Train-spotter's guide to kitsch and tat: John Windsor dons his anorak and goes in search of the stuff you would not have in your house

IT IS not obligatory to have an implacable hatred of proletarian culture to be a tat hunter. Being a snob is sufficient.

What I really wanted when I scoured Brick Lane market last weekend was one of those abstract string-and-pins pictures. Or a framed steam locomotive made from watch parts. They seemed to be fresh out of them. Which was a bit worrying. Disbelieving the old saw that 'everything is collectable', I had thought I had the market in tat to myself.

Sensing competition, I have now embarked on a different game: trying to make the uncollectable collectable. It is all a matter of what marketing people call 'product definition'. Tat, you understand, is not rubbish. Nor is it kitsch. Tat is the sort of junk that ends up with owners unspoilt by either education or taste, persons able to tuck shirt into underpants without a qualm.

Let me explain. You know what junk is - cheap, secondhand goods. Take away from it rubbish (as dustmen do) and kitsch (as Jeff Koons does) and you are left with tat, secondhand fancy goods which inhabit a Shangri-La of their own.

In this twilight Tattyland, wood smoke is rising from thatched cottages with rose-entwined porches. In the freshly ploughed fields, leather strops of bright brasses jingle round the necks of sturdy Shire horses. In the lane, a new-fangled automobile, carrying the squire and his antique firearms to a shoot, honks its polished horn.

There is a place for everything in Tattyland. Letters have their own racks. So do periodicals. There are even matchbox-holders and 'spec rests'.

Inside the cottages, everything is tiny. There are tiny gongs to bang for tiny teas. There are tiny warming pans and tiny ornaments made from tiny shells. Tiny shields and tiny swords on the wall are a wondrous sight for tiny tots who shed glistening tears as they listen to stories of the Good Old Days.

More tears of joy are shed by the vulgar old codgers at the inn, who quaff from tankards marked 'Went to P, leave this drink alone'. They never stop smiling because they are allowed to drink and smoke 'like Helen B Merry'.

All around them are comforts which are cheap, old-fashioned and good. Their cheap, plastic tankards (20p) are shaped like good, old-fashioned barrels and have chunky handles made from good, old-fashioned wood.

In Tattyland, if a cloud crosses the sky it is necessary only to look at the image of a good, old-fashioned cottage or barrel or laden galleon or horse brass or steam engine or heraldic shield to bring dimples back to the cheeks. There is nothing like a repro Staffordshire spaniel (50p, good originals fetch pounds 700- pounds 1,000) to spread a glow of good living. Or an ice bucket with a horse's head, tiny stirrups and what look like thongs of genuine leather ( pounds 1.50), to rekindle the noblest aspirations.

Such is the conceptual art of simple-minded Tattyland. Do not mock. If you do, your simple- mindedness will disappear and your tat will transmogrify as kitsch. Then you will be sorry.

Jeff Koons, the wicked American wizard, turns tat into kitsch by making it out of expensive materials, such as his stainless steel cast of a rubber-balloon rabbit (1986).

To protect your tat from the wizard, you must make sure it is made from cheap materials such as plastic or plaster. The big round wall plaque with cottage in relief ( pounds 2) will never become kitsch because it is made of plaster. Nor will the pair of cheap plastic-and- velour praying children wall decorations ( pounds 1). But the wood and alloy pistol ( pounds 5) had better beware of the wizard because someone put too much craftsmanship into the metalwork. Pistols in cast brass or plaster are safer.

Kitsch is as self-conscious as tat is simple-minded. Kitsch is camp. Tat is naff. Unlike kitsch, tat does not invite you to think twice. It is what it is: imitative in a forelock- tugging way. Kitsch is sentimental. Tat is sentimental and nostalgic. Each piece of tat is a happy reminder of things past. Which is why all souvenirs not made of solid gold are tat.

It was the souvenir industry which liberated fancy goods from the dictates of the design-conscious. Why remain in awe of nature's handiwork in cockle and mussel shells when you can stick them together to make a funny bunny to sell to seaside holidaymakers? The same holidaying Tattylanders appreciate gnomes made of fir cones, pictures of flowers made from sliced shells - and a mustard pot disguised as a tiny teapot (marked 'Dartmeet').

