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Something for nothing

In my role as intrepid researcher, I went to the Birmingham markets this morning. This is something I have taken to doing on a regular basis. It's here that I feel most at home. I don't buy anything: I just hang around, drinking tea at 10p a cup and watching the passers-by. It's where the real Brummies go, to buy their tat. There's the indoor market, the outdoor market, the rag market and the wholesale market. They bustle about the foot of the Bullring centre and around St Martin's Church like figures in an Impressionist painting. They nestle under the Bullring, and spill out across the road into a giant hangar. This is the rag market. To me it is the spiritual heart of the city.

I was watching one of the traders giving his spiel. You'll have to imagine the accent: a cross between Mandarin Chinese and an out-of-tune violin.

"Who'll buy one of these lovely towels? A hundred per cent cotton with satin embroidery, pounds 6.99 in the shops. Well I'm not asking pounds 5, I'm not asking pounds 4, no, not even pounds 3. Not pounds 2.75, pounds 2.50, pounds 2.25, no, not even pounds 2. Not pounds l. 50, not even a pound. Not 90p, 80p, 70p. Not 50p, not 25p, not 20p, not even 10p." (All of the while he's laying the towels out on the table, folding and re-folding them, brushing them with his hand.) "Who wants one of these lovely cotton towels for nothing. You madam? And you? That's 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Ten people who want one of these towels for nothing. You didn't really expect to get something for nothing did you? I said you could have one for nothing.

"Unfortunately I only sell them by the pair.

"I'll be honest with you, these are slight seconds. See this little black mark here? So you'll be doing me a favour by taking them off my hands. Come on now, I'm very tired, I want to go home. They're made especially for a leading department store. I can't mention the name of the store because Debenhams wouldn't like it. They go for pounds 6.99 each. So for a pair you're looking at the better part of fourteen quid. Well I'm not charging fourteen quid, not ten quid, not pounds 7.50 even. Who'll buy a pair of these genuine cotton towels with satin embroidery for five pounds? Just five pounds the pair. You madam? And you? Come on now, take them for a fiver and I might even knock a little bit more off. I'm feeling generous. Just a fiver a pair, fourteen quid in the shops. You madam, and you? I'll guarantee to knock a little bit more off, if you agree to take them for a fiver."

And he starts handing them out to the people who've put up their hands. People are waving their hands all around him. Eventually he's given out 20 pairs of towels, for which he takes pounds 100.

"Look, I'm feeling a bit mad. I feel like giving this hundred quid away. I'll give it away to the first woman who raises her hands at the count of three who is a good girl."

All the hands rise.

"At the count of three, I said. OK then, one, two, three. You madam. Are you a good girl?"

"Yes," she says.

"Well, say I am a good girl."

"I am a good girl," she says.

"Louder, so all the people can hear."

"I am a good girl," she says nervously.

"No, louder, louder, so everyone can hear."

"I am a good girl," she screeches, almost bursting her neighbour's eardrums.

"Well you can't be a good girl. Didn't you know, good girls don't take money from strangers. So I promised to knock a little more off, didn't I? I'm a man of my word. You can have them for pounds 4.99. Unfortunately, I haven't got any change. So I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll let you have a free gift instead. Here you are, a genuine plastic bag."

In the middle of this a voice chimed below my ear.

"It's for prostitutes," the voice said.

"What?" And I turned round to see this diminutive old man grinning at me. He was about four foot ten, with blinking eyes behind his milk-bottle bottom glasses, with a ripped old anorak and grubby shoes.

"Prostitutes," he said. "To make them smell nice. You don't need perfume, do you? See what I mean? It's not for us. It's for..."

"Yes, I see what you mean. But they're towels," I said.

"Oh towels. Towels are they? I thought it was perfume. It was perfume last week. I can't see over the crowd, you see. What do you want towels for?"

"I don't want any towels. I'm just listening to the guys doing the selling."

"It's called patter," he said. "That's what the market traders call it: patter. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, like the sound the rain makes." And he shuffled off cackling to himself.

By now several of the people were coming away muttering, carrying their nice pink plastic bags full of satin embroidered cotton towels. Some of them had even managed to end up with two pairs, each with an individual plastic bag. "I should have known," an Irish woman said.

"You fell for it though didn't you?" I said, laughing. "You have to admit he knows how to sell you something. At least you've got your plastic bag."

Which is what I've been doing these last four weeks. Selling you something, minus the plastic bag. I hope you liked it