Mad dealers #2

I first met the character TV actor Alan Starkey at Rogers Arcade in Portobello Road flea market back in the late 70s. I don't think we ever sold to one another as we were both in the nostalgia collectables world selling dreams to mad international collectors. Ours was a special world and Alan played Alan, the man from Lancashire who lived in Barnoldswick, Yorkshire where he had a cottage full to the brim with British nostalgia hanging prints, pub signs, pub engraved mirrors, publicity objects and advertising tins. I never saw that cottage but his collection when he bought his home in Airvault where Martin and I stayed one week in the early 90s.

I took over his stall for a while at Roger's arcade at the top end of Portobello, an arcade that had several collectables dealers. I loved decorative figural tins the most, such as the special tins Huntley and Palmers biscuits brought out for Christmas. Alan sold those too. In fact it was because of these tins that I got started dealing in Paris because a toy dealer asked me to look for them. 

I was told Alan was gay but this was never mentioned in our personal conversations and I was friendly with him for years.  He would come and stay the weekend at his old friend Danny's beautiful cozy house full of collections in the best of taste where she lived with her husband Terry in Ealing. Eventually Danny would become a close friend even though she was living on borrowed time. Sometimes Alan would visit us for tea after Portobello on a Saturday afternoon before going to kip at Danny's.

Then life changed for Alan. In a heartbeat he announced he was selling up and moving to France. It was not pie in the sky. His old Barnsoldwick friends Jack and Jill had moved to Airvault in the west of France and built a fancy house on the outskirts of the small town with their 2 beloved dogs. One week they came back to the place of their birth and asked Alan, who had never been to France, if he would like to spend a week at their place. 'Just like that.' as Tommy Cooper would say. Alan got into their car and had no idea where he was going.

So off he went on the trip that would change his life at about 60.  First they stopped en route at Deauville and Quimper in Normandy before arriving in Deux Sevres, Poitou Charente. Alan was enchanted even though he didn't speak a word of French. The smell emanating from the local bakery in the village of Airvault, the local epicurean shops a far cry from his hometown. The wine, the grocery shops. The French food!! Here was another life he had never known. The simple pleasures of life. The grass is always greener on the other side so the expression goes.  Alan came for a week and stayed the rest of his life!

Within a week he had put a deposit down on what had been the village cobbler's  shop on the High Street. He had seen it advertised in the local solicitor's office window. The price was E10,000 and the solicitor would include his fee. Alan showed interest and viewed it. The owner had died and the crumbs had been left on the table. Time had stood still. Time was running out for Alan. His week was nearly up and he fell in love with the town and the shop.

You could peer in through the window and see the table and counter with the old shoes. Just as if the cobbler had stepped out to go to the nearby bakery. And besides that window was another window like a display cabinet on the street just waiting for Alan to place his beloved tins and memorabilia for all of the locals to see. A British cultural exhibition from Barnoldswick to Airvault. That did it! He signed the papers when the solicitor, desperate to sell, reduced the price even more down to E8,000.

Alan returned home and put his cottage on the market. It sold quickly for about £200,000. So he moved lock stock and barrel with his greedy delighted friends to help him all the way. But what Alan didn't know when he signed the papers that were in French, was that he had accidentally bought 2 houses, one on each side of the patio with only one large heavy outer door to the property!

Over the coming years Alan transformed his magical house into a private nostalgia museum. He found a stock of 1924 shoe catalogues from the shoe fair in Lyons plus some boxes with abandoned vintage shoes in the back room. All in all about £4,000 worth of merchandise to sell. The house had only cost about £6,000 so in the end the 2 houses cost him about £2,000!! He had to do a lot of renovation but he knew how to make stage sets from his past acting career and knew a bit about carpentry. The second house needed a lot of work but he reckoned he could rent it out to pay for everything. Alan was in euphoria! He quickly did a language exchange with a school teacher and with the locals help, mimicking all and sundry, began speaking at the age of 65 quite good French.

He bought a van and began going the rounds of the brocante markets, buying for London dealers and selling English nostalgia at some of the local Sunday fairs and flea markets. Sometimes he dogsat for his dear friends who took advantage of him leaving food for the dogs but not for Alan who was running out of funds because of the refurbishment of the second house. He did not dare to complain that they didn't pay for his petrol to go and feed the dogs. He so called friends seem to neglect him just using him from time to time.

One summer Martin and I took the train to Poitiers where Alan met us in his white van with me in the front and Martin in the back of the van. He said it was illegal for 3 people to be in the front of the van. He had a bad cold and was not on form but still he drove us around the area and we indulged in some tasty food and wine. We also met Jack and Jill and needless to say did not get on with them!

He had created three bedrooms by this time and had the idea of creating a chambre d'hôte. He had created a bards gallery linking the 2 houses that overlooked the patio which he filled with flower baskets and barrels. He could easily have created a cafe or a pub but he had become a recluse. The old fashioned kitchen was left as it was and the tiny back living room was original but the comfy lounge was like a private nostalgia memorabilia museum and the show window display on the High Street was changed monthly for the locals to enjoy.

He exhausted himself working on the second house refusing to hire local labour because he said he could not afford it. He saw less and less of wealthy Jack and Jill disillusioned that they did not offer to help him out financially. He had high blood pressure and a weak heart. Poor Alan never finished the work. Back in London we heard our friend had passed away in 2003 and the property had been left to his sister. He was about 75 and had lived in his residence for 15 years.

 There will never be another character like Alan Starkey. I miss him, his honesty for telling things as they are, his humour, his talent and his madness. But was he really mad? It's the so called normal people who are the mad ones!

Written in Plaza Cavana Hotel, Nerja, Spain on 26/2/17 at the end of Carnaval 2017.


Wikipedia - Alan Starkey
Google - Airvault

To be read in conjunction with The Fagin Burglar of Swiss Cottage.

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