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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Up and away: rates will rise but your mortgage won't escape its moorings with a long-term fix

Is a 10 year mortgage deal a fix too far?

A cut-price deal for a decade-long home loan - where's the problem? Only, says Simon Read, that circumstances can change and it won't be easy to get out
In a surprise move the Tories have decided against putting a career politician into the job. Instead they’ve handed the responsibility to campaigner Ros Altmann

New pensions minister has massive job on her hands

The Tories have appointed campaigner Ros Altmann to the post

Promises, promises: David Cameron talks to staff at Asda's head office in Leeds today

General Election 2015: How you vote next week could affect your finances

Rival party pledges could shrink your savings or grow your nest egg
Logos for the 'Big Six'; energy companies (top row from left) British Gas, EDF, RWE npower, (bottom row from left) SSE, E.ON and ScottishPower

Winter heating underpayment brings summer pain

One reader’s monthly direct debit charge has been increased by 62 per cent

Almost 15,000 people died last winter through living in cold homes that they couldn’t afford to heat

Social tenants locked into energy tariff for 40 years

Many Londoners who live in social housing estates are not allowed to switch because their landlord has ‘locked’ them in to buying from one supplier

Will your credit card rewards be scrapped following new EU rules on charges?

Providers are unhappy with new EU rules - but ultimately it is customers who will have to foot the bill
There remain more than a million unclaimed Premium Bond prizes worth collectively around £48m

Have you won £1m in the May Premium Bonds draw?

More than £60m was paid out to more than 2 million prizewinners this month

The 0 per cent introductory deals that credit cards offer are one of the most odious tricks

Beware credit card firms’ odious tricks

Why can’t we just have open and honest charges, without all the cross-subsiding?

The pound’s recent strength against the euro could be hit by economic uncertainty under a new government

How planning can make your travel cash go further

With the pound at a high against the euro, it pays to buy now before uncertainty post-election

Put the phone down on the coldcallers who see pension liberation as an opportunity to liberate your pension from you

Pension freedoms: How to deal with cold calls from scammers

Sean O'Grady offers advice on keeping your money safe
Switching to a better bank account is much easier than it used to be

More people are switching current accounts – but what do the figures mean?

Experts disagree about the 7% increase over the past year

The chance of getting what appears to be free money can be hugely attractive, especially to first-time buyers who can be fooled into thinking it’s extra cash to buy the essential new items they need for their dream home.

Beware the boom in cashback mortgage deals

Too many mortgages are being sold with misleading gimmicks

The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in a disastrous 2014

Wonga results could get even worse this year, chief admits

The firm’s revenues slumped by a third to £217 million in 2014

The cost of a buildings policy has dropped by 10.1 per cent over the year, with the cost of a contents policy falling by 8.2 per cent

Simon Read: Mild winter cuts the cost of home insurance

The average quote for a buildings and contents policy has fallen by 3.6 per cent

Don't count your retirement money yet: employers will stop receiving a pension rebate next year and their staff may lose out

Defined-benefit pension schemes: Rebate change in 2016 may leave you out of pocket

Employees in defined-benefit schemes are held up as the lucky ones, but the state pension scheme will be overhauled in April 2016
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

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

    £45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

    Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

    £45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

    Laura Norton: Project Accountant

    £50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?