Of Donkeys and Bric-a-Brac

I arrived at the bric-a-brac stall at ten sharp.

It stretched out as far as the eye could see. Is bric-a-brac an English term?  It emerged, I believe, in the Victorian era when the middle class began to sport mantel pieces in their modest homes. Bric-a-brac was the stuff you put on the mantelpiece.

In Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s  “The Decoration of Houses” (1914)  there is sound advice on bric-a-brac. The French, the authors inform us, have three classes of ornament. there are the grand and costly ‘objets d’art‘; the quirky bibelots – trinkets which catch the eye; and then there’s the bric-a-brac. “In place of [these] we have only knick knacks,” they write, “defined by Stormonth as ‘objects of small value.’ ”

One can get sniffy about this stuff, but it sure draws the crowds.

bric a brac

I arrived at ten; half an hour later speculators were beginnig to gather. They hovered over the stalls with that concentrated focus that is commonly associated with cats stalking mice, eyes beady and forever, restlessly, scanning the tabletops in search of…what? Something for the mantel piece?

The bric-a-brac, though a formidable money spinner, was not the reason for the gathering in this village, a nice little place a neat commute from London. No: the main attractions were standing tetchily, swishing their tails, and waiting for their first young jockeys of the day.

Only just over three per cent of the world’s donkeys live in Europe. Even fewer in England. But judging by the trusty steeds standing in an enclosure, networking silently and  irascibly, ours are a plump and well-cared for sort. Wide and stout, they looked like a decent proposition as Felix and I eyed them up.

It was the village Donkey Derby. Donkey Derbys are excuses for extremely respectable types to bet shamelessly on small children riding donkeys. It makes quite a spectacle, I can tell you.

“We have a few donkeys who still need young jockeys in the second race,” the parish priest was announcing from the information post. “If you would like to ride a donkey in the second race, please come to see us.”

I looked at Felix. “Do you want to have a try?”

Felix looked supremely doubtful.

I nodded. “We’ll watch this year, shall we?” I said, and he agreed gratefully.

The first race was already trekking around to the start line, donkeys’ bottoms swaying rhythmically, children with hard hats and great expectations.

It is a matter of contention that an overpriced burger stand obscured much of the first five seconds of action. You heard the starting horn, and they were off. But by the time the donkeys got to me, about 80 per cent of the jockeys had fallen off and the donkeys were charging ecstatically in the general direction of the finish line.

The children, it transpired, were all expected to ride bareback.

I got the inside story from a lady on the book stall. “Oh, yes, my son rode in the first race last year and fell off,” she said. “So we watched and we realised that you have to wait a few races, and then the donkeys are not so frisky.”

It was an afternoon of musty, happy bookselling and gamesbroking, donkeywatching and priestheeding. But by three, I had been standing without a break for five hours without a break, and I was pooped.

One can only watch so many donkeys charging towards the finish line.

I made my excuses and traipesd off, away from the melée, towards home, and an excellent cup of tea.

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40 thoughts on “Of Donkeys and Bric-a-Brac

  1. thanks for the tips on donkey racing. I never thought of it before but I suppose bric a brac has to be Victorian, if mantle piece was the creation of Jane Austen 🙂

    1. Indeed it does. Diary Of A Nobody has some lovely bits in it about the way the Victorian middle class decorated their homes. If you haven’t already, its a great read. Guffaw worthy.

  2. i think the idea behind searching for bric-a-brac ( or someone elses’ rubbish) is hoping to spot ‘the find of the century’. Those little pieces that look nothing and yet become priceless.
    i love a good rummage… and in the past have bought bits for me mantle…but now I think about the dust collecting so leave them where they are….
    We used to own two donkeys..but I could never imagine them being patient enough to be ridden. maybe English donkeys anr more placid than Bulgarian ones.
    Good interesting post KS…full marks 10/10.

    ps..a wise Felix for not riding a donkey!

    1. Thanks, Miss W. A donkey owner: always good to have someone who really knows what they are talking about! Though I would hazard that Bulgarian and English donkeys may well differ in temperament.

