Lots of money: characters from Channel 4's The Auction House
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Zebra-stripe pouffes and a big bronze vagina: Channel 4’s The Auction House

I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. 

The Auction House
Channel 4


The people in factual at Channel 4 are billing Lots Road Auctions in Chelsea, subject of their silly new documentary series (Tuesdays, 9pm), as the strangest such establishment in Britain. This is clearly an exaggeration. All auction houses are strange, for there’s nothing so peculiar as other people’s tat: posh, antique or otherwise. Amazing, really, that anyone should want to rehouse it. Among the items we saw the loaded denizens of Britain’s richest borough lusting over in the first film, for instance, were a pair of “mosaic” panthers (think concrete with a few bits of broken mirror stuck into it); a three-foot model of a vagina set in bronze (yours for £800-£1,200); and a collection of cheap-looking furniture that had been “customised” (translation: covered in mindless graffiti) by a “local artist”.

Lili, a Lots Road regular who works as a songwriter and psychotherapist and has just bought a seven-bedroom mansion that stands in its own park, seriously considered buying the vagina, on the grounds that if she saw such a thing in a friend’s house, she would be hot with envy. However, having given it a lustful stroke, in the end she plumped for a more practical purchase, snapping up a dining table on which our nameless artist had helpfully scrawled in black marker pen the legend: “Everything can be art, nothing can be everything”. Such was her excitement, she even claimed this table had special powers. “I have a feeling it will make us happier,” she said, her suede cowboy hat quite possibly vibrating with joy. This, I felt, was incautious. Any fool could see it was going to look absolutely terrible in her “alpine-surgical”-themed kitchen.

Lots Road Auctions has been owned for the past 35 years by a millionaire called Roger Ross who describes his management style as “antiquated, dictatorial . . . offensive”. It used to be a nice little earner, but business is down 30 per cent, the bottom having fallen out of “brown furniture”; these days, only his “modern” department is a hit with the City boys and their womenfolk. What to do? So far, he’s all out of ideas, after his plan to muddle up his departments roundly failed (the crusty types in search of Edwardian card tables and 19th-century copies of Old Masters were unimpressed to see a sofa shaped like a pair of lips in the antique showroom, while the Belgravia housewives who frequent the modern department downstairs were still not tempted to take a look at all the gleaming mahogany above). Even his most loyal customers are in danger of drifting away. Michael and Craig, a couple of more than 30 years whose home is themed “the Grand Tour gone mad”, would love to refresh their collection of antiques. But while the market is so flat, they’re unable to sell anything, and as a result have no room. A pair of Chinese porcelain rabbits they reluctantly plucked from a crowded tabletop went for just £400, which seemed a lot given that they strongly resembled Thumper and Miss Bunny from Bambi. But Michael’s disappointment was palpable. “You’ve got your new teeth,” he said to Craig, who is currently somewhat lacking in the incisor department. “But that’s all.”

The Auction House is madly derivative: it’s Posh Pawn meets The Office, the influence of which lingers whiffily on in the world of fly-on-the-wall. But its combination of melancholy (all that abandoned, once-loved furniture) and vulgarity (the too-fat wallets, the zebra-stripe pouffes) makes, I must admit, for weirdly consoling television. I loathed pretty much every buyer we saw but I was able to keep my disgust in check by thinking of them as upmarket recyclers. If a life-size fake bronze gorilla has to exist at all, better that it ends up in some banker’s ghastly penthouse than in landfill.

Meanwhile, the Kirstie Allsopp in me – I refer to her fondness for upcycling rather than her “passionate feminism” – quietly wondered if I shouldn’t nip down to Lots Road myself to snap up the lovely Victorian daybed no one else seemed to want. Reupholstered, it would come in useful for those afternoons on which, sickened by the sight of yet another perfectly good kitchen being ripped out by my neighbours, I find myself in urgent need of a good, long lie-down.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser