Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The lone wolf - the male stallholder

All the vintage ladies loved Inigo, who was often the sole representative of his gender trading at The Vintage Loveliness market.  Whilst Inigo was quite clearly gay, and as camp as a row of tents, his predilection for outrageous statements, caustic asides and  flirtatious charm was irresistible to all but the most diehard prude.  As thin as a whip, Inigo dressed as a countryman in cords, Viyella checked shirts and a dashing cloth cap.  His summer garb consisted of a crumpled linen jacket and trousers - he would never, ever, be seen wearing a  T-shirt.  His only concession to modernity was his ancient mobile phone - a computer was beyond him. 

On arrival to set up, Inigo would be showered with kisses - "both cheeks please" and given a hero's welcome as his adoring public trilled at his every bon mot.  Inigo's aesthetic sensibilities were finely honed and he would often suppress a shudder at the sight of poorly laid out stock.    He was a self-confessed design snob and with his background in Fine Art, his taste was exquisite if somewhat left field.  Not for him the cluttered table, loaded with motley bric-a-brac or splashily painted bits of "upcycled" furniture.  Often, his stall would feature just a few beautifully styled objets d'art - quirky, unique and electic were his watchwords.  Or, he would delve into his trove of old textiles and pile up museum quality antique French toile de Jouy, English damasks and brocades, butter and coffee-coloured linens, Japanese kimonos and Indian hemp sacks.  The buyers would fall upon his stock like hungry dogs and he would often sell out within the first hour, much to the envy of his fellow traders.   He was deliberately vague about his sources and no-one had ever seen him at any local auction or boot sale, despite vigorous interrogation by his peers.

Despite his easy charm, Inigo was a man of mystery.  No-one quite knew how he survived between each vintage fair - he had no other obvious source of income nor admitted to having any kind of job.  It was only known that he lived in a converted coach house, attached to the side of the largest Victorian house in the village with his aged mother, Venetia.  Rumour had it that Venetia had been an Actress and a Beauty in her time and Inigo was her only child, the product of a short liaison with a famous director.  Unable to escape her talon-like clutches for a more conventional suburban existence, "dear, precious Inigo" was firmly attached to his mother's apron strings.   Venetia claimed that he was the only one who understood her artistic sensibilities and ensured that he was never able to leave to create an independent life.  This quite suited Inigo, who having tried a career in a leading auction house, had never quite recovered from the experience.  And as
his mother had spent her life acquiring beautiful antiques and had a wardrobe packed with designer fashion from the 50s onwards, there was no shortage of stock for his little business. 

Having sold out early on, Inigo would spend the rest of the day flitting between the over-loaded stalls, gossiping with his special ladies and then would disappear for a couple of hours to the local pub.  He stayed well clear of the posse of husbands staking out the tea room - he was unwilling to be drawn into discussions of cricket scores or politics.  Instead, the landlord of the Hedgehog and Shovel would pour him a large G&T and he could catch up on village gossip.  And as the pub was a "Venetia Free Zone", he was safe for a few hours from his demanding parent.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Queen Bee of Vintage

Clarissa was the self-appointed queen of vintage and her presence at any event was only marginally less of a sensation than a visit by HRH herself. Swathed in soft linens in the most tasteful shades of lavender and grey, she would arrive in a flurry of kisses and exclamations about her simply frightful journey across country from deepest Hampshire.  Her long-suffering husband, Piers, dragged away from his gardening or cricket would drive for miles across country to visit the latest vintage or homes and interiors event.  He was oblivious to the charm of Barrow & Fall painted tables, embroidered linens or French garden furniture.  His only consolation was the promise of a good pub lunch and quiet read of the paper whilst Clarissa struck fear and trembling amongst her followers.

