The junk they serve up with the food: The curious clutter in theme pubs tells us what the recent past found fascinating about our earlier history, says John Windsor

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Ever heard of antique antiques? They are collections of nostalgia which have become period pieces in their own right, revealing what the recent past found interesting about the more distant past.

Museums are obvious examples of antique antiques. But the most recently assembled are the collections of curious clutter in theme pubs.

Henry Harper, a 47-year-old dealer from Thornbury, near Hereford, who has been 'in bric-a-brac' for 15 years, reports that in the late Eighties he was supplying old clutter to as many as 50 new theme pubs a year, including the Harvester and Beefeater chains and pubs with nautical or sporting themes. Typical spend per pub: pounds 30,000-pounds 60,000. Today, his only contract is with TGI Friday's, the American 'bistro' franchise with a nostalgic 'urban Americana' theme that has, so its publicity material says, 'aggressive plans for growth in the UK over the next five years'.

I visited Friday's in Coventry Street, near London's Leicester Square to watch history in the making. This particular site is still under construction, but is due to open in October as the UK's 11th Friday's. Rush Bowman, Friday's interior decorator from Arlington, Texas, was enthusing over the container-load of junk that Mr Harper had bought for him at flea markets in the US. He regretted only the porcelain bits because they could not be screwed to the wall.

It is strictly all-American gear. Friday's (The TGI stands for 'Thank God It's') did not want its 'stores' in this country to look British. Although Mr Harper is British to the core and employed by Whitbread, the British franchise holder, he takes his instructions on what to buy from a 1988 shopping list for American Fridays. The sole advantage of being British comes at Customs, where an American importer would probably not be so lucky.

Whether screwed to the wall or hanging from the ceiling, Mr Bowman's accumulation of nostalgia is meant to resemble 'a pub that's been here since early in the century, where people have kept on bringing in items: 'I brought this over from the States but my wife has told me to get it out of the house' - that sort of thing.'

It was we Brits who first thought of the idea - the Bricklayers Arms in Putney, south London, is hung with bric-a-brac exchanged by dustmen for pints since the Thirties (much of it nicked by antique-hunters). We left it to the Americans, of course, to make the idea pay. Mr Harper's special assortment of junk (Mr Bowman has a riper word for it), together with the smiling, fast-moving, expensively trained 'dub-dubs' (waiters and waitresses), have made one Friday's, in Bedford Street, Covent Garden, reputedly the busiest restaurant in Europe and certainly the busiest Friday's in the world. One week, its 260 seats yielded a turnover of pounds 180,000.

So here is part of the recipe for Europe's, if not the world's, most irresistible, money-spinning collection of junk. The shopping list requires that every TGI Friday's should have: '2 sleds, 1 buggy, 2 trikes, 2 pedal cars, 1 hobby horse, 2 scooters, 2 sets skis, 2 sets snowshoes, 1 manikin, 1 dress form, 1 fire extinguisher, 2 carpet sweepers, 1 bird cage, 2 suitcases, 1 washboard, 2-3 wheels of different kinds, 1 organ pipe, 1 pattern mould, 1 large ship's propeller, 4-6 containers (boxes, trunks), 50-60 assorted metal signs, 4 large metal signs, 1 telephone sign, 8-10 lettered glass double-sided light-up signs, 8 wooden signs, 10-15 brass signs, 2 US vehicle licence plates, 2 large thermometers, 1 Nipper (HMV's dog), 2 large sign letters, 6 ditto small, about 100 pictures, 1 giant pointing hand, 4-6 brass items, 1 small bath tub, 1 ironing board, 1 wall clock, 1 wall telephone, 1 lavatory seat, 1 large fish, 1 small fish, 1 gaming wheel, 7-8 hats (period), 1 old radio, 1 pair ice tongs, 4-5 different pairs of shoes (skating, etc), 3-5 trophy cups, 1 copper urn, 1 copper heater, 4 spittoons, 2 sets US traffic lights, 6 light-up advertisements, 1-2 tubas, 2 big drums, 1 cello, 1 double bass, 15-18 small instruments . . .'

There is more, but Mr Harper has lost the other pages. Anyway, it is sufficient for a restaurant of 8,500 square feet, allowing Mr Bowman to mount objects in such profusion that 'every time people come in, they spot something they've never seen before'. Would you have noticed the junk has a feminine quality? Friday's founders installed big, see-inside windows and fussy Tiffany lamps so women who wanted a cocktail would not feel they were entering a gin palace.

One generation has succeeded another since Mr Bowman decorated his first store in New York in 1965 (now one of 200 in the US) and he has taken to displaying junk of a later date to appeal to a clientele aged 25-plus. 'I like to show them something they would have seen early in their lives - something not quite remembered but capable of jogging their unconscious.'

Such as the pedal cars, model boats and aeroplanes which are traditionally hung over the bar - these arouse the deepest nostalgia, he said. (A little surprising, perhaps, since neither performs particularly well at auction. Condition is a factor. Most pedal cars are pretty bashed up and few models are of commercial-standard workmanship.)

Once in, now strictly out is taxidermy - a staple of the antique antique. The Coventry Street restaurant will be the first without it. Its bull's head is fibreglass and only the soft toys are stuffed. Which makes other Friday's, like Covent Garden's, though barely five years old, already a monument to obsolete, pre- ecological taste.

Junk in general, Mr Bowman says, has risen 10 times in price in the United States since he started buying in the mid- Sixties. He accepts most of the blame.

Copper ships' lamps, for example, have thrived on being screwed to walls. Costing a tenner or so 10 years ago, said Mr Harper, good specimens now command pounds 150- pounds 200. Big tubas are still pounds 200- pounds 300 in the US but double basses - a 'must' in the shopping list, always hung over the bar - can now cost pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000 in musical instrument shops. Those in Friday's are likely to be new, made in eastern Germany and costing around pounds 800. No one need know.

Junk hunting has brought the occasional unexpected bonus: Mr Harper's pounds 100 Victorian pastel of a woman hanging inside the entrance in Covent Garden has been valued at pounds 2,000 by Sotheby's.

Some deviations from the shopping list are permitted - Thirties Disneyana, naff in the US, still has appeal here, Mr Harper reckons.

But there must always be a rowing scull (symbolising corporate togetherness), even if it has to be sawn into bits to fit between pillars. There must always be a Twenties petrol pump with transparent gas cylinder, worth a measly pounds 60-pounds 70 but surviving only in the arid, rust-free climes of southern California and New Mexico.

And there must always be a 'Beware of the Trains' sign for the gents' urinal. If you own one, save it for a rainy Friday.

(Photographs omitted)

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