Beware invaders in Tattyland. The half-dozen Sixties miniature coloured-glass tumblers in the wire boat are tat, but the boat itself with its wire-and-blob 'coolie' ferryman was inspired by the late-Forties 'New Look'. The piece is collectable and probably worth 10 times the pounds 2 I paid.

The ceramic teapot cat with paw for a spout (on telephone stand, pounds 5) is highly suspect. Is it innocent, badly designed tat or a provocative piece of kitsch? Remember that while kitsch poses, tat simply pretends. What is this pussy cat up to?

The Sixties glass fish is a changeling. It started off expensive and kitsch, is tat today but could be kitsch again tomorrow. Traders are forever trying to turn tat into kitsch. In Brick Lane I was offered for pounds 5 a glazed postcard of the Mona Lisa with passe- partout frame ('It's a work of art,' the trader said) and for pounds 20 a pink plastic table lamp in the form of a Deco- style lady described first as soapstone and then, when I raised an eyebrow, as Bakelite. Both genuine tat, worth 10p and pounds 1.

But I got a shock when I stumbled across a genuine tat shop, 'Wally's North London No 1 Antiquated Shop' at 217 Stoke Newington High Street, London N16. There was my 20p 'P' tankard priced at pounds 5 and my pounds 4 glass fish at pounds 10. The proprietors' regrets that they could not supply me with a string picture were accompanied by no knowing smirks, no nods or winks. I became aware of the delicacy of the situation. A careless jest or curl of the lip from me and the whole stock of cheaply bought tat might disappear in a puff of smoke, only to reappear as kitsch. I zipped up my anorak and left.

Wally's (081-985 6068).

The Jeff Koons Handbook (Thames and Hudson, pounds 9.95).

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Pension Minister Steve Webb

There are 'dark corners' of the investment and pensions industry, says Pensions Minister

The DWP and the FCA have joined forces to investigate transaction charges in occupational pension schemes

Scottish Power was found to have unacceptably long call waiting times

Scottish Power hit with sales ban by regulator

The company was found to have unacceptably long call waiting times

This phoenix rose from the stage at the London Olympics. The insurer grew out of zombie life insurance funds

Phoenix Life: Chance of a refund for overcharged policyholders has risen

A retired adviser got his money back from the insurer after claiming he had been overcharged. Thousands of others may have a strong case
Expect a new wave of fishing expeditions by fraudsters now we can invest our life savings

Cold callers and your pension: watch out for dangerous boiler room scams

Sean O'Grady received a cold call last week that was much more sinister than normal. Yes, someone wants to get their hands on his pension...

Fuel poverty could claim 100,000 lives over next 15 years, warns energy charity

The NHS is currently bearing a yearly burden of approximately £1.5bn treating cold-related illnesses every winter

MPs call for Equitable Life policyholders to be paid £2.8bn owed by government

Hundreds of thousands of people's policies were hit when the mutual insurer almost collapsed at the turn of the century

The elderly woman's family discovered the mistake

DWP criticised after it left a pensioner £26,000 worse off

The Department for Work and Pensions has been slammed after a series of cock-ups left an elderly pensioner £26,000 worse off.

The FCA has today issued a consultation paper on its plans to tighten up consumer credit rules to give consumers greater protection on guarantor loans and in other areas

Payday loan companies must publish their rates, says CMA

A 20-month investigation concluded that a lack of price competition between lenders has led to higher costs for borrowers

Vulnerable consumers are defined as those with poor literacy skills, those who have caring responsibilities, people with disabilities, dementia or the old

Financial companies are not meeting the needs of vulnerable consumers, says City Watchdog

The Financial Conduct Authority said the industry needs to start thinking about solutions to these challenges

The FTSE 100 is inching closer to its record high but can it maintain these levels?

In 1999 stock markets quickly tumbled, losing many a fortune in the process

Tax-free savings: Freedom dawns for the junior savers caught in low-income accounts

The parents of six million children stuck with low-interest saving accounts worth more than £5bn will be able to move the cash from this April. But what are their options? Samantha Downes reports

How much lower will mortgage rates go?

Another day, another cut. As lenders compete to offer the cheapest deals, Simon Read asks if borrowers should jump in now or wait for further falls
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Relations Officer

    £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

    Jemma Gent: Project Coordinator

    £12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Jemma Gent: In this role you will report to the Head of...

    Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable