Old stuff in a New Town: does growing up in a new town mean you love old things more?

Something that has come up in my interviews, and in my own reflective thinking has been whether the love of the old, the vintage, the second-hand appeals particularly to some of us who grew up in a New Town. Now I have to admit to being the perpetual imposter here: I was born in Shrewsbury, a market town in Shropshire but moved to California USA with my family when I was eight weeks old. We lived in Pine Mountain and Fraser Park * and then when I was three-ish we moved to Santa Monica. When I was nearly nine we moved back the UK, to Shropshire but this time in the New Town of Telford in which my mother had a large family, living in the older estates. So whenever I make the claim of having ‘grown up’ in Telford I feel a little fake, and when I make a claim to having ‘spent half my childhood’ in Santa Monica with my now thoroughly British accent, I feel like an asshole. More on this another time.

 

But after the initial excitement about how old and proper England was, I was struck by how plastic living in a New Town felt. This wasn’t how I expected England to be. Now I don’t think I can blame this on my own second-hand shopping habits as I have several friends growing up who felt similarly, and I interviewed someone from a New Town in Essex who echoed many of the same things. There was a feeling of same-ness which some of us wanted to get away from, a feeling that our world was a replica of many other worlds. That each house was the copy of another and that each shop was the branch of a large network of the same.

 

Telford seemed to be mapped out by a series of roundabouts, off of which sprouted various estates spanning 1950s to the freshly built (1990s). You couldn’t see them though, they were hidden by banks and trees. Then once on them they, ill-served by public transport, and often connected either by solely pedestrian or solely vehicular access, were confusing, labyrinthine and very indifferent: you felt a bit scared and very lonely. There were either large groups of teenagers or no one at all. (See Lindsey Hanley for more on the feeling of growing up on an estate.).

 

My friends and I cherished whatever gem of individuality we could find. There was the tucked away, slightly mawkish Hippy Shop in Wellington. There was the awesome record store Langlands. There was the market, which held one of the best vintage clothing stalls I have come across,, which we just called Melissa’s: packed out with rails of colourful velvety slivers of glamour. Friends and I would take the train to Shrewsbury and seek out the two or three hippy shops there. And then the charity shops, which were far superior to their Wellington counterparts: especially the Oxfam opposite the army surplus store. On big days the metropolitan wonders of Wolverhampton or Birmingham beckoned.

 

But the best things came from Melissa’s. We didn’t call it Vintage then, it was just second-hand or retro. I still own a lot of the stuff I bought there – a t-shirt that says ‘skateboarding champion 1978’ with a picture of a muscly skateboarder – a pair of ridiculously painful brown platforms. Melissa used to customize the greebo velvet jacket with bleach for a Cyndy Lauper-ish look: both mocked and admired once I went to Goldsmiths. The woman who ran it was a little intimidating: I don’t know whether she thought we were awful taste-devoid idiots or was just really shy.

 

Two things seem to mean that some of us New-Townies love Vintage and the second-hand: the blinding newness and sameness of everything, and the fact that to consume it took some work, some research, some knowledge and some sifting. We made our own taste, we made our own fashion decisions: secondhand shopping gave us a sense of power and a sense of continuity in an environment made for shopping and watching TV. Now I live in an old city I love to look out for the signs of age: old weathered and defunct shop signs, grave stones, weathered bricks with old graffiti. But the changes wrought through time are bittersweet: great than an old mill is now an art gallery and flats, but strange how the current generations can’t get work or find their place. Living in an old place helps me enjoy the old too, but I can’t really imagine that oldness as better either.

 

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Angie: collecting, stuff and memory

Angie loves collecting. Her spare time is spent at car boot sales, markets, in second-hand stores of all persuasions: the more bargains, the better. At one point she collected those glass vases and ornaments with the dots on that were popular in the 1950s. She has a feeling, but isn’t quite sure, if her grandma had them…. she feels like she remembers them, even though she has no specific memory. But her collections change, she just looks for the hook that catches her imagination.

Angie doesn’t throw stuff out easily. She’s no TV show level super-hoarder, but she doesn’t feel the need to constantly update her decor. Her stuff represents the time it has spent with her: it holds memories. Why erase that for the sake of fashion? When Angie’s father died she found she couldn’t sift through the second hand for a while: realising that much of this stuff probably came from estate sales, it was the scattered and often rejected remnants of a life lived to its conclusion.

