Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Sale-of-Work

On several occasions, I've obliquely mentioned a sale-of-work that I attended in my childhood and its significance to me, without explaining what that significance actually was. It's even become a bit of a running joke (to me, if to nobody else). Well, today is the's been a while since I wrote a proper post on this blog, and now in the fading embers of Christmas, it seems like a good time to get back into it. And this seems as good a subject as any.

I'm assuming everybody knows the term "sale-of-work"....lots of other terms are used for the same thing. Jumble sale (probably my favourite), bazaar, bring-and-buy, and rummage sale are the ones I can think of right now. In fact, the sale of work I'm recollecting here was not called a sale-of-work at all, but rather a "margadh saothair", which is the literal Irish translation. The reason the Irish language term was used was because it was taking place in my school, which was an Irish language school.

It wasn't just one, actually. I can remember attending at least two, and perhaps more. 

Given my dislike of drawing things out for effect, I'm going to tell you straight out why I was so inspired by this sale-of-work. It was its informality. I was enthralled to see things being bought and sold outside the usual setting of shops, supermarkets and shopping centres. The absence of officialdom and bureaucracy thrilled me.

But "informality" doesn't really do it justice. Whatever is at the back of a child's delight in play, or indeed an adult's delight in play, was at the back of my delight in the jumble sale. After all, a child playing with a toy house or a toy car is not playing with it simply because he can't get his hands on a real one. The toy is not simply a substitute. The fact that the thing is a replica, a scaled-down version, is part of the pleasure. At least, that's how I remember it from my childhood...and indeed, it's how I feel today, contemplating something like a doll's house or a model ship. There is an inexplicable delight in seeing something recreated in another mode. Keith Waterhouse wrote an excellent article on a local "button fair" in which he makes the same point....the appeal of the button fair, he claims, was not the rides themselves (which were terrible) but the miniature replication of a cash economy using buttons.

And yet, my fascination with the sale-of-work goes even deeper than this delight in replication.

I think it boils down to the sociological distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), a distinction explained in this Wikipedia article. Another website explains the difference thus:

In the rural, peasant societies that typify the Gemeinschaft, personal relationships are defined and regulated on the basis of traditional social rules. People have simple and direct face-to-face relations with each other that are determined by Wesenwille (natural will)—i.e., natural and spontaneously arising emotions and expressions of sentiment.

The Gesellschaft, in contrast, is the creation of Kürwille (rational will) and is typified by modern, cosmopolitan societies with their government bureaucracies and large industrial organizations. In the Gesellschaft, rational self-interest and calculating conduct act to weaken the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that permeate the Gemeinschaft’s structure. In the Gesellschaft, human relations are more impersonal and indirect, being rationally constructed in the interest of efficiency or other economic and political considerations.

I suppose that, if I'd grown up in a rural village, a school sale-of-work wouldn't have seemed any great matter to me. But growing up in a sprawling suburb of a capital city, where all public places were impersonal and rather daunting, made it seem a very great matter indeed. The intimate scale of the event, and the fact that most people knew each other, gave it a very different flavour to most events I'd ever attended.

And I think this may have been the source, or one of the sources, of my lifelong yearning for a society that is bound by ties of sentiment rather than ties of expediency. This is why I am a nationalist.

I can imagine somebody arguing that it's simply impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a village over an entire nation, that modern conditions don't allow for it, that our society has become impersonal and formalized by its very nature-- a supermarket rather than a sale-of-work.

But I'm simply not convinced of this. I can remember growing up at a time when Ireland remained basically a Catholic, nationalist country. It made a difference. At least, it made a difference to me. The starting-point of public discourse (by which I mean everything from a televised debate to a newspaper cartoon) was that tradition and community were things to be cherished, rather than a threat to one's individuality. I do honestly believe that a difference in perception, in imagination, can make a profound difference to everyday life.

Well, my discussion of the sale-of-work has been entirely abstract so far. I will turn to discussing the actual event, although I should warn the reader that there was nothing distinctive about this sale-of-work.

It was held mostly in the hall at the centre of the school. Stalls were ranged all around the sides of the hall. There was a wheel of fortune, which impressed me greatly. There were home-cooked goods. I think there was candy-floss, although I might be imagining that.

One year there was a bouncy-castle in a class-room, although this ended badly when one girl smashed her head against a corner where the ceiling turned upwards, and began to bleed profusely.

There was also a Santa's grotto in another classroom. A long tunnel draped in black plastic led to it. This excited me as I've always loved tunnels, corridors and passages of every sort. By this time, I was too old to visit Santa. In fact, I passed my childhood without ever paying a visit to Santa's grotto. I don't regret this-- I think I would have found it embarrassing, as I found most experiences back then. But it does make Santa's grotto somewhat exotic to me.

It was at this sale-of-work that I first learned the word "bargain". It was used by my cousin (whose mother is Filipino, incidentally). She told me she'd found lots of bargains. I understood from the context and filed it away mentally.

I manned one of the stalls temporarily. I was wearing a comically enormous pair of shades that I'd won as a spot prize. Some kid asked me where he could buy a pair. I was surprised at his implicit approval, because I was wearing them rather nervously, thinking I might be mocked for it.

I can remember some of the things I bought in the sale-of-work. I can remember a kind of model shop, which was little more than a rack. It was made my Bluebird. I can also remember buying a huge toy bull, upon whose back I could fit an extraordinary number of my action figures. Most of all, I remember a Transformers annual (or yearbook, as Americans might say). An "annual" is a special edition of a comic-book. This particular annual contained the story of the "Headmasters", a particular type of Transformer whose head detached and turned out to be another figure. The story of their origin (as related in the annual) began on the planet Nebulos, and I can remember it featured a parliament called the House of Peers. "Peer" was another word I'd never encountered before, but I took the wrong meaning from it-- I thought it meant noble or aristocrat. Well, I suppose it does, in some senses. Eventually my sister had to put me right.

Everything I acquired in the sale-of-work had a particular atmosphere attached to it, ever after-- I was acutely aware that it had belonged to somebody else before me, and that gave it a certain glamour. It was an early example of my fascination with the folk-life, with everything that is handed down, transmitted, passed along from hand to hand, or mouth to mouth, or soul to soul. Rather than decreasing a thing's value, that tends to increase it, in my eyes. Hence my traditionalism.

But you know what? I don't think I've been to a sale-of-work since those dim and distant days on the planet Nebulos.


  1. I've been to several through the years but there was one i always remember also. they had it all set out so nicely that it was almost carnival like. i remember a Chinadoll with an elaborate dress over a doorway. strange hired how you remember the certain things?

    1. It is very strange how some things stick in the memory rather than others!