort of swans old people had on their windowsills; they had plastic ones too, sprouting crocuses among the gnomes in their gardens. This was the swansong of a generation”.