Tales of the Country: Catching the expensive nodding disease

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The Independent Online

There's more to Leominster, five miles from us along the A44, than meets the eye, and, speaking of meeting the eye, one of Leominster's hidden assets is its thriving auction house, Brightwells, which is tucked discreetly behind the police station. Until last week I had never been to an auction, and so never knew what it was to meet the eye of an auctioneer in the heat of a bidding war, and give a nod discernible to nobody but him or her. It is an exhilarating business. It can also be costly.

There's more to Leominster, five miles from us along the A44, than meets the eye. And speaking of meeting the eye, one of Leominster's hidden assets is its thriving auction house, Brightwells, which is tucked discreetly behind the police station. Until last week I had never been to an auction, and so never knew what it was to meet the eye of an auctioneer in the heat of a bidding war, and give a nod discernible to nobody but him or her. It is an exhilarating business. It can also be costly.

In last week's sale a couple of old straw boaters appealed, ostensibly for the children's dressing-up box, although I felt sure I could tempt Jane into a spot of role-playing, with her as Julie Andrews to my Dick Van Dyke in a reprise of the tap-dancing sequence in Mary Poppins. Or perhaps as Leslie Caron to my Maurice Chevalier. Which, to cut a complicated fantasy short, reminds me that when we lived in London, with a good deal less space than we have now, we kept the huge wicker hamper containing our children's dressing-up clothes next to our wardrobe. When Jacob, then three, told his nursery teachers that his mummy and daddy had a dressing-up box in their bedroom, titters were reported.

Anyway, the estimate for the boaters was £20, and the bidding started at a tenner. I nodded. Then someone else nodded. A battle was under way. I nodded again, and indeed kept nodding like the twitching Colonel in the "Gourmet Night" episode of Fawlty Towers. There's probably a quasi-medical term for it, like auctionitis. Or auctioneosis, meaning a bad dose of the auctions. Auctionitis probably means that one's auction has become inflamed.

On the other hand, my auction had become inflamed. Fixed by the auctioneer's gimlet eye, I could not for the life of me stop nodding, and by the time the hammer came down my semi-voluntary spasms had taken the boaters over the £50 mark. I also, not inadvertently but not advertently either, bought a velvet tricorn hat with gilt-thread frieze, an Indian soldier's helmet, a top hat, and a black fur Homburg, very much like that worn by Albert Steptoe on his rare outings from the rag-and-bone yard. At Brightwells they probably know me as the mad hatter.

Still, it was a useful exercise, because the following day, when I went back to bid for a couple of pieces of furniture, the spasms could have been even costlier. As it was, I had learnt how to stop nodding. I fancied a handsome carved oak box-seat for the hall, but gave myself a strict limit of £200, and when it reached £210, instead of nodding, I shook. The Indian hardwood occasional table inlaid with brass, however, came in just under my limit, after an exciting bidding war with a man in a shabby trenchcoat, possibly snapped up at a previous auction. I noticed, incidentally, that my opponent's impressive bidding technique was to raise only his eyebrows, the effect being that he repeatedly seemed astonished by the price.

As for the Indian table, it is the sort of thing we used to covet, when we lived in London, while wandering around Brocklehurst's in Muswell Hill, a furniture store that specialises in a style for which Jane (we think) coined the description "bourgeois ethnic". But even in the Brocklehurst's sale the prices were very often beyond us; in fact, the reductions often struck us as derisory, like £950 reduced to £935, which is why we still fondly refer to a measly-seeming price cut, whether for a piece of furniture, a car or a holiday, as "a Brocklehurst reduction".

The opposite to the Brocklehurst reduction, I suppose, must now be Brightwells inflation, whereby an item becomes more expensive before your very eyes, and yet (sometimes) remains affordable. I have a feeling that I might become a regular at Brightwells, as we still have some very large and very empty rooms to furnish. By the time spring comes I might even be bidding with my eyebrows.

High as kites on septuagenarians and Swedes

A letter published in The Independent last Saturday accused me of not only writing in a patronising manner about the countryside, but also of being jaundiced about Crouch End, the north-London neighbourhood where we lived for eight years. Ouch!

Still, "patronising" and "jaundiced" are easier slurs to bear, for a columnist, than "dull" or "unreadable". Besides, if you raise your head above the parapet by writing about your lifestyle, then you will inevitably be hit in the chops by the occasional mud pie. It's probably good for the complexion.

I shouldn't, therefore, get too defensive. However, I would like to contest the "jaundiced" charge. I wrote last week that our friends in London N8 were a homogeneous bunch, whereas here in the country, where there are considerably fewer people, one tends to make friends of different ages and backgrounds. This observation offended my critic, who also lives in N8 and has friends there of all ages and backgrounds. I should have got out more, she ventured.

Actually, I got out quite a lot, much more than I get out here, where only the King's Head is within walking distance, but that's another story. The point is that, nice though it would have been to have had, say, septuagenarian or Swedish friends in Crouch End, we didn't. None the less, we managed to lead fulfilling social lives. Here in Docklow (population 90-odd), our new friends do include septuagenarians and Swedes. Our social life is very different from what it was, but no less fulfilling. In fact, probably more fulfilling, which brings me to the lunch we had last Friday at the home of Sheila and Jim, who live about five fields and 800 sheep away.

They and their other guests won't mind me observing that they are older than us by some years. Maybe even decades. Yet rarely with our London friends did we have as much of a hoot as we did on Friday. And nobody I know in London can tell a hilarious anecdote about the distinguished architecture critic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.

Sheila, by contrast, recalled going to hear Pevsner give an illustrated lecture at Cheltenham Town Hall years ago. Unfortunately, half-way through the great man's talk, his slides started to melt. Great buildings lost their perpendiculars, arches collapsed, towering cathedrals turned into ramshackle village churches, yet Pevsner ploughed on, oblivious. Sheila says that she half-expected his Teutonic vowels to give way, too, as if their batteries were running out.

An hour later, Jane and I arrived home still laughing and as high as kites, though that may have had something to do with an excellent claret, which, of course, you can also find in Crouch End.

On a roll

Not least of the fascinations involved in running three holiday cottages lies in the things people leave behind. A few weeks ago we discovered, underneath the sofa in a room in Manor Cottage – which has a four-poster bed and is described on our website as a romantic hideaway – a pair of dice. One had numbers on, the other words, which were "suck", "lick" and others too saucy to mention. It is, of course, wonderful to know that our cottage guests are having a nice time, yet a tad frustrating to think that they might be having a nicer time than we are.

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