Remember when there used to be the ‘January Sales’? Or did you ever queue up early on a freezing Boxing Day? We seem now to be in an almost permanent state of discount, with sales beginning before Christmas and most of us happy to pounce from the sofa via an iPad. And this year – we have no choice. Shops right across the country will be closed from early on Boxing Day as we face another wave of restrictions to movement. Still, there’s nothing like the memory of finding a great deal after a long search. Stalwart bargain-hunters will relate to Liz Lochhead’s 1977 poem about a cold January day at an outdoor market. That outdoor market is, of course, the Barras. The poem appears in Alan Taylor’s fabulous compendium of writing about Glasgow, Glasgow: The Autobiography.
The Barrows or, as it is more commonly known, The Barras, is a legendary Glasgow institution. Its origins can be traced to the 1920s, when there was a market in Clyde Street on which cheap goods were displayed on handbarrows. When this was closed later in the 1920s, Mrs Margaret McIvor and her husband, who had hired barrows to traders, bought land in the Calton and invited their former clients to set up shop. It expanded rapidly, selling mainly second-hand clothes. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Barras fell into disrepair and disrepute, but with the formation of the Barrows Enterprise Trust it enjoyed a revival, becoming one of Europe’s largest street markets. Liz Lochhead, poet and playwright, is a national treasure who from 2011-16 was Scots Makar, Scotland’s national poet.Alan Taylor, Glasgow: The Autobiography
The Bargain Liz Lochhead The river in January is fast and high. You and I are off to the Barrows. Gathering police-horses twitch and fret at the Tron end of London Road and Gallowgate. The early kick-off we forgot has us, three-thirty, rubbing the wrong way against all the ugly losers getting ready to let fly where the two rivers meet. January, and we’re looking back, looking forward don’t know which way but the boy with three beautiful Bakelite Bush radios for sale in Meadow’s minimarket is buttonpopping stationhopping he doesn’t miss a beat sings along it’s easy to every changing tune, Yes today we’re in love aren’t we? with the whole splintering city its big quick river wintry bridges its brazen black Victorian heart. So what if every other tenement wears its hearth on its gable end? All I want is my glad eye to catch a glint in your flinty Northern face again just once. Oh I know it’s cold and coming down and no we never lingered long among the Shipbank traders. Paddy’s Market underneath the arches stank too much today the usual wetdog reek rising from piles of old damp clothes. Somebody absolutely steamboats he says on sweet warm wine swigging plaincover from a paper bag squats in a puddle with nothing to sell but three bent forks a torn calendar (last year’s) and a broken plastic sandal. So we hadn’t the stomach for it today. We don’t deserve a bargain then! No connoisseur can afford to be too scrupulous about keeping his hands clean. There was no doubt the rare the beautiful and bugle-beaded the real antique dirt cheap among the rags and drunks you could easily take to the cleaners. At the Barrows everything has its price no haggling believe me this boy knows his radios. Pure Utility and what that’s worth these days. Suddenly the fifties are fashionable and anything within a decade of art deco a rarity you’ll pay through the nose for. The man with the patter and all these curtain lengths in fibreglass is flabbergasted at the bargain and says so in so many words. Jesus, every other arcade around here’s a ‘Fire Surround Boutique’ – and we watch the struggling families; father carrying hearth home mother wound up with kids. All the couples we know fall apart or have kids. Oh we’ve never shouldered much. We’ll stick to small ikons for our home – as long as they’re portable – a dartboard a peacock feather a stucco photoframe. We queue in a blue haze of hot fat for Danny’s Do-Nuts that grit our teeth with granulated sugar. I keep losing you and finding you – two stalls away you thumb through a complete set of manuals for primary teachers in the thirties I rub my sleeve on a dusty Chinese saucer till the gilt shows through. Oh come on we promised we’d not let our affection for the slightly cracked trap us into such expenditure again. Oh even if it is a bargain we won’t buy. The stallholder says we’ll be the death of her. She says see January it’s been the doldrums the day. And it’s packing up time with the dark coming early and as cold as the river. At the bus-stop I show you the beady bag and the maybe rosewood box with the inlaid butterfly and the broken catch. You’ve bought a record by the Shangri-las a pin-stripe waistcoat that needs a stitch it just won’t get and a book called ‘Enquire Within – Upon Everything’. The raw cold gets colder. There doesn’t seem to be a lot to say. I wish we could either mend things or learn to throw them away.