This Sunday, 11th September 2011, our commune celebrated the fourth or fifth anniversary of its annual brocante or vide grenier (or ‘attic-empty’). It’s fast becoming a significant event in the bargain hunter’s calendar.
This year’s event came complete with new improved parking facilities and a raft of extra stalls in front of the new Salle Polyvalente – or hall of many activities – built at great expense to local tax payers to replace its dingy ‘60s predecessor, which was built, allowing for inflation, at great expense to local tax payers in its time. Despite the fact that Deb O’Rah and I had been up late helping to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, we got up early to drive down from our lofty seat to the bourg below in order to avoid the worst of the bargain-hunting crowds.
As usual, though, we found very few bargains to divert us, while bumping into more than enough friends, neighbours and acquaintances to detain us. ‘Well, must get on and see what there is to be seen,’ or words to that effect. The truth is that there’s very little to be seen except the same old over-priced junk: some of it plastic, some of it ugly and most of it completely useless. I even steered clear this year of a few stray boxes of vinyl records, because disappointment has taught me that they tend to be twice the price of what you’d find back in the U.K.
While we browsed and chatted, I found it interesting that not a single person mentioned the fact that Sunday 11th September 2011 marked a rather more significant anniversary. It was ten years ago that I answered the phone in our old house to hear the voice of one of my wife’s old clients – a kindly soul who used to bring us produce from her garden and the kind of plastic gifts for our daughter that eventually find their way to brocante stalls. My French wasn’t as decent as it is now, so I didn’t understand everything that she was trying to tell me, but I certainly understood the urgent note of something akin to hysteria in her voice. She told me to turn the television on there and then, because something apocalyptic was happening that was going to change everyone’s lives. I felt the fear in the pit of my stomach and a loosening of my bowels: like the sensation that I used to get as a school kid when summoned to see the headmaster in his study.
In those days, we had a cheap indoor aerial from E. Leclerc that allowed hazy access to three uninteresting French channels. I put on France2, because the reception and quality of news was evidently better, even to an alien’s eyes. On the screen were those awful unbelievable images of the Twin Towers belching black smoke. When my wife had finished massaging her client, I muttered something in her ear so as not to alarm our impressionable young daughter, and together we watched the events unfolding – as our parents’ generation had huddled by the wireless in 1939 to listen to Chamberlain’s announcement – with mounting unease but without appreciating quite what we were in for.
The talk at the brocante was more of the ominous black clouds and the likelihood of rain. My neighbour, who’s a gardener and a Méteo fundamentalist, told me that it wouldn’t rain, so I could put away the foolish brolly that I’d brought with me. We joked about buying their table full of wares on the way back, so they could go back home early, knowing full well that it would all still be there virtually untouched.
And so it proved. By the return leg, we’d acquired four DVDs for a tenner from a very overweight English woman with a stall full of DVDs still wrapped in their cellophane, and a Moroccan tagine, if that’s how you spell those domed ceramic North African cooking dishes. We knew that, come six o’clock when it was time for all the stallholders to pack up and go back home, the majority of the stuff on display would find its way back into cardboard boxes to be stored once more in attics until the next opportunity came along to empty those attics and remove the same old overpriced junk from those cartons.
These brocantes are a constant source of disappointment to me. I remember all those jumble sales from my student days, open-air markets and car boot sales from the Brighton and Sheffield years and think of all the genuine bargains with which we kitted out our early married quarters. Over here, if the real bargains do exist, they’ve certainly managed to escape me thus far. I see the same old people with the same old stuff year after year. It reinforces my belief that the French people don’t really grasp the market economy. Rather than charge a sensible price and get rid of their wares, they prefer to stick stubbornly to an inflated price and go through the rigmarole of packing it all up again for the next time. See no competition, hear no competition, speak no competition.
More than that, though, it also reinforces my mantra that the only thing we learn from history is that mankind doesn’t learn from history. In the immortal words sung by Edwin Starr, ‘War! HUH! What is it good for? Ab-so-lutely nothing!’ War on terror, war on drugs – say it again, what is it good for? Man – and I use the term literally, because we’ve never given the female of the species a chance to run the show – seems incapable of learning from his many mistakes, recognising that something isn’t working and trying a new enlightened approach. So we’ll go on re-processing household junk and re-packaging wars until (Bunny Wailer’s) ‘Arma-gid-deon’.