The BBC's Antiques Roadshow came to the local market town yesterday. I thought: "Why not?"I will tell you why not. I do not own any antiques. Indeed, I do not own anything of value apart from the children and the Aga. I did not think there was any point bringing the children when I have no plans to sell them; I decided the Aga was too heavy for my handbag. In any event, despite the fact it is trying to look as if it has been in the family for at least 17 generations, we only got it last week. My husband said I could not go to the roadshow without something old or they might not let me in. I said: "Fine, I will take you." He did not laugh. We have something of a connection to the roadshow. My brother-in-law made it on to the opening credits of a previous series in a Citroen 2cv with the roof down and a grandfather clock in the back. This brought him and his car no small degree of fame. When he was out and about, people would say: "Is that the car from off the telly?" His best moment was when two girls pulled alongside him at traffic lights, the driver flashed her breasts, then drove off. The power of television.
As you stepped through the castle archway onto the green lawns, nice people queued up in an orderly fashion by signs that read "Jewellery", "Books" or "Military." I stood in the "Miscellaneous" queue. Somehow it was a fit. Queuing was dull. Much more interesting were the antique dealers in their smart jackets and silk ties sitting at tables, trying to look excited by what you can find on Ebay these days. Even more exciting was the appearance of Michael Aspel in sunglasses, looking more dishy than a 74-year-old has any right to be. I bought a photograph from the official souvenir stand for one of the friends I was with. She said: "I dare you to get it autographed." Dares are so juvenile. I sidled up to Mr Aspel who was being talked at by a large sixty-something woman while he signed pieces of paper for other silver fox admirers. I smiled brilliantly at him and looked slightly overcome as I held out the photograph. I said breathily: "Would you mind?" I can tell you Michael Aspel also knows how to smile brilliantly. Perhaps he hoped I might show him my breasts. He took the photograph, clearly impressed by my youth or the fact I had paid 50 pence for his likeness. I said: "Would you make it out to...?" and gave him a name. He might have thought it was my name. The deal was if I got the autograph, she had to put it up in her lounge. So far, Michael and I are in a win: win situation. I get the autograph: he thinks I am a big fan of his work. This worked really well till my friend decided to go up to him about an hour later and confess that it was a put up job and the autographed picture was for her. I saw him walk back across the green; I swear he looked disappointed.
Back at the tables: out came a hideous vase painted with blossom and butterflies. The lady asked: "Can you tell us about it please?" What she meant was: "How much is it worth?" The dealer did not come straight out with: "Put it back in the plastic bag, dearie. It's rubbish." Instead, he sat back in his chair and talked about "the revival of chinoiserie...". Value: £40 a pair. The lady next to the vase woman brought out her smeary blue china plates. "Wedgwood and Co," said the dealer "a different company." Value: £1 or £2 each. "They were my mother's," she said, as if that might up the catalogue price. You had to wonder whether some of the hopeful crowd might have been better not asking the experts. Whether they would have been better cherishing the object handed down to them or picked up cheap at a car boot sale. If they had never asked, they could have held on to the dream that perhaps they were millionaires but did not yet know it. Even worse, the shattering of your dreams is witnessed by the onlookers around or those who sit in the comfort of their armchairs at home and use the identical vase as a spittoon. You can feel the air flinch in embarassment around you as the inquirer attempts to keep smiling as she wraps up the offending object along with her hopes of a bungalow and zips them back into her hold-all again. If we were not British, we would yell: "Rats. You know nothing" at the men in blazers. Instead, we nod and say with exquisite and understated courtesy: "Thank you. That was very interesting. I wouldn't have sold it anyway."
Occasionally, a fortune does make it unchipped through the years to stand dusty on the sideboard. An elderly couple brought in a green, white and gilt vase with pelican handles made in the early 19th century. It was left to them by their neighbour who died 10 years ago and whom the old lady had looked after. "She had no family," the lady explained, tiny in a green driving coat. "I used to bring her meals in." Goodness rewarded. A Rockingham Porcelain vase. Value: £1,200 to £1,400. "I will be frightened to dust it now," she said.
Some remain resolutely unimpressed by discovery. One couple were told they had a rare example of an 18th century station or dial clock, the round clocks that hung in public places such as railway stations or schools. The dealer was sceptical it worked. He advised restoring it at a cost of £1,000. Value after restoration: £5,000. I said: "Will you restore it?" The husband said: "Probably not. It will be the same in 10 years time. We'll hang it back on the kitchen wall. It keeps perfect time."
One of my friends took a chronometer which had belonged to his grandfather. This particular marine clock came from a German submarine. Not just any submarine. In May 1941, two merchant ships in a convoy heading for Liverpool had already been torpedoed when a periscope was spotted in among the other ships. The sub was forced to crash dive after it came under attack but surfaced after it was damaged by depth charges.The German sailors including its commander abandoned the sub. When the German officer realised that his attempts to scuttle the sub had failed he attempted to swim back to it but was never seen again. Instead of ramming the sub (the U-110), the commander of the British destroyer in charge of the convoy ordered a boarding party to row over and board it. They took what they could find including the chronometer, a naval Enigma machine, code and cypher books and charts. An event described by King George VI as the single most important maritime event of the second world war. The machine and documentation was sent to Bletchley Park where they were used to break the German code. Six months passed before the German forces changed their codes. Value: "£5,000 - £10,000?" then again according to the dealer: "impossible to put a price on."