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  • Debra Palmen

The Empire Strikes Back

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

From the bustle and crowds of Hong Kong to deepest, darkest Somerset (complete with wild ponies), we arrived in England in pretty good shape, although I start to snooze - and according to the extraordinarily rude Doug, snore and dribble - around 5pm every day. Makes me a terrific dinner companion, apparently. It always takes me a good week to get over jet-lag, but I make sure my commercial decisions happen earlier in the day so I don’t do something too stupid.

Day 1 in England was glorious. The sun was out, the sky cornflower blue, and the hedgerows green and lush. We collected the van in London as early as we could and headed down to Somerset to position ourselves for the Shepton Mallet Giant Flea. We make a point of thwarting the Queue Police (the Empire) at this event, which is always good sport.

But first we had to visit the Hungerford Antique Arcade’s junk room, which gets an Honourable Mention in my book for good reason. Yet again I watched some shoppers pooh-pooh the junk room sign and exclaim over why anyone would consider shopping in such a place. Well move over, ladies, because I was going in!

Yes there’s plenty of dross in the junk room, not to mention a dangerous, vertigo-inducing set of steep and narrow worn brick stairs to get into the belly of the basement. I have a poor history on stairs, having broken my ankles nine times. Yes I’m a numpty. But the quality of pieces in the junk room isn’t what some people are clearly expecting, and it’s the very first part of the Arcade I visit every single time.

This time I emerged with a good selection of pretty blue and white Scottish plates, bowls and platters. Anyone who knows their ceramics knows how rare Scottish pieces are, and I beat another shopper to this haul by seconds. He saw them before I did but then went back upstairs to find his wife, who had sneered at coming into the junk room.

But while he was gone I found them, and immediately scooped them up. Seconds later my rival came running back down the stairs – quite a dangerous thing on those stairs - only to find that he wasn’t quick enough and the Scottish pieces were gone baby, gone.

I also found a fabulous 1950s Royal Winton lustre bowl in excellent condition, and a wild speckled yellow and orange bakelite cake plate. A bit more rummaging unearthed a couple of unusual blue and white striped Cornishware pieces. These kitchen ceramics have never gone out of fashion since they were designed in the 1930s, so they have a wide collector’s appeal and I always leap on them if I find them at affordable prices (which isn’t often).

Chinoiserie ceramics are favourites of mine, and I found some beautiful pieces. They always feature – you guessed it – Chinese design. Or at least the English interpretation of Chinese design. Blue Willow, for example, is one of the best known Chinoiserie ceramic designs but it’s not actually Chinese in origin – it was designed by the English in the Victorian era, when there was a great fascination with all things Asian. But there is a huge variation under the umbrella term “Chinoiserie”, so there are many great pieces available and I found a nice selection.

Finally, amazingly, the junk room yielded a number of beautiful, very old French copper saucepans and fish poaching pans that I would be hard-pressed to be the first to scoop up in Paris, no matter how early I got up. Our favourite among them is a large saucepan with the most extraordinary and interesting repair we’ve ever seen.

Oh yes, the junk room never disappoints. We also found great items throughout the Arcade and by the time we’d finished we had close to 100 pieces.

Sunday brought the Giant Flea in Shepton Mallet, this time with intermittent showers. The Queue Police at Shepton Mallet are notorious for bullying shoppers into huddling in the cold, maintaining a very long, straight queue for an hour or more before the Flea opens. Plenty of people allow themselves to be harangued by the Queue Police, with the queue this time several hundred people long.

Ha! we said. We know how to thwart the Queue Police. So we sat in the warmth of our van and then sauntered to the official ticket booth at opening time, totally avoiding the long line of sad, soggy shoppers over whom the Queue Police had stood guard.

But this time the Queue Police had decided to finally take action against the Outlaw Rebels who refuse to stand in their cold, cold queue for an hour. The Empire attempted to strike back!

