Ian McMillan: Blast from the past at the lingerie stall

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The other Sunday my wife and I found ourselves in Todmorden, the frontier town that’s right on the cusp of Lancashire. We strolled around and had a cuppa and then became drawn, like moths to a flame, to the market. So of course that meant that we were drawn like moths to a flame-proof nightie stall to the market.

Talking of flame-proof nightie stalls it always seemed to me that, as an easily-embarrassed lad, whenever I went to Barnsley market with my mam I would always end up by, by accident, next to the lingerie stall even though we’d only gone for a quarter of boiled ham and some potted meat. My mam would turn left by a shoe stall and I’d turn right and suddenly there I’d be next to racks of basques and boxes of black suspender belts, blushing as red as the dozens of pairs of stockings that seemed to be wafting in my face. The stallholder would say something like ‘Get some of these for your girlfriend, kid!’ and I’d want to crawl into the cup of a push-up lace-effect bra and die.

Todmorden market was fantastic, busy and bustling on a Sunday morning; I bought some honey and some piccalilli and then we drifted over to some second-hand stalls and some that seemed to be composed entirely of peoples’ discarded sewing stuff and long-abandoned crochet detritus. Despite the brightness of my piccalilli and the warmth of the morning, an odd kind of melancholy settled over us as we wandered from stall to stall. “These are peoples’ treasures”, my wife said, picking up a lovely smooth and well-used sock-darning mushroom that was just like the ones everybody’s mother used to have, and she was right. There were old Quality Street tins full of buttons. There were knitting patterns with square-jawed chaps on the front gazing into a middle-distance. There was a pair of pink baby bootees. There was a suite of knitting needles of all shapes and sizes. They were all beautiful and they were all heartbreaking because they made you think of those older and indefatigable women who lived through poverty and made do and mended, who darned rather than buying something new, who could fish in a tin and come up with the exact button you needed.

As I gazed at an old jam jar full of zips I thought of my Grandma Fullilove (not my real Grandma, like most of the old ladies on the street in those days) whose button tin was packed with more buttons than you’d find in a chain of button supermarkets. “I wish I’d a tanner for every button she’s got in theer”, Uncle Ted would say, the metal bits on his braces glinting in the late afternoon sun, and Grandma Fullilove would call him a Silly Article.

It was almost too much for us both so we decided to go to another café to cheer ourselves up. At the end of a row of stalls my wife turned left and I turned right and in an instant there I was, in the seething throes of adolescence again as I confronted wisps of silk and tiny pants and corsets that didn’t look like the ones Grandma Fullilove used to hang on the line. The lingerie stall! Quick, where’s that café?