Helen Martin: Second hand is really first rate

Antique furniture is at its lowest price since the end of WWI. Picture: Ian Brand
Antique furniture is at its lowest price since the end of WWI. Picture: Ian Brand
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WHEN my great-aunt died back in the late 1960s, her Edinburgh flat was full of immaculate Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian furniture. In her younger years she was housekeeper to the Duke of Westminster so she knew how to buff the mahogany and maintain the Regency velvet.

At the time, my mother didn’t have anywhere to put it or the means to transport it, so the whole lot went to the Salvation Army. At least it helped somebody.

I recalled all that when we had an insurance review recently. The advisor had been into our house and admired the dining table and other pieces of furniture, firmly convinced we were under-insured.

He was taken aback to discover the table cost £50 from a now defunct junk shop in East Preston Street and the chairs were ex-hotel, probably about a fiver each, and covered by “skirts” I had a local seamstress run up. The bedside table is a marble-topped “chanty” cupboard and it’s topped by a deco lamp I bought for £5 and had re-wired.

In fact almost everything in our house excluding the kitchen, the TVs, one bed and the three-piece suite is second-hand, passed down, or very low-cost antique.

They all sit well against a neutral background and carpets (even I draw the line at old-fashioned flock or floral wallpaper), they’re well-made and robust – but cheap as chips. And getting cheaper by the day it seems because experts have revealed antique furniture is now at its lowest price since the end of the First World War.

People’s urge to be at the cutting edge of fashion is not confined to clothes and devices. New furniture sales are booming, including the flat-pack and plastic variety. Sneeze too close to them and they’ll fall apart, and in ten years they’ll be dated and worn, if not in bits. Compare that to my bookcase and drawers which have survived from the 18th century. They are what dealers would call “a marriage”, two bits that don’t belong together but look the part, provide great storage and are probably worth no more than the table and chairs.

I seem to have passed this preference and respect for well-made, old furniture, on to my son, which makes him an exception among twenty-somethings. He also shares my enthusiasm for Victorian property and my regret that I now live in a 1930s home which can’t accommodate bigger pieces.

I accept that most people get carried away by modernity and would rather have something cool, 21st century, overpriced and often badly-made than something that exudes history, craftsmanship and solidity and also comes at half the price. But I’ll never really understand it, especially in Edinburgh where antique and second-hand furniture shops abound, packed full of the city’s heritage.

Nor do I understand why people who claim to be short of dosh don’t check out all these treasure troves and auction rooms before handing over their hard-earned to a multiple outlet selling factory-line production jobs in their thousands.

The phrase “Call me old-fashioned” springs to mind. Clearly I am, and I’m still on the look-out for any of Great Aunt Nellie’s furniture that might be out there. . . when I’m not counting the pennies I would have wasted buying new “rubbish”.

Zen-like calm is a bit of a stretch

HIMSELF and I enrolled in our first yoga class. I knew he hadn’t quite got the idea when he advised me to wear sports shoes and took a towel and a bottle of water on the assumption it would involve a lot of sweating and working out.

He’s sporty, competitive, not exactly Zen-like, thinks Yin and Yang is a Chinese restaurant in Leith and was in awe of our positively elastic instructor and the little old ladies who, along with the young and lithe, appeared to be expert contortionists.

Having had breakfast earlier, he couldn’t quite relax into the positions or get “in the zone” for fear he would belch or break wind.

But we’ll persevere. It’s like a finishing school for middle-aged men.

I must confess I don’t care if Mundell is gay

WHY should politicians such as Scottish Secretary David Mundell – or anyone else for that matter – have to “publicly announce” that they are gay? Why should anyone, except narrow-minded homophobes, give a hoot, and why should it be treated as if it was an admission or a confession rather than a relatively trivial and personal matter of fact?

Perhaps, having been a husband and father, he felt it best to clarify? Perhaps he was worried he was going to be “exposed” – which to the majority of enlightened souls would be about as interesting as revealing he always wore red socks. Or perhaps if he was speaking on policy or decisions specifically relevant to the gay “community” he may feel it should be noted.

I don’t actually like the term “gay community” which in itself is divisive. Our community includes gay folk, hetero folk, asexual et al. Surely society should be mature enough by now to accept that and move on to more important things?

Put this money to good use

WE no longer have the skills or the money to re-cobble Porty’s Brighton Place for £1.2 million rather than asphalt it for £400,000. What’s more, the money saved could help fund the mess Edinburgh’s Christmas made of Princes Street Gardens.