Some years ago, Jane and I decided to get rid of a cellar-full of clutter by going to a car-boot sale. Among all our unwanted bric-a-brac was a velvet cushion in several startlingly bright colours. A few people admired it and asked how much we wanted for it. We said £1. They wandered off. Then a woman stopped in her tracks as if halted by armed soldiers.
"Oh, that cushion is beautiful," she gushed. "Oh, those colours would go perfectly in my front room, wouldn't they, Marion?" She looked at her friend, who made similar rapturous noises, then turned back to me. "How much do you want for it?" Well, the car-boot sale was nearly over and we had stopped trying to make our fortune; we just wanted to be rid of everything. Also, I was delighted that the cushion was going to a home where its plump vibrancy would be so cherished. "It's yours for 20p," I said. She looked at me, then back at the cushion. "Nah," she said, and walked on.
Now, I have related that story once or possibly even twice before in these pages down the years, as an example of there being nowt so queer as folk. But I do so again now because I myself succumbed to bright-cushion syndrome on Sunday morning, and I understand the nuances of it a little better now.
Once a month, my daughter Eleanor, a netball hotshot, goes to train with the élite West Midlands squad at a sports centre in Walsall, 70-odd miles away from where we live. Jane and I take it in turns to drive her there, but whoever gets the job then has to fill three hours before driving her home again, and I don't think even the good people of Walsall would disagree with me when I suggest that Time Out publications are not about to produce a guide to things to do there on a Sunday morning. It's either a trip to Ikea in nearby Wednesbury, or Walsall Market.
That said, I'm a huge fan of the market, which occupies several acres in the shadow of the Bescot Stadium, home of Walsall FC. It also helped on Sunday to be there in the company of my 10-year-old, Jacob, who has not yet developed his father's keen eye for utter tat, and was duly bowled over by a stall selling watches for £3, or two for a fiver. At least I persuaded him to spend his pocket money on a moderately tasteful one, and not the piece of pure bling that first caught his fancy.
The two of us had great fun, sitting down only for a couple of sausage sandwiches in the form of doorstops, served to us by a man who, to Jacob's delight, called me captain. Otherwise, we ambled around for ages, and I made a mental note to return with our next lot of overseas visitors. Provincial markets everywhere offer a much better introduction to a country than any castle or museum, and so it is in Walsall: kebab stalls cheek by jowl with stalls selling SIM cards, pineapples, punchbags, Rizla cigarette papers, Wolverhampton Wanderers flip-flops, novelty alloy wheel alarm clocks, rump steak, dolls' clothes, and June's home-made Bakewell tarts ("all made yesterday, my love"). But it was a pair of gardening gloves that brought on my velvet-cushion moment. I need some new gardening gloves and these seemed ideal: robust and comfortable. When I dithered over the £4.99 price tag, the guy said I could have them for £3.50. "Nah," I said, and walked on. After all, I'd just bought a catering-sized pack of clingfilm for £1: my perspective on value was all skewed.
Later, as Jacob and I each tore into a clementine (20 for £1.50), I recalled another episode from a car-boot sale long ago. Jane had some smartly packaged soap, tied in raffia, an unwanted Christmas present. We were asked several times how much we were charging for it, and we said 50p. Our would-be customers all seemed to think this represented a huge bargain, but then they all asked us what kind of soap it was. When we said we didn't know, they walked off. For 50p, why would it matter? Still, when the next person asked, I said "aloe vera". She bought the soap immediately. That's retail psychology, you see. If only the guy at Walsall Market had told me they were made from organic, free-range Vietnamese cotton, I'd have a new £3.50 pair of gardening gloves.