      Lovely to meet another confirmed rummager, too 😀

  3. What a fun event! I can take or leave bric a brac, but watcning youth trying to reason with donkeys must be endlessly entertaining. Am I correct in guessing that most of the riders were girls? Strange what a large proportion of males become utter wimps when challenged to sit on something with a leg at each corner.

    1. Yes, you guessed very accurately, Col. The pony set were out in force, and slightly surprised that donkeys do not behave in the same way as their normal steeds. There were a few boys, though as I have said, Felix was most definitely not one of them.

  4. I once participated in something called “donkey basketball” where we did indeed ride the donkeys while playing basketball. Very strange game indoors as the donkeys had soft rubber pads on their feet.

  5. Did you know that that little village’s Tug of War team are the World Champions?


    1. I did!! A couple of rather wonderful guides to British villages which I am enjoying immensely now. And Felix got a book on how things work. Cam shafts and suchlike. He is ploughing through it with gusto.

  6. Rummaging for bric a brac and a donkey race sounds like an enjoyable day out Kate. But I would have desperately needed that excellent tea at the end too 🙂

  7. I’ll pass on the bric-a-brac. I generate too much of it myself to want to acquire more. But watching kids riding donkeys bareback and trying to win races — that sounds like great fun.

  8. Those are all very handsome donkeys. While I was reading your blog, I started having flashes on Graham Greene’s novels from the late thirties. Wasn’t there one where the protagonist was at a county fete and won a birthday cake and it had secret Nazi spy stuff in it? I also thought about Aunt Betsey Trotwood chasing the donkeys out of her garden and Mr. Dick. I read a lot of English novels when I was a kid. That’s why I thought England was a place where vicars were always riding on bicycles and ladies wore big hats.

    1. You’re not far off, Gale. Throw in all the modern gadgets of the 21st century and the same characters are still there. Our priest was having a lovely time doing all the announcing. And having a flutter now and then.

  9. What FUN! For the first few hours, anyway. Except of course for the kids who got tossed off . . . they might be a bit sore.

    Bric a Brac, Paddywhacks, and Knick knacks are all familiar terms. Although I had no idea that they had tiered values. 😉

    1. There were a few disgruntled children, it’s true, Nancy: but some of them had another go later on. I had no idea about tiered values either: amazing what you read in these old books.

  10. Donkey Derby! Oh I want to go, I want to go!! I almost spit out my own bit of tea at the idea of waiting a few races until the donkeys aren’t quite so frisky. You’ve tickled my funny bone with this one, Kate. I think Felix made a very wise decision, but if they’d let big people ride instead of children I might have volunteered–there’s a sight! And thank you for the bonus smiles–I can now distinguish between bric-a-brac and knick knacks. I needed help with that one!

  11. It’s good to know that the riderless donkeys only charged the finish line and not the bric a brac. It’s better to know that Felix was not one of the kids that agreed to ride one. That race sounds particularly painful to the kids riding!

    1. It never occurred to me that the donkeys might digress, Lame. You’re right, I could have had a very colourful time. But being British donkeys they stuck faithfully to the spindly ropes which marked the side of the course.

  12. I would be digging through the books, but the donkey races look interesting as well. A coincidence, I just finished reading a collection of short stories tonight and one of the last ones was about Donkey Basketball. It brought back memories from childhood. We never went to one, but we always wanted to. It cost too much :-).

    1. My mother-in-law, raised in a small farming community in Ohio, played donkey basketball in high school, during the Depression. Family lore has it that she was quite good at it.

  13. I would have headed straight for the used book bins, Kate. Aside from my little reply above about donkey basketball, this fun post reminded me of a my cousin Ted, whom I write frequently about. The town he lives in has daschund races. Can you imagine those cute little hot dogs running a race?

  14. I am giggling away at the image of racing donkeys when my Felix asks what’s so funny? Upon hearing and being asked if he would ride a racing donkey, he gave me a 1000-word look. Mother, his expression began, if you think…

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