MARNES APRIL 3rd 2016


William Morris (1834-1896) was one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement. His most famous saying is that you should never have anything in your house that you do not either know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. He could perhaps have added "interesting", because some things are hard to categorize as either useful or beautiful, such as the book I bought at Marnes, Les Français à Table: daily life from 1900 to 1968. It cost me a euro.



Broken acoustic gramophone. Certainly not beautiful; even more certainly not useful, except perhaps to a gramophone repairer; but conceivably interesting. To whom, though?


Marnes 2016 was a very typical vide-grenier: the usual hugger-mugger collection of items variously useful, beautiful and frankly worthless. Except that even some of the worthless stuff provokes thought, whether you buy it or not; as you'll see if you go to Sex and Vide-Greniers.

As well as the book, I bought a cheese-slicer for 50 centimes, and Frances bought a pewter beaker for a euro. So far, 2.50€. But the bill was bumped up by two other things that were distinctly useful. One was a small table, bought as a photographic backdrop: the worn, scarred wood is far more interesting than anything shiny and new. It cost me 8 euros, maybe £5 or $9. The other was a shoe stretcher, which was 10 euros, call it £8 or $12. My late father took the same shoe size as I, and he had a lot of good shoes, so rather than send them to the charity shop I decided to inherit them. The only problem is that I have a long middle toe and slightly wider feet, so they aren't always comfortable. The shoe stretcher should, in due course, solve this.

As usual, though, it wasn't just a question of what I bought. It was also a question of what I thought about. A pair of mugs and an ash tray prompted the sex piece: if they caught your eye at all, they were hard to ignore. This further led to thoughts about the place of children in French society, and the way they are treated. Then there were the pony rides for a euro each: very popular with little girls.

Part horse, part sardine. As far as I could see, all four had been transported in the one horse-box. All right, they're pretty small, but even so... And even a euro a throw can't offset the cost of keeping and transporting them. It must be a genuinely selfless horse addict. Either that or someone trying to support/justify his or her habit, the way so many photographers do when they sell the occasional picture for a tiny fraction of the annual cost of their hobby.


Not all girls are horse addicts of course. I remember a dear friend, a county fencing champion for her age group, about my height when I was 30 and she was 13: "Horses? Nasty big dangerous things." This from a girl who could cut most people to pieces if only she were allowed sharps, and who could probably have felled a pony with a word, let alone a sword. If she'd been ten or even five years older I'd have asked her out.

Cultural differences can count for a lot, though: she and I were both brought up (mostly) in England. France is different. For example, there's a game, common at vide-greniers and popular with (really) little girls, that I've never understood. It consists of using a piece of bent wire on a stick to hook floating plastic ducks out of a sort of rotating race-track, powered by a pump. Get enough ducks and you get a prize (I think).


Duck hunter. As far as I could see, she was a shill for the stall-owner, who appeared to be closely related. Who cares, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves?

Another feature of Marnes was a stall selling empty oil cans. Again, this is a commonplace at vide-greniers. I can see the attraction of vintage packaging, even if it is only something that disappeared a few years ago, but on the other hand, who has room to store such a collection, let alone display it? And surely, a large part of the pleasure of a collection is being able to display it, if only to fellow collectors and amused friends or relations. Unamused friends or relations just have to put up with it.


Vintage motor oil cans. Perhaps they appeal to middle-aged and old men who remember their own youth piddling around with motor cars. There may even be a few young men of an historical bent. If so, highly specialized collectors are very well catered for.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016