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Sunday longread: A road trip, a chihuahua and Antiques Roadshow

Writer John Summers recalls a road trip to Nelson punctuated by Antiques Roadshow, the cozy, dozy series that knows no end. 

We were a micronation of five, a Monaco within the wider limits of Christchurch, complete with our own rituals, talismans and anthems. Among these were the identical blue jerseys we’d each bought independently from op shops, homebrewing, Lou Reed as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival, George Orwell, tramping and Antiques Roadshow.

The last of these we assembled to watch each weekend, relishing each piece of Delftware, bemused by the tight grimace those Brits got as they waited and waited for some expert to stop yakking and just tell them the value. I still own a book published by the BBC as a companion to the series. There’s a familiar left-handed scrawl on the flyleaf: ‘On your 23rd Birthday. Your pal Henry.’

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We even watched the Roadshow on that trip to Nelson. Sam was away that weekend and Thom was working, so just the three of us drove there the morning after John Te Hira’s 50s theme party (we’d attended as versions of ourselves: me in suit and tie, Gareth in a tough’s T-shirt and jeans, and Henry in a cream bowling shirt). We planned to look up Henry’s half-brother, Nathan, and to hit the town.

We were careful not to plan too much though; it was important to maintain an aura of free-wheeling spontaneity. When we stopped by Gareth’s father’s house (Gareth’s own spontaneity didn’t prohibit his seeking out a change of underwear), we were vague in the face of his need for a rationale. He muttered and shook his head – a stolid and practical South Islander, expert on routes, wary of whims and prices. He said, ‘What the hell are you going all the way there for?’

There were reasons we could have given him. The trip would be a distraction from damp flats – this was the tail end of a cold winter. It was a chance for Henry to catch up with Nathan. And, most compelling of all, but also the reason we were least likely to say aloud, was that it gave the three of us an excuse to spend longer in each other’s company.

‘We just are,’ Gareth said.

His dad just gave us a final, unhappy but gratifying shake of his head.

The drive was long. Longer than it needed to be – we hadn’t listened to Gareth’s dad, and so forced my gutless Corolla along the lengthy coastal route, ignorant of how much quicker it would have been to go via the Lewis Pass. We listened to my three tapes, and we picked up two hitchhikers, Canadians who’d got stranded and spent the night in a forest. Finally, we sidled along Nelson streets until Henry pointed out a monolith in weatherboards.

Our knock at the door set off a series of creaks within. The door swung open and a man with long black hair nodded at us before hurrying away.

He came back, still alone but this time eyeballing the three of us. We were a motley bunch in many ways, wearers of op shop clothes. Gareth had a sort of mullet arrangement with dreadlocks, and, for the trip up, I’d convinced Henry to wear the, now heavily wrinkled, suit I had worn to the 50s party. The man stepped closer, holding something out to us. ‘This is my driver’s licence,’ he said. ‘It is a current New Zealand driver’s licence.’

We looked at each other. Henry said, ‘We’re looking for Nathan?’

‘Oh!’ The man dropped his arm, and gave us a very slight, bashful smile. ‘Yes, Nathan. Nathan’s door is just around the corner.’

Nathan was an older, more punk Henry. The same fair complexion was weathered, the blonde hair thinner, and he only wore black. He lived in the back half of that old house, sharing it with Chauvel, a dainty chihuahua; and two young women, Sammy and Lenny, who were punks as well. They also wore a lot of black, as well as laddered stockings. White scalp glowed beneath buzzed hair.

We joined them all for a cup of tea. Of course we could stay. Nathan immediately agreed to that. There was a caravan in the yard that would accommodate us all comfortably. We chatted; that neighbour was an odd one, he said. We listened to records and, perhaps in Chauvel’s honour, he played one of mariachi music. These records, the furniture, most things, I would think, in that flat were from the dump. Nathan was a dedicated scavenger and he told us about some of his best finds, shocked at what the world threw away.