Back in 2012 I spoke to Angie as part of my quest to try and untangle my thoughts on Vintage, from my thoughts (and feelings) about the second hand. Almost all (not you Walter Benjamin – you handsome devil you) of my academic sources seemed to suggest that people loved Vintage as another depthless postmodern fad, as a joke, as an aside. ‘But, but, but.. that’s not IT’ I would argue with my supervisor, my colleagues, my (bored) friends, ‘some people really do LOVE this stuff; they are CONNECTED to it’. I know I loved it. I know that for some strange reason I had always been drawn to girls magazines from the past, clothes and shoes from the 1960s – even though I wasn’t born until 1980.

Angie pretty much nailed it. Objects and places held emotional resonance. There was the whiff of a memory, an intimation of the state of childhood. There were half-remembered kitchens of aunts and grandmas, and in the present, the cushion that your daughter sat on when she told you something important.

Here are some thoughts from Angie.

On why she collects what she calls ‘feel good things’:

“Just things that make me feel happy to look at them or happy to touch them even, there’s nothing, I don’t think there’s anything that’s of any value because I’m not really interested in that, I’m just interested in things that I enjoy having around and just look at and think, ‘aw, yeah’.”

I really think there is a movement out there for the appreciation of the second hand as a source of happy feelings. Really epitomised by Pretty Nostalgic and The Nostalgianeers, their collective movement of lovers of the old: and not necessarily the ‘vintage’. I really must go and see them in Wales and talk!

Angie on ‘home’:

“Oh it’s my sanctuary, my home, it’s my family focus, it’s where I feel I relax and it’s just really really important to me.”

The idea of home is something that really interests me. The meaning of nostalgia is something like ‘sickness for home’ after all. I think for me, it’s a notional home: I grew up in the US as a British ex-pat – England seemed like the answer to my problems. I wonder if that’s what I’m still searching for. Now though, having been back in the UK since I was 9 years old, I yearn sometimes for the smog of LA – watching Columbo can be full of Proustian moments.

On updating the decor, or not:

“I’m kind of thinking I really ought to get some new cushions, mine are beginning to look a bit old but I’ve had them a long time and I’m fond of them and they’ve got memories and I don’t want to just go into a shop and buy some more. And then buy some more in a years time because this theme doesn’t, it’s not the theme any more that I want, no I’m not that kind of shopper. I mean, I just find it amazing that a lot of these shops selling new stuff are full of people who are quite happy to buy and do a décor one year and then completely change that the next.”

I think that even if second hand shopping is still a form of consumerism, it is some attempt at an alternative form. I think that people are on some level genuinely trying to resist the pressure to follow fashion: fashion as the moniker of the commodity market. But I think we get tripped up in the process, and just often end up buying more stuff…

On the perils of ‘rose tinted’ nostalgia:

“I think it probably does because I think everything is so fast now, there’s no sort of like anchor point, you know, reference point where you can sort of feel there’s that sense of security because it’s all new, it’s all moving forward so quickly. I mean I feel that obviously because it’s faster than anything… although you know, I lived through, my parents lived through big changes and I’ve lived through big changes because, the sort of austerity and make do and mend thing – after the sixties people just didn’t want that, they wanted, they didn’t want victorian terraces with the draughty windows, they wanted new houses and plumbing that worked and houses that stayed warm and I have to be very careful to guard against these rose-tinted glasses looking back to how wonderful it was, when actually in the winter it was cold because we didn’t have central heating and you couldn’t get your washing dry and you know, my grandmother did wash by hand or Monday was wash day and it took the entire day!”

VERY important. I was always obsessed with the sixties, but then my mum told me about her experience: sitting around one Elvis record, drinking a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale. Man, we are so wrong about how we imagine the past sometimes.

On the sixties:

“I can remember thinking in the sixties, with the pale faces and the big dark eyes and the pale lips I can remember thinking ‘god nothing will ever look as good as this, ever’”

I may not have lived through it Angie, but I have to agree with you there. I have never fully understood why, but I love the sixties look. Maybe it’s because I am imagining my mother when she was younger, and some primal part of me feels the need to replicate that. Maybe it’s just fucking cool.

Lots to muse on here: I will be back with more on these themes!

