A January Bargain

  21 Dec '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

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. 
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