At one point, he paused to drag out a bucket, just a plain, Payless Plastics nine-litre. It was full of water, but something else bobbed in it too. Was this another dump find? He didn’t say. Instead he lowered his head into it and began to billow smoke. It was, Gareth had to tell me, a bucket bong.

We sipped our tea, declining to join him. There was one thing we did think was missing from the evening though, one distraction we would have welcomed. We peeked at our watches. We glanced to each other, wondering whether to mention it, but there was no need.

‘Look at the time,’ Nathan said and marched out of the room. He came back with a small TV under his arm and propped it on a shelf. He fiddled with the rabbit ears until, out of the snow, emerged the inexpressive face of an older Englishwoman. ‘Can’t miss the old Roadshow.’

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There was a Fabergé egg. A ceramic dish decorated with a pig had one of the experts giggling. ‘The pig has a wiggly tail!’ he said. Nathan liked to pretend that the antique owners were all dying to cash in their treasures and buy drugs. When, on screen, an old lady frowned at the value of some silver doodad, he commentated with the same stern but quavering vowels as the Queen: ‘I can buy a new P pipe with that.’

We had BBC Bristol’s General Programmes Division to thank, it was they who in 1976 decided that the world of televised antiques needed a new star, the public. A year later a pilot was filmed based on the ‘sweeps’ held by auction houses to drum up business, open days which allow anyone to bring in their treasures for a free valuation.

That pilot was, of course, a roaring success. As I write this, Antiques Roadshow is on to series 38. There’s an Antiques Roadshow in Australia, America and Canada, as well as specials and spinoffs. All the while, it’s kept that same, simple format. An owner listens as a bowtied expert gives them the potted history of their object and an estimate of its value. Repeat for an hour. But, like an 18
th Century automaton, there’s a mess of hidden workings that maintain this simplicity.

These include the logistics of bringing the Roadshow to each location, imploring the locals to bring out their Delft. A stately home, castle or grand hall is commandeered, and movers are employed to pick up furniture and large items, ensuring a sufficient supply of antiques for each episode. And there is the unseen, the codes and conventions that preserve the show’s mild tone. Only those objects with an interesting story are showcased. Value is mentioned, as if an afterthought, only following a discussion of provenance. In fact, plenty of owners are quick to claim value is irrelevant: ‘I’d never sell it.’

Another part of this illusion is that the seriously disappointed are not shown. I’m referring to the original, English version here – the American prefers to push the format toward the world of reality TV: satisfyingly fulfilling national stereotypes with a loud ka-ching sound effect when money is mentioned. Instead, see the way the BBC handled the man who had paid 1000 pounds for what he was convinced was a priceless work in glass, only to be told it was an olive oil bottle from Tescos, value: zero pounds. That is the high drama of humiliation, the stuff reality TV lives and cries by. And so it was cut, never aired and left to tabloid rag The Daily Mirror to cover.

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For all the effort of driving up and gate-crashing Nathan, our night out was mostly unremarkable. We ate Subway sandwiches, and then drank beer after beer in a succession of bars. As tourists, we were undiscerning. Our criteria for a pub was that it was open. In the first, the Shark Club, while the other two fetched our next round, I asked a young woman where we should go next.

She looked at me curiously. She had dark hair and there was a gap between her two front teeth, and it was as clear to her as it was to me that my question had been an excuse to talk to her. She smiled. She leaned forward and kissed me.

A week earlier I had broken up with my girlfriend of three years. Singledom was thrilling, weightless, but also terrifying. I didn’t have a clue how you met someone – I still don’t, but somehow have found myself in a happy relationship. That kiss then was a gift, extinguishing some of that terror, and I wasn’t disappointed that nothing more came of it, that she went rushing back to the giggles of her friends. When I saw her next she was dancing to Nelly with a beefy chap in baggy jeans. In fact it was a relief – I could still saunter back to spend the evening with an impressed Henry and Gareth.