Pop goes the boutique: time and tide wait for no woman

I feel a bit nervous about going into Pop Boutique, even though the branch in my home town of Leeds is not the site of the experience that haunts me. I went for a job interview in the Covent Garden branch back in my undergrad days, and failed miserably. I was 19 or 20, green as, and absolutely sure I would get it. I was however not really a paragon of Vintage then, and never really have been totally on the nose with the whole thing: I was wearing a Top Shop stripy 70s style jumper and brown Top Shop cords, and a pretty groovy burnt orange second hand Dot Cotton style 70s dress coat, bought I think, in The Emporium (now sadly closed) Greenwich – small kudos there. I had bunches in my hair, and a stupid but hilarious cats head ring from what was then called Bobangles; I was no fashionista, not worthy to represent true retro style, more a Bis fan…. who had maxed out student loan instalments on the High Street. I remember standing in the shop, dry throated, enthralled at the stylistic superiority of my interviewers and awed my own dearth of real experience, and definite lack of covent garden shop assistant ‘attitude’.

I found myself in Pop Boutique Leeds today, aged 34.5. I had cased the joint on a number of occasions. And once before, shortly after having Frida, tried to squeeze myself into a purple polyester 1960s sun dress – the fabric blanched across my breast feeding bosom, the floppy hem skimmed my fat pocked thighs. Fun times. I went prepared this time: dressed as nicely as I can muster these days, trying to mentally adjust to accepting and embracing my body (‘riots not diets’ Alix!). I found a nice selection of hardly worn 1970s shirts: long pointy collars, juggler sleeves, boxy. I gathered up about seven items, including a lovely long paisley printed skirt, avoided eye contact to the way cool shop staff (one a mod with impeccably blow dried hair, the other an replicant of several of my Telford Greebo friends from 1996). The elastic on the skirt was fucked, even before (honestly!) I put it on – I sighed at the ravages of time. A green early 60s shift I picked up clearly had sweat marks in the armholes. The sleeves on one of the impeccable 70s shirts were just a bit too wild for me. I did buy a lovely emerald green 70s shirt with little racing horses on, just the right amount of sleeve, and unfortunately a faint whiff of BO. A risk, but it seems to be cotton so I think it will come out – reaching for my sprayable soda crystals right now.

I then thought about how I had aged, and how the remaining vintage has aged – misshapen, tired out, less elastic, showing signs of wear, slightly too ‘of its time’. Me, lumpier, more lined but pretty realistic about my likelihood of being employed in a place like Pop Boutique.  This vintage, what remains now is not infinite, what is left is what no-one else has wanted. Slim pickings. But all the more fun when you find a gem.

The smell of the charity shop, calling me home

After a brief aversion to anything that could be construed as vintage (call it Keep Calm-itis), I have returned to the charity shop. The smell, like the smell of a clean but seldom opened cupboard – the musk of an old friend. The faint remainder of steam from that stand up steaming machine you sometimes catch them using. The powdery smell of whatever they use to drive away the lovely cupboard smell. Maybe I have just lived in too many old shitty Victorian houses, where I have found that I inadvertently smell almost the same as a charity shop; maybe that’s why it smells like home.

I think my return to the charity shop also coincides with having moved to Leeds from Brighton. Now, pretty much the same proportion of seldom worn size 6 H&M work blouses and hanging-on-in-there lime green granddad shirts are in evidence. I would like to claim that Brighton charity shops were more hippyish or more expensive, but no, the same stuff, the same £3.50 – £6.50 price range – still feeling a bit more expensive than a charity shop used to be. Oh those 50p trousers, that £5 trench coat my friend Chrissie bought that had a full set of children’s teeth in the pockets… BUT I do think the move is partly to blame: what makes you feel more like a part of a new place than having raked through its rejectamenta? What clues can I find to how people think and feel here? What can I find worth in, that no-one else has for years on end?

The post-baby, post-employment (looking for work and failing to attract any) skintness also adds to the draw I suppose. And feeling a little like a fish out of water – new place, drifting a bit, poking my head out of the nest for a tentative forage within the safe parameters of the second hand. I went to St Luke’s in Chapel Allerton, just down the road from me, and I bought a dark green mug with a child’s drawing of some knights fighting (‘Agincourt ’98’ written on the bottom) for £1.50, and a high street mass produced grey sweatshirt with the famous Ramones logo on it for £3.00 (I thought initially, ‘bah they have ruined the Ramones for me’ and then returned ‘fuck it – I am reclaiming the Ramones: and man it does look like a comfortable top to watch TV in’). A long way from the spike heeled green t-bars I bought in a charity shop in Torquay when I was 16, but it’s a start. Charity shop – how I have missed you.