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
Saturday 13 March 1993
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).
31 July 2015 10:00 PM
The days of phoning round to chase up multiple contributions could well be a thing of the past
Questions of Cash: 'I want a refund on my TV licence payments but they've turned my claim into a soap opera'
31 July 2015 10:00 PM
An Independent reader was told to send bank statements to prove payment
25 July 2015 12:00 AM
30 July 2015 02:44 PM
The company made £63 a second but is only passing on £37 a year cuts to customers
30 July 2015 04:47 PM
Video: Tom Stevenson, investment director at Fidelity Worldwide Investments, says it’s good to be aware of what’s going on in the world
27 July 2015 11:12 AM
The high-cost credit company preyed on vulnerable people struggling because of the recession
25 July 2015 12:00 AM
Competition has driven rates down but they could start drifting upwards
25 July 2015 12:00 AM
Andrew Hagger has carried out some research to try to establish which accounts are strongest in each of the different areas
Questions of Cash: 'Golfing break landed in the bunker when the price on the booking site was way below par'
25 July 2015 12:00 AM
One reader encountered a problem when booking accommodation at the St Andrews Tourist Hostel through HostelBookers
Payday lenders slammed for 'misleading' claims: charities say they're still not doing enough to help borrowers
21 July 2015 12:14 PM
Debt charities say there seems scant evidence to back up CFA's latest report
18 July 2015 12:00 AM
There have been fresh warnings that scammers are trying to trick people into using liberated cash to invest in dodgy schemes
18 July 2015 12:00 AM
Taking the wrong plastic can be a costly mistake, leaving you paying over the odds for your holiday spending money to the tune of £68, maybe more
18 July 2015 12:00 AM
15 July 2015 12:01 AM
But the right of over-55s to withdraw their retirement nest-eggs opens the door to scammers.
17 July 2015 03:48 PM
Mark Carney said the decision to raise interest rates was likely to come by 'the turn of the year'
- 1 Stuart Baggs dies: Apprentice star 'The Brand' found dead aged 27
- 2 Whoopi Goldberg tells Cara Delevingne to suck it up: 'She's not famous. I'M famous'
- 3 1000 people played Foo Fighters simultaneously to try and get them to play their city
- 4 Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member
- 5 Doctor Who: Christopher Eccleston says why he left the BBC series after just one series
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
While we fixate on Calais, the Home Office is quietly deporting dozens of migrants on 'ghost flights'
iJobs Money & Business
£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...
£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...
£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...
£35 - £50k DOE: Guru Careers: A Tax Manager / Accountant (ACA / CA / CTA) is n...
Day In a Page
Set sail for this four-bedroom farmhouse in Cowes. With five acres of land and an indoor pool, this home oozes character. There is even potential to let a one-bedroom annexe.
With five bedrooms, this spacious home offers beautiful gardens and modern interiors - set within the popular market town of Bingley.
A few miles from the seaside at Perranporth, this four-bedroom farmhouse sits amongst nine acres of idyllic grounds - including a lake and two barns used as holiday lets.
In the pretty market town of Bungay, this grade II-listed Mill House is arranged over four floors, offering four bedrooms and three reception areas.
This first-floor flat comes with two bedrooms, an impressive open-plan reception room and two lovely roof terraces.
This five-bedroom home comes with a range of outbuildings including a large barn which could be converted into a self-contained granny-flat or rental.
Moored at Taggs Island and reached via a pretty garden, this two-bedroom houseboat has a vaulted reception room and skylit garden studio - currently a beauty salon.
On the edge of the city, this six-bedroom home comes with an outdoor swimming pool and a large garage block that has annexe potential.
A contemporary house spread over three storeys, this three-bedroom detached home has large sliding doors that open out to the River Quaggy.
Moored in Chelsea's Cheyne Walk, this houseboat offers two double bedrooms and a teak deck that's ideal for al-fresco dining.
This former village bakery, dating back to the 17th century, is now a three-bedroom detached home just a few miles from the East Sussex coast.
On the picturesque Isle of Man, this four-bedroom character home has a ground-floor shop that's currently run as a newsagents and a flat that would make an ideal holiday let.
In a new collection of flats, this first-floor two-bedroom apartment offers ample entertaining space and a prime view of Furze Green from a private balcony.
This three-bedroom stone-built cottage currently trades as the village store with a restaurant in the annexe and family accommodation on the upper floors.
Previously two semi-detached properties, this five-bedroom home is spread over three floors with a large breakfast kitchen, orangery, office and gym on the second floor.
This five-bedroom home enjoys countryside views over the Blyth estuary to Southwold, offering flexible living space with a ground-floor annexe - ideal for use as a holiday let.
