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.
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.