Henry was the first to leave for Nathan’s caravan. The grey suit meant he quickly disappeared into the night. Gareth and I stayed for a little while longer. At the last pub I discovered that the bartender was Joel, one of the Canadian backpackers I had worked alongside on a Queensland sweet potato farm over the summer holidays.

‘This is your brother?’ Joel said of Gareth. A lot of people said that. We had only some similar features, but we sometimes spoke in the same halting way and wore the same jerseys. And we liked to hear it. It spoke to the way we thought of ourselves, as closer than friends; the family we wanted to be.

We squeezed by two cars in Nathan’s driveway, his or that neighbours I supposed. And suddenly, from in one, there was movement. I stayed perfectly still. The car door opened, but it was only Henry. ‘I couldn’t get into that caravan,’ he said. ‘The house is locked too.’

He pulled the door shut, and settled back in the driver’s seat. The suit jacket was draped over him against the cold.

He was right about the caravan. I pulled and wrenched at its tiny chrome door handle. Gareth tried, and after some thumps and bangs, it popped open with a puff of chill air. A fridge. He stepped in, only to back out immediately. Strewn inside were two old foam mattresses, both completely sodden. Rat droppings crumbled in the damp.

The house was locked, the lights off, but again, Gareth showed a drunken resourcefulness that wasn’t unfamiliar. While I stood about, useless, hugging myself against the cold, he eased open a window, climbed in and unlocked the door.

We had the choice of either sleeping on the floor or the couch. I opted for the couch. And what followed was one of the worst night’s sleep I have ever endured. Rolling back and forth, shivering and anxious to sleep, not because I was tired but because it would mean an escape from the cold. My toes were numb. A velveteen cushion had been left at end of the couch and I pushed and prodded it with my feet, desperate to cover them anyway I could.

Morning would reveal that cushion to be the chihuahua, Chauvel. Mysteriously quiet despite my roaming feet.

We left early, the flat had no appeal in the thin light. Nathan would spend the day in bed with a Truman Capote anthology (a dump find naturally), and we piled into the Corolla again, driving out of Nelson, along a tree-lined avenue that went up out of town to State Highway One, to hours listening to those same three tapes again before finally we entered the flow of the motorway, the great grey path into our city.

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I don’t watch Antiques Roadshow anymore. Coming across it, I click on after few minutes. Bored, finding it bland stuff. Both experts and guests are almost exclusively middle class. Recently an antiques expert of West Indian descent has joined the team, but as a rule the colour palette rarely strays beyond what EM Forster called ‘pinko-grey’, and all up it occupies a similar cozy, dozy territory to an episode of Midsomer Murders or a tin of shortbread.

And yet once, I found acres of subtle charm in that gentility. We would sit around the TV, spotting those conventions, contrasting the experts (humourless Christopher Payne vs the twinkling David Battie), picking our favourite antique in each show, and, of course, comparing the antique owners’ various attempts at fighting the impulse to crow or cry about the value. Students, punks sometimes too, all colonials 11000 miles away from Tyntesfield House or Kendal Castle – by watching together we could turn an hour of antiques appraisal into a glimpse at another world; one as fascinating and as contained as pond water under a microscope, different enough to amplify our sameness.

Christchurch was my cue to drop those two at their homes, before returning to mine. Each of us back to carry on scratching and planning for the lives we have now: Henry in Oamaru, Gareth in Dunedin, and me in Greytown. Except that first, we found time for one last diversion. For an hour or so we flipped through second hand LPs in the big, brightly lit room on Echo Records’ second floor. I always looked through jazz first. Henry and Gareth went to rock. After coming to my usual conclusion – I couldn’t afford anything – I went to see how their search was going.

‘Listen,’ Henry said. He jerked a thumb at the counter.

Behind it were the usual aging rock dudes. Grey and stubbly, both in band T-shirts. ‘I’m telling you man,’ one said to another. ‘Just one of these Fabergé egg things was worth thousands.’


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