Clarissa’s procession through the array of stalls was akin to the Royal line-up at a charity premiere.  Pausing before each stall, she would wait for the stallholder to make a suitably obsequious greeting before examining the carefully displayed stock.  She was the Simon Cowell of the vintage world – her word could make or break a business.  Her keen eye would unerringly fall upon any handmade item – and however well-made or beautifully designed, she would be sure to find fault.  Her sharp criticism would drop upon the lowered head of her submissive victim, dashing their hopes of approval to the ground.  Occasionally, a gracious word or compliment would be issued with the invitation to apply for a stand at her prestigious Blathington Exquisite Living Fair.  The obeisant stallholders prayed that they would be accorded the privilege of an invitation to stand at Blathington, the stately home of the Portland-Stone family. (Grade I Listed, of course).

In the vintage world, Blathington was regarded as the crème de la crème of all fairs. Ladies that lunch and their younger sisters, the yummy mummies, from all over Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey and beyond would flock to buy over-priced shabby chic furniture and mysterious rustic objects to dress their country houses or seaside villas.  Of course, access to such greatness did not come cheap – on accepting one’s hard-won invitation to exhibit, an invoice for the equivalent of a small country’s Gross Domestic Product would follow.  Wannabe traders would almost bob a curtsey when speaking to Clarissa in the hope that they would receive the magic key to unlock this well-guarded door.  The chosen ones could not help but feel a slight smugness, even tinged with schadenfreude, as their less successful peers agonised at being overlooked or downright ignored.  Clarissa’s co-organiser, Froggy Portland-Stone whose family owned Blathington, was a further barrier to entry.  If Clarissa was head girl, Froggy was the fourth form toady, agreeing with Clarissa's every crushing word.  It was quite a mystery as to why or how anyone was picked, so exacting and convoluted were their standards.

Having laid out a small fortune for the pleasure of exhibiting, stand holders would then be expected to undergo further trials of character and humility.  Set-up day was notorious for its difficulties akin to the labours of Hercules.  The marquees would be laid out in the landscaped gardens – but no vehicle would be allowed to cross the hallowed turf.  Instead, freshly painted cupboards, chests, shelves, trunks, boxes of china and garden statuary would be carried or trollied by sweating porters and grumpy husbands to their final resting point.  Often, patience and nerve would be further tested by downpours of rain and seas of mud, not to mention slippery moss-coated flagstones and uneven grass.  Having negotiated these obstacles, stallholders would then spend many hours dressing the walls of their marquees and setting up displays of their carefully sourced stock.  Clarissa and Froggy would patrol the stands to keep out aesthetic anomalies such as tribal artefacts or warehouse-sourced atrocities. 
As day turned to night, the stallholders would become more frenetic in their efforts to create an eye-catching display that would gain the seal of approval from the two hard-to-please organisers.  Stressed and exhausted, the stallholders would spend a sleepless night fretting about their placement of objets and their chances of recouping the queen’s ransom of their stand fee

On the day, Blathington would be swamped by 4x4s carrying maquillaged ladies suitably attired in linen smocks and floral dresses with the obligatory Hunter wellies.  Well-bred ladies would turn into avid hunters, keen to find the latest fashionably distressed table or vintage Sanderson-clad armchair.  Clarissa and Froggy would hold court from their own lavishly adorned stands, enjoying their moment of glory.

By the end of the day, stallholders would be on their knees with exhaustion, vowing never to put themselves through such pain again.  The final straw would be breaking down their stands and carrying stock across the well-trodden and now very muddy paths.  Frayed tempers, tussles over well located parking spaces and general tiredness would add to the explosive atmosphere.   Finally, the gardens and drives of Blathington would be returned to their normally somnolent state.  Meanwhile, Clarissa and Froggy would be counting up their enormous takings whilst swigging well chilled vintage champagne.  After all, what else would the queen of vintage and her lady-in-waiting deserve after all their hard work.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The frantic fair organiser...

Charlotte's passion for all things vintage and her countless forays to vintage fairs across England, were the catalyst for her ambitions to hold her very own vintage fair.  She just loved organising things - her wedding had been a masterpiece of vintage styling from the sweetly mismatched tea-cups to the original 1920s cricket pavilion where the reception took place - and was determined to style her event with similar panache.  Plus, she reckoned that the money she made would subsidise her addiction to purposeless but pretty bric-a-brac and crumbling old furniture.  With all the enthusiasm of a young Labrador, Charlotte rushed ahead with her plans for the very first Stately Home Vintage to be held in Russetshire.

