Fiona McCade: Splashing out on rare experiences

A FEW years ago, I took my husband to the French town of Auxonne. Napoleon was stationed there when he was a young officer, and I wanted to see everything I possibly could that might be connected with him.

Up for grabs, the chair that Hannah Mylie rested her towel on& possibly. Picture: TSPL
Up for grabs, the chair that Hannah Mylie rested her towel on& possibly. Picture: TSPL

My husband is used to being dragged around battlefields and Napoleonic sites, but for him, Auxonne was the straw that very almost broke the camel’s back.

After racing around the town in a state of frenzied excitement, gazing at doors that my idol might have walked through, or windows he might have looked out of, I stopped beside a very high wall; so high, it blocked any possible view of what might lie beyond it.

My husband tells me that I stood by this wall for several minutes, touching it tenderly, before turning to him with shining eyes and announcing solemnly:

“Behind this wall, is the church where Napoleon’s younger brother Louis took his first communion.” At which my husband turned away, walked straight to the nearest bar and didn’t come out again until I was ready to go. One person’s thrilling experience is often another’s candidate for Most Boring Moment Ever. The other day, I saw that various objects and furniture from the Commonwealth Games are being sold to the public as souvenirs of the big event.

One of the organisers was on television, saying how great it would be to own one of the plastic chairs that were used by swimmers in the competition, to throw their towels over.

“I’m not going to say whose towel, I’m not going to say which chair,” he explained, enthusiastically, “but that’s really part of the fun; it’s part of the magic. You could literally buy one of the chairs that his swimming towel – or her swimming towel – had been thrown over, having won the gold medal!”

Upon hearing this, I snorted with derision, until my husband looked me hard and straight in the eye, and said just one word: “Auxonne”. At which point, I shut up.

Once I’d had it pointed out to me that I, too, am a proper sucker for relics of fame, the sale made a lot more sense. Let’s face it, if you have the choice of a cheap plastic chair from Ikea, or a cheap plastic chair that might have been – however momentarily – part of the Commonwealth Games story, it would take a real curmudgeon to spurn that little piece of sporting history.

We humans yearn to feel part of events that are greater than us. Of course, the word “greater” is relative. Many of us collect memorabilia from the wars; heroic and poignant. Others may be content to have a scrap of one of the Beatles’ bed sheets from the Plaza Hotel circa 1964 (oh yes, they were shredded and sold).

What form our reverence takes depends only upon what we find personally inspiring and we are rarely enthused by other people’s precious souvenirs. For example, if I should ever end up with a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair, it would be on eBay before you could say “whatever”.

What marks this sale apart from ordinary auctions of memorabilia is the sheer functionality of what’s being sold. Yes, there are connections with stardom and success, but this is stuff that you can actually use.

This isn’t a chunk of concrete from the Berlin Wall, or a Napoleonic snuff-box; in this sale you can buy a proper, nearly-new sofa, which, by the by, might possibly have been sat on by SuBo. Souvenirs like this can never end up hidden in a drawer, partly because sometimes, they are drawers.

Now, you can actually buy the furniture in which your sporting heroes may have kept their intimate possessions. Imagine yourself saying to your beloved: “Darling, have you seen that lock of Justin Bieber’s hair?” and they reply: “I think it’s in Gavin Rumgay’s drawers”.

I must admit, I would have been happy to buy one of the giant Tunnock’s tea cakes from the Games’ opening ceremony, but I seem to have missed that particular boat. The plastic swimming chairs don’t appeal to me, but I quite fancy what is described in the catalogue as “Chair: Tribune of Honour”.

Apparently, these rather lovely armchairs, made by hand in Scotland, are from the Royal VIP enclosure, which proves beyond doubt that they have supported the august behinds of “dignitaries, celebrities and even Royalty”.

This is the sort of brush with glory that makes people reach for their wallets; this is the real deal. I mean, Lulu might have sat on one of these!

Unfortunately though, that’s the problem with so many of these kinds of collectibles. How can you be sure that they were genuinely touched by the great and the good? How do you know whether your chair was imprinted by Kate Cambridge, or Kylie Minogue? David Cameron, or one of the Scottie dogs?

You just have to take your chances, I suppose, but I’d definitely be getting the freshener spray out if I thought my new chair had been sat on by David Cameron.

There’s only one way to make sure that your item of Commonwealth Games furniture has been used by a world-famous personage, and that’s to invite a world-famous personage to use it. If I buy a Tribune of Honour chair, I’m going to ask Usain Bolt if he wants to come over and lounge around in it for a while – then sign it, if possible. Then whenever people visit, I’ll say: “Sorry, you can’t sit there, that’s Usain’s seat.”

As a confirmed Napoleonophile, none of this sporting stuff will ever excite me quite as much as the sight of a big wall in Auxonne. However, there are certain Games souvenirs that definitely interest me, although sadly, I don’t think they’re for sale. What I really want is a podium, so I can stand on it, cry, and present myself with flowers. And, of course, a gold medal.