An Acquisition At Midwinter
Over all the years I have frequented the Spitalfields Antiques Market every Thursday, I have succeeded in buying almost nothing, tempering my acquisitive tendencies by writing the stories of more than two hundred stallholders instead. Yet I made the grievous error of walking through the market in the late afternoon of the last trading day before Christmas, calling in to exchange greetings with some of the traders, including my pal Bill. While I was passing the time in idle chatter, I picked a up a smooth prehistoric stone axe head from Bill’s stall, cradling it in my palm absent-mindedly. How well it sat there in my hand.
The axe head was of British origin and approximately five thousand years old, Bill informed me. It certainly was a handsome piece of granite that I held, deep slate-blue, finely worked and veined with subtle lines. Immediately, by running your finger along the sharp edge and by clutching the smooth curves, you were in contact with all those numberless others who held it and appreciated it, going right back to the one who made it. This was not an axe designed for use but to demonstrate the painstaking skill of the maker, and of value as a gift or token of high status. This axe had always been prized and I could not resist prizing it myself, as I found my fingers closed naturally over it. I always wanted one.
Fortunately, I never carry any significant amount of cash, just to avoid finding myself in such a situation, and when Bill quoted the price, I found it quite easy to put the axe back on the stall. In every direction, the traders were packing up and heading through the dark market for Christmas. “What would be you best price?” I heard myself asking, surprised at my own audacity yet relieved when this sum was also beyond reach. The business was settled and I would leave the axe, yet Bill could see my disappointment.
“You’ve done a lot for this market,” he admitted to me, thinking out loud.“I am very proud to have put you in the book of Spitalfields Life, Bill,” I countered, “You always have the best things. Your stall is the heart of the market.” In my innocence, I wanted to compensate Bill for not buying the axe but I did not consider what the outcome might be. “I’m sure you’ve brought me more business,” he declared in agreement, holding out the axe in my direction, “You can have it for forty quid, if you like.”
I had got caught up in something that I had not intended but I did not think too much, I said, “Yes.” And thus it was that the five thousand year axe head became mine to cherish for always.
Through the days of Christmas, I have carried it in my pocket as a talisman to protect me against the wintry darkness. There is a paradoxical intimacy that I feel with whoever made my axe, since I can share their delight in pure sculptural form without ever knowing anything else. Whoever made this axe is lost in the all-enveloping darkness of history, in a time thousands of year before Christmas – yet I am sure they enjoyed a winter celebration too. Like us, they recognising the moment in the year when the length of days changes and, in spite of some grim months to come, we are moving forward irreversibly towards summer again.
Bill who sold me the Prehistoric Axe in the Spitalfields Antiques Market
This is my pal Bill, a dignified market stalwart who deals in coins, whistles, gramophone needles, souvenir thimbles, magic lantern slides, trading tokens, small classical antiquities and prehistoric artifacts. “I sell quite a few things, but on a low margin because it’s more interesting to have a quick turnover.” he admitted to me, speaking frankly, “I’m here more for enjoyment really – quite a few friends I’ve made over the years. I was a shy person before, but it’s made me confident having a stall. I’ve become an optimistic person.” Bill comes to Spitalfields each week with all his stock in a backpack and large suitcase – practical, economic and an incentive to sell as much as possible.
(Pen portrait originally published July 22nd, 2010)
Photograph of Bill copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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