Close to the market town of Eye, this four-bedroom detached home offers a double-height living room which takes the place of the original, 19th-century, chapel nave.
Dating back to the 19th century, this four-bedroom home needs modernising. Spanning three storeys, the red-brick house has a fireplace, a small terrace and a cellar.
Just outside of Cambridge, this single-storey home offers three double bedrooms, a living room with vaulted timber ceiling and ladder steps that lead to a mezzanine study area.
This six-bedroom Georgian home is on three floors with open fireplaces, a two oven Aga, an annexe, and cottage gardens with outbuildings and a car barn.
A former coach house, Glebe Farm Stable is now a three-bedroom cottage with a double car barn, an attached office, kennels and an outbuilding that's currently used as a gym.
Located beside an impressive Victorian viaduct, this four-bedroom home has an open-plan living area that is glazed on two sides, with skylights and high ceilings.
A former furniture workshop, this three-bedroom home has high ceilings and painted brick walls, in a village setting only fifteen miles from the coast.
This five-bedroom stone townhouse features a pine staircase and an Inglenuk fireplace, double doors from the lounge give access to an enclosed courtyard.
This five-bedroom, detached home blends traditional and modern design; the sleek kitchen features a gas hob and oven set within an exposed chimney breast.
Capitalise on the fabulous views of Trevone Bay by taking two homes and creating one spacious boutique B&B. Just a cliff-top walk from Padstow.
Surrounded by woodland, this five-bedroom manor house has plenty of outdoor storage space in the form of three converted loose boxes, two smaller outhouses and a woodstore.
This six-bedroom home is set amongst three acres of grounds. Currently a large family home, Clift Hill has potential to make a B&B or countryside retreat, subject to change of use permissions.
This Grade II-listed three-bedroom home is situated on a private road, just a short walk from the sandy beaches of Frinton-on-Sea.
Less than five miles from Malmesbury, this four-bedroom cottage comes with equestrian facilities and gardens that extend to approximately three acres.
Spanning three storeys, this late-Victorian five-bedroom farmhouse is a spacious family home with a modern interior and B&B potential.
With an original church arch, this triplex one-bedroom church conversion has a light, spacious, feel and comes with a secure off-street parking space.
This recently-refurbished three-bedroom home has bi-folding doors that lead out to a decked seating area - ideal for alfresco dining this summer.
Well-located for coastal walks and popular restaurants, this detached four-bedroom home offers views over farmland, to the Solent, the Purbecks and Bournemouth.
If you love high ceilings, school conversions like this one are bang on the money. This two-bedroom flat is minutes from Burgess Park and the foodie haven at Borough Market.
Set within a church conversion in Bermondsey, this two-bedroom maisonette combines existing features, such as original arches and brickwork, with a contemporary finish.
This four-bedroom Edwardian home offers a combination of original features and contemporary design after a renovation by the current owners.
This four-bedroom home offers a vaulted ceiling in a breakfast room that's ideal for summer entertaining with doors that open to the patio and garden.
On the market for the first time in more than 50 years, this six-bedroom home is a project with vast potential - spread over three floors of living space.
Surrounded by rolling countryside, this four-bedroom barn conversion comes with a self-contained, one-bedroom annexe that could serve as an office or a holiday let.
Located near Harrogate town centre, this five-bedroom Victorian terrace is arranged over three storeys while a current study serves as an optional sixth bedroom.
A ground-floor flat in a country house, located a mile from Sway; this two-bedroom home would make an ideal weekend retreat on the edge of the New Forest.
On a popular residential lane in Caterham on the Hill, this four-bedroom family home offers a secluded garden and a convenient location for local schools and public transport.
Just a short walk from Westerham green, this three-bedroom cottage has a light kitchen with exposed brickwork and double doors that lead to a south-facing garden.
In a prime spot opposite the River Thames, this one-bedroom flat has an 18sq ft reception room with glass doors that open out to a private terrace.
Set in the hills above Llanwrda Village, west Wales, this 18th-century three-bedroom farmhouse has holiday-let potential from a separate barn conversion and annexe.
This charming end-of-terrace townhouse is arranged over three floors, with two double bedrooms and a private courtyard garden located at the rear of the property.
Located in the University area, this semi-detached five-bedroom home is arranged over three floors - there's even a rear garden and off-road parking too.
Only a few minutes' drive from the charming town of Marlow, this two-bedroom home sits on the private riverside estate of Harleyford.
This detached four-bedroom home in Middleyard is arranged over two floors, with features that include a wood-burning stove and bespoke oak staircase.