Her vision of a pastoral setting, with a fluttering vintage marquee housing oodles of pretty stalls, dozens of genial customers, a pack of  friendly stallholders and enthusiastic locals was perhaps a touch optimistic.  Charlotte however, was not a girl to be daunted by any sensible advice given by well-meaning friends.

Her greatest friend, Amanda, another vintage fanatic was roped in to provide help, support and lots of cups of coffee during the planning process.  Post school-run, both ladies would convene at Charlotte's kitchen table for yet another planning meeting.  This was perhaps a generous description of what usually turned into a marathon bitchfest about the other school mummies fuelled by Tassino coffees a-plenty.  However, progress was made and the grounds of Dandridge Towers in the ancient village of Lower Bogsborough secured as the venue for the first Stately Home Vintage fair.

Dandridge Towers was a monument to the Victorian Gothic, with its lavishly turreted facade, lancet windows and excessive crenallations.  The fair was to be located in the vast gardens which had almost been lost due to post-war neglect and decay, becoming overgrown to the point of wildnerness.  Lord Jasper Dandridge's millions, the result of a stratospheric career in the City and clever investment into hedge funds, had been poured into their restoration.  The Guinea Pig Lawn was to be the site of the main event, with the "pop-up tea shoppe" sited in the old Gardener's Bothy and parking on the old tennis courts and pony paddocks.  Visitors to the fair would also be able to visit the famous Blue Garden (Gertrude Jekyll) and the recently refurbished Sunken Garden, complete with its Italianate Singing Fountains.  This was to be the vintage event of the summer.

Lady Dandridge, who had been Lord D's PA, was quite thrilled to have a vintage fair in her very own grounds.  She had never quite fitted into the County Set with their obsession with shooting, dogs and horses.  She had already began to "shabby chic" some of the rooms in Dandridge Towers, much to the disgust of her very traditional mother-in-law.  It was expected that her address book would be plundered for potential customers.

Charlotte was keen to invite only the creme de la creme of the vintage circuit traders and immediately set to work issuing invitations to those that had made the grade.  Unfortunately, this led to some ill-feeling amongst the local vintage dealers who were not invited.  Certain smart vintage businesses were "must-haves" if the fair was to have any credibility - this elite group would be given premier stalls at the front of the vast marquee.  After much haggling and negotiations on a par with the Middle East Peace Talks, a final list of 30 favoured stalls and traders was in place.  Meantime, Charlotte and any friend she could rope in, were littering the countryside with fliers and posters for the event. No corner store, bus shelter or antique centre was left untouched.  Endless Facebook posting and Tweets reminded everyone in Charlotte's social circle of the event.

Come the day, Charlotte's nerves were in shreds.  A key stallholder had cancelled at the last minute, leaving a prime space empty involving a major re-think on the site plan.  The parish council in Lower Bogsborough had taken offence at the multitude of signs posted all over verges and fences and an over-zealous councillor had removed them to a location unknown.  The operators of the "pop up" tea room were not answering any phone calls or emails, due to their involvement in a major society wedding the week before.  Her phone was red hot with endless calls from anxious stallholders "now you will put me next to Hetty, won't you" and visitors "are there any coaches laid on from the railway station".  Charlotte was ready to explode but luckily, Amanda her stalwart lieutenant was able to shield her from some of the more irritating individuals.

Despite issuing strict instructions on set-up times - "no-one before eight am please" - many stallholders were sitting in the car park before Charlotte was ready.  A manic two hours was to follow, with worker ants carrying their loads to the marquee and other worker ants unpacking as fast as they could.  Gradually, calm was restored and amazingly, elegant and tempting displays emerged from the clouds of tissue paper and bubble wrap.

Charlotte was thrilled when a queue started to build at the entrance point, champing at the bit to race one another to the bargains and hidden gems they felt sure were to be found.  No-one baulked at the £5 entry fee, to include a voucher for a tour of the gardens and a complimentary cup of tea. Once started, the buzz of excitement was evident with stallholders doing brisk business with their customers.  The slightly boggy ground and the freezing gusts of wind were soon forgotten as traders subtly counted their takings.

There were a few hiccups, of course.  The Portaloos were blocked and a massive queue formed for the only working loo available.  The tea rooms ran out of scones and sausage rolls, to the disappointment of many husbands looking forward to their special treat.  Charlotte was on her knees with exhaustion, her face stiff with a rictus smile adopted for the day.  As numbers dwindled, traders were stealthily packing away their wares, despite the anxious entreaties to remain in place until the closing time of 5 pm.

Once closed to the public, the scene was one of chaos and confusion as all 30 traders attempted to bring their vans and cars as close to the marquee as possible.  Grumpy husbands, roped in to help, were found staggering under the weight of furniture or piles of packing crates.  Stock was jammed into car boots willy nilly in the great rush to depart.  Finally, all were gone leaving only some shreds of of paper and bubble wrap wafting around in the breeze.  Charlotte and Amanda were last seen sitting in Lady Ds kitchen, knocking back large glasses of Sauvignon and already planning their next event.  After all, it had been "such fun".

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The "new girls on the block" or the vintage shopkeepers

Annabelle and Emily just love, love, love vintage.  Their lives are dedicated to “sourcing” items for their artfully “curated” shabby chic homes.  Both are mummies, with adorable little girls who are dressed in beautifully ironed Victorian christening gowns worn over stripy leggings.  Luckily, their husbands are quite content to let their wives dash around the countryside spending piles of cash on distressed lumpy armchairs, scruffily painted dressers and reams of grubby textiles.  The girls enjoy nothing more than visiting an early morning boot sale together, prising bargains from the bowels of old Volvo estates and ancient white vans.  They are blissfully unaware that the canny old dealers double their prices when they approach, cooing over chipped enamel.

Their dearest ambition is to have their homes featured in Vintique Interiors & Gardens STYLE ! – the almanac of all that is best in vintage design.  Having filled their homes with exquisite finds (which their husbands refer to as “old junk”), they have turned their attention to helping their friends create the same look.  Their interior design business and shop is “such an exciting project”, which they can fit around the children.  The clever things have found a tiny shop in the ancient village of Billingswood Green. Once an old  pig sty, the newly converted shop is now dressed in Annie Sloan chalk paints, yards of bunting and fairy lights and is “so, so pretty”.

They can’t wait to open their doors for business, having bombarded all their friends on Facebook about their plans.  Their husbands, Ollie and Guy, refer to the business as OldPigVintage, a reference to Emily’s childhood nickname, Piggy.  The joke has worn thin as the girls struggle to find a name that represents their recherché  mix of vintage finds and French style, and they can’t agree on “Kitten and Dove Vintage” or “Faded Romance”.

At last, the opening day arrives and the shop will finally open.  Annabelle and Emily, clad from head to toe in Cauliflower & Posies linen accessorised with expensive jewellery, shriek with joy at the sight of a queue of eager customers.  As their mummy friends crowd the shop, the snarl of off-road baby buggies make it impossible for anyone to get in or out of the door. 

Champagne is served from vintage tea cups, as shoppers struggle to eat their over-iced and lavishly sprinkled cup cakes.  Tiny children are crushed as their mothers vie to grab the last scented-candle-in-a-teacup – “what a clever idea!”.  The shop showpiece, a cavernous French Armoire painted in Barrow & Fall’s Hare’s Scut eggshell paint, is much admired.  Envious glances are cast when Caroline, the richest mummy, buys it for her spare bedroom.  Along with a galvanised bucket, a set of rickety ladders, three strings of bunting, a child’s creaky rocking chair and a tiny handmade felt rabbit.   

After a busy month’s trading, the girls work out they have made a princely sum of £25 profit after rent, rates, utilities, insurance and stock is accounted for.  Undeterred, they head for yet another boot sale, ignoring the demands of their husbands to keep proper accounts......”so, so boring”.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The reluctant husband

Julian’s idea of hell was to be dragged out to some remote countryside venue, for a “vintage” or “decorative living” fair.  But the thought of letting Camilla, his vintage-addicted wife, loose amongst all the stalls was a thought too frightening to contemplate.  Her enthusiasm for linen cushions, wobbly chairs, patchwork quilts and endless amounts of pretty china was boundless, unlike her bank balance.  Julian’s Modus Operandi was to control the otherwise unchecked spending by casting a gloomy spell over any of Camilla’s proposed purchases.

Thus it would be common to find Julian firing up the old Range Rover to transport Camilla to her latest vintage outpost.  Inevitably, the satnav would fail to bring them to the appointed spot, often leading them on a wild goose chase to some dead-end or impassable off-road track. Camilla’s skills as a navigator were found wanting and only by dint of pestering hapless locals on pushbikes were they able to find their way to Little Bathouse on the Avon or other such hidden gems.  Parking the monster 4X4 on a single track lane was always a challenge, leading to much bad language from Julian and much fluttering from Camilla.

Camilla would almost break into a run in her excitement of seeing the glint of galvanised metal in the watery sunshine.  Some carefully chosen vintage wares would be artfully laid outside the venue de jour, to lure in the customers.  Julian would lag behind, hoping that at least the café would live up to its promise of “delicious home-made cake” – the highlight of his day.

Camilla would then begin her orgy of indecision and impulse buying.  Weaving from stall to stall, drawn by the sight of anything pink or a faded textile, she would pass amongst the heavily laden tables.  Her gushing over the glories on offer “such a dear little jug” or “I simply adore that cushion” would trigger Julian’s crushing remarks “What do you want that old thing for?” or “Haven’t we already got enough cushions”.  He was blissfully unaware of the scowls and glares of the stallholders as he passed by on his path of righteousness.  Camilla, however, was undeterred by such negativity, choosing to ignore it entirely.

On the odd occasion, Julian would spot something that he actually quite liked.  Usually, something in leather or wood, or an old print tucked way, almost apologetically masculine in a sea of femininity.  He would seize the item, like a drowning man grasps a lifebuoy, and engage the stallholder in conversation about its provenance.  All the better if the item was in any way connected with fishing, cricket or the war.  Of course, Julian would think nothing of spending a large sum on an item for his own collection.  But Camilla was on his case and would frequently bear down just as the purchase was about to be made.  “Darling, where will you put that old thing – your study is quite full and I really can’t have it in the house”.  Sheepishly, Julian would put the item back with a rueful smile at the stallholder, now frustrated at losing a sale of the old bit of tat she had been dragging around for months.  Once in a while, however, Julian would sneak a purchase before Camilla spotted him in the act and he would enjoy a quiet moment of triumph at his own skulduggery and stealth.

Bored by the endless chatter at each stall, and the excessive “oohs” and “aahs” of delight over a piece of “old rag” (his words), Julian would take refuge in the “country café”.  Joining the queue, he would wait to buy over-priced coffee and cake served by two dithering and largely inefficient girls, Alice and Sophie.  

Julian would find a quiet table, usually amongst other similarly disenchanted husbands, and would enjoy his first moment of peace for the day.  Perhaps a word or two would be exchanged with the other men about the cricket, the road conditions or some other matter of world importance.  But no talk of cushions, fabrics, china, interior design or gardens would be contemplated or indulged in.

Finally, Camilla would appear and the peace would be shattered.  Julian would be directed to various spots to collect the vast array of  purchases.  Often, the item would be a large piece of old furniture, inevitably in scruffy old paint with woodworm holes, to be levered into the car boot somehow.  Equally awkwardly shaped items such as tin baths, large and fragile plants and cast iron garden implements would need to be accommodated.  Finally, the European Cushion Mountain would be squeezed in around the other objects leaving room for nothing else.  A contented Camilla would then fall asleep on the long journey home, leaving Julian to battle with the tempramental satnav alone.

Back at home, Camilla would spend happy hours on the phone to her girlfriends chattering about her latest finds.  Julian, meanwhile, would have his reward listening to Test Match Special whilst mowing the acres of lawn on his new ride-on motor mower.  After all, a chap has to have some fun!