If you have ever wondered about the absurdity of Westminster politics and thought that nothing could be more complex and ritualised, you have never entered a class at the county agricultural show.
August is prime season for the agricultural show in Cumbria. There are the big shows such as the Westmorland Show, the Cumberland Show, the smaller shows like Penrith and Appleby, but it’s at the individual village shows where the serious business takes place.
Our own show is the Brough Show, held on the third Thursday of August each year. It takes place just two fields away and we feel honour-bound to enter a few classes each year as I am a vice president of the show. Nobody has yet explained what being a vice president actually entails and when I do try to make enquiries am greeted with wry smiles and almost imperceptible but knowing nods.
The format is much the same each year. The very serious business of sheep showing seems to be the historical reason for the event’s existence but the goings on in the craft and industry tent are no less fiercely competed.
In previous years we have entered various classes in the names of the children and then spent several frantic evenings during what is already our busiest month of the year creating such things as edible monsters (last year disqualified because raw onions are apparently not edible and nobody had heard of the chorizo that made up the legs or the wobbly membrillo for the eyes), a scale model of the entire Eden Project on a nine inch biscuit tin lid, a novelty knitted egg cosy (theme: Doctor Who) and a flower arrangement of two lilies and a daisy in half a grapefruit. This last one failed to impress as Emily ate the grapefruit on the morning of the show.
We have happily done this for the chance to see the children’s delighted faces at being presented with a certificate and a little brown envelope containing up to 30 pence which, of course goes towards defraying expenses.
But the children are now older and have wised up to the fact that the real prize money is in the livestock tent or on the showground. So this year they are showing Holly our eleven year old black lab. She’s in the ‘vintage bitch’ class and we are breathless with anticipation at who else might be showing. Mentally I make a list of likely contenders but sadly it turns out to be just a lot of other canines.
Emily is showing our cockerel, Keith but has to forfeit her place for Orville the duck because after forty eight hours of trying we give up on catching her. Molly the guinea pig is a contender and for good measure we’ve entered a wild card in the ‘random bantum’ or some similarly named category, aptly named as the cage contains the first bantum we could lay our hands on, less a handful of feathers.
Feeling relieved that this year involves less making and doing in the names of the children, Wendy decides to try her hand at some adult classes and enters a Victoria sponge, a photograph entitled ‘a study of childhood’ a flower arrangement of ‘assorted colours of sweet peas in a Wellington boot’ and a loaf of bread.
All entries are to be in the relevant tents by eight thirty and Wendy’s hopes are pinned on the Victoria sponge. Working on the premise that it’s all in the presentation she has gone to town with whipped cream, lashings of raspberry jam, icing sugar and a fancy glass cake stand. There is even a tiny posy of wild flowers on top. As she enters the cake tent and sees the other entries she is further buoyed and feels sure of a prize as every other cake is lying forlorn and abandoned on paper plates with no more than a millimetre of jam between two halves.
The rest of our entries are duly positioned. I am particularly pleased with my wholemeal loaf. The animals deposited, we plan to return at lunch time, once the judging is complete, with Holly prepped for the afternoon dog show.
At one o’clock we’re back. Wendy is in high spirits, sure she has triumphed with her Victoria Sponge. We make first for the animals to find Keith has a third prize, Molly has come nowhere but has still done considerably better than one of her competitors who keeled over during the judging. The random bantum has got a first prize rosette. It turns out that Keith would have done better had we familiarised ourselves with the accepted protocol that fowl in shows are washed and blow dried the day before. We had just about managed to wash the mud of his feet.
Wendy has gone ahead to check her entries, choosing not to linger in a tent filled with caged birds, rabbits and various domesticated rodents.. We’re a rosette, a certificate and one pound thirty up on the day so far as we head for the produce tent. But as we enter, dark clouds have gathered.
Wendy’s Victoria sponge has won nothing and she is spitting feathers. Apparently she overheard two of the judges reviewing their decision and one said to the other, ‘Well it’s not so much a cake as a gateau’. The winning cake is indistinguishable from the other entries and all are an unappetising shadow of Wendy’s entry. I say that lessons may be learnt for next year like going for the easy classes such as ‘most interesting neck tie’ but it’s not a suggestion met with approval.
She is further enraged to discover that my bread has won first prize. To add insult to injury, the judges have clearly missed the tell-tale hole in the bottom of the loaf made by the bread maker paddle. The winning photo in the ‘study of childhood’ class is a snap of a singularly unphotogenic child on the beach who is mercifully blurred whilst the comely blonde lying some ten feet behind is in pin sharp focus. Below the photo featuring the faces of our angelic duo is some ‘positive criticism for next year’ which we choose not to take on board.
And to top it all, Wendy’s flower arrangement has been disqualified as she used a ceramic Wellington boot shaped vase whilst the unwritten entry criteria had clearly called for a real boot. Other entries had arranged flowers in holes in the boot which we feel is a terrible waste of a perfectly good pair of wellies when the prize money won’t go anywhere near the cost of a replacement pair.
In a valiant attempt to lighten the mood the children call us over to where they are giggling hysterically at a quiche. Despite being the only entry in its class it has only been awarded a second prize.
I sense the need to get everyone out of the tent and suggest we go next door where tea is being served. There I ask if anyone would like cake with their tea.
‘Cake!’ exclaims Wendy, ‘I wouldn’t eat their cakes if I was starving.’
‘Flapjack then?’ Our one hope of family salvation is going to be Holly in the show ring as the tannoy announces, ‘Would all vintage bitches please proceed to the centre of the field to be put through their paces.’ Oh, if only. But most of them remain seated in the refreshment tent.
Holly disgraces herself in the retrieving section by running out of the ring and consuming a discarded burger by the refreshment van rather than retrieving the prescribed luridly coloured bean bag. Later in the proceedings we try to switch dogs but are unsuccessful. Wendy has already left the show and I too decide enough is enough, confident there is little point hanging on for the dog show prize giving.
But we’ll be back next year on safer ground as I spy the entries in the classic vehicle rally which comprise a forty year old tractor and a Morris Minor. Surely our splendid bright red 1967 MGB Roadster is in with a chance, especially if Wendy agrees to take the wheel while scoffing slices of her own Victoria gateau.