July 20th 1975

Photo: Tim Waters

“I spent yesterday morning at the Laxfield Fruit & Flower Show (judging the Children’s Art) where I got into the Wonderful World of Village crafts.

I was very intrigued by the behind-the-scenes businesses of growing-for-showing and the criteria by which such things at marrows or custard tarts are judged. What does one look for in a Chelsea Bun, for instance, or a jar of Gooseberry Jam? (Scandal threatened, for one such jar was so very green that colouring was suspected!!)

All that produce seemed to belong to a previous generation – people like my granddad who I remember cycling home from one of his (three) allotments on his old black bike, fork strapped to the cross-bar while from one handlebar dangled a string bag of earthy, sprouting carrots wrapped in the Daily Mirror (scanned for horses only).

The vegetables looked wonderful, only tangentially related to the miserable, scabby roots and midge-plagued leaves for which I’m obliged to pay so much in the shops.  They had plainly been cosseted throughout their short lives by the green and loving fingers of black-waistcoated gentlemen, thus representing the culmination of years of skill and sensibility. (In some ways like the Aztec sacrificial victims who, after a year of unparalleled delights and pampering were offered up to Huitzilopochtli, their hearts uprooted like prize King Edwards.) Ah, the potatoes – they were unbelievable: white, translucent and lustrous, more like polished stones than the encrusted tubers I boil. The runner beans were so tender, so slim and perfectly green, the carrots bright and pellucid and the lettuces still dewy from an early digging on the Great Day.

The trick, it seems, with larger veg such as marrows, is to produce a matching pair, thus outwitting the vagaries of nature. One poor entrant had overlooked the fact that a runner had overlain one of his marrows, shadowing a conspicuous pale streak. This could make all the difference in a close-run contest. And the redcurrants! – were transparent! – you could clearly see the pips suspended within their pulpy red flesh set off brilliantly against the bright green stalks. Whitecurrants too (I’d never seen them before) like pearls or strange rocks from a Bosch landscape.

Photo: Alan Parker

As payment I was treated to a free meal with the other judges in a little back room of the King’s Head by the stream at the end of the churchyard. For the rest, I discovered, this was regular task for which they travelled round different shows consulting little Royal Horticultural Society handbooks  for guidelines on the Judging of Onions etc. (I recall a Brian Rix farce in which a “near-the-knuckle” joke was “My husband used to show ‘is onions each year at the fete”, at which the audience wet themselves.)

could of

There was a “granny” who’d judged the Succulent Fruit Cakes and Sparkling Wines (and seemed all the better for it though she deemed the Peapod wine “putrid”), a well-mannered, well-spoken, thin, elderly gentleman and a young, thickset man from “Akenfield” wearing an “Anglian fuchsia Growers” badge. The elderly gent told me of a show where he’d had to disqualify some cauliflowers because it was completely the wrong time of year. They’d obviously been bought in a shop and “the exhibitor made no complaint so I think we’d hit the nail on the head”. Then there were the pot plants with the nursery label still attached to the base and the shameful practice of unscrupulous villagers buying prize exhibits after the show at inflated prices with the aim of entering them at another show the following week. There’s quite a black-market in the pubs where one might encounter the same cucumber three Saturdays running (oh yes, cucumbers should, ideally, retain their “bloom”; I’d wiped it off one, asking, “Is this dust?”)

The younger man explained to me how he prepared his potatoes for showing: “You wash them with a soft cloth under cold water, dry them, bathe them in milk to give the sheen then set them out, covered with a damp cloth till judging”. Shallots are rotated to display their best side, the tops folded behind and tied neatly round with string before they are arranged on a saucer of sand, heaped in the middle so that each is shown off to its best advantage. All exhibits should, of course, be lain on black velvet (“It’s worth it, just to catch the judge’s eye”).

I wondered how they could, after all that, bear to eat their stuff. It must have a distinctly sacramental feeling: “These are my evenings. Take them, eat, all of you. These are my weekends. Drink.”

Miss Tett, the local Biology Mistress who judged the knitting, enthused at length over a pair of buff socks. When I asked her to open my eyes to