They instructed the ticket booth attendants to not sell entry tickets to us until the entire of their several hundred long queue had first entered the Flea.

No, no, no. That’s not how it works.

We Rebels were aghast and went into a quick huddle. There’s nothing we can do, said the Englishers, who were happy to stand up to the Queue Police until the Queue Police tried to slap them down. We’ll just have to stand here until the main queue has gone in. So much for being Outlaw Rebels.

No, no, no. That’s not how it works.

It’s opening time, I said. The ticket booths have to open at opening time, no matter what a few bullies in fluorescent jackets say.

But there’s nothing we can do, said the Englishers. And yet I think otherwise, I said. Shall I have a chat with the ticket booth people? Yes, said the Englishers. Go and do something. So much for being Outlaw Rebels. How quickly their attitude morphed into passive we-can’t-do-anything when faced with a strike back by the Empire.

I approached the head ticket booth operator. There’s nothing we can do, she said. Those men (the Queue Police) told us we can’t sell tickets to you until they say.

Oh, I said in mock surprise. I didn’t realise they had the power to order you to not do your job.

Well technically they don’t, she said.

Oh, so they’re just trying to bully you as well, I said, looking all sympathetic. But it’s opening time. We’re here at opening time, wanting to go in. You’re here at opening time, wanting to sell tickets. So, we’d like to buy some tickets please.

And with this small encouragement she announced the ticket booths to be open, and within minutes we were through the gates.

The end of the Queue Police’s carefully tended line saw our success and immediately broke ranks. Chaos ensued, with the Queue Police yelling at people, waving their arms like they were trying to herd sheep, and trying to make people stand still until they were bidden to walk forward. But people dodged around them and ran to the ticket booths. The Rebel Alliance had triumphed yet again.

I know, I know, order and civilisation is a good thing. Anarchy can be bad. But Pish Tosh! I say. We’re not talking world order here, it’s just a bunch of middle-aged blokes who like to yell and be aggressive and bully people. They won’t sell you an entry ticket until you’ve been standing in their long, cold, uncomfortable queue for an extended period, while they patrol up and down, up and down, brusquely telling people to step back into line when the queue isn’t as straight as they want it to be. Nup, not going to happen.

So yay, some quick intervention kept the Rebel Alliance intact and hopefully restored some backbone to the Englishers to stand up to the Empire/Queue Police when bolshie Australians aren’t there to do it for them. What a good start to the day – not just thwarting the Queue Police as usual, but this time demolishing their pathetic attempt at a counter-action. I like it when opponents try to fight back – brings out the predator in me.

And the day only got better. The Giant Flea was even more giant than usual, with terrific purchases at every turn.

I was drawn to French semi-industrial pieces, so how nice that so many French dealers were offering exactly what I wanted. I walked away with lovely and unusual French enamelware, including an extraordinary blue and white marbleized enamel chamber pot – my second chamber pot in two days when ordinarily I don’t buy any, a charming indigo blue enamel wall-mounted bird bath, a super intense yellow enamel utensils drainer, a rare individual enamelled coffee pot (because normally they're large and serve multiple cups), and a nice selection of pretty enamel ewers.

I also scored a very rare Georgian English copper egg poaching pot, over 200 years old and only the third I’ve ever seen that I could afford (sort of afford – I had to pay large but it was still way cheaper than usual). Plus French wire baker’s trays, a nice big ship’s lamp, some very cute galvanized German watering cans, and a stylish German butcher’s block that Doug didn’t complain about at all when he had to lug it back to the van. Who are you and what have you done with Doug?

If you’re interested I’ll put more photos on our Facebook page, But before you scoff at the standard, in my defence the lighting in hotel rooms is appalling. But you’ll get the gist.

Tonight we’re back in London, in preparation for the Sunbury Antiques Market. If you've got a copy of my book, Chapter 21 will give you the context of what we’re likely to face.

More soon!

More soon.

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