Tom ‘Spanky’ Assiter might be speaking English, but I really can’t be sure. Spanky is the chief auctioneer at the 37th Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Event, held each January in Scottsdale, Arizona. Spanky sounds like a particularly nasal country and western singer with uncontrollable Tourette’s syndrome. I think that he’s calling out the bid that he has, and the next bid he’s looking for, but he does it so fast that the words just blend into a bizarre, unintelligible, deep-southern purr. There are moments of clarity, as he pauses to admire the car (‘looks about the colour of my bowlin’ ball!’) or needles a losing bidder (‘you ain’t gonna let him beat ya for ten grand, are ya?’) or finally brings the hammer down: “Sold it! Sold it! Sold it!” Then it’s back to the gibberish.
Sitting under the second biggest tent after the Millennium Dome are ten thousand bidders, none of whom can understand Spanky either. I can barely see him, and he certainly can’t see me, so if I wanted to bid I’d have to get the attention of one of his bidding assistants, who would then run over, blow a whistle, stand on a chair and wave a flag to get his attention. Then a TV crew – this is broadcast live – would race across, tripping over their cables and illuminating me in the glare of their spotlight while my guy tries to coax another bid out of me. The punters around me would lean in and shout encouragement, and if my bid went up to a really big number – half a million bucks seems to be threshold – the whole 10,000-strong crowd would get to its feet and start clapping and whooping. So both hands stay in my pockets, and I resist nodding like I have a serious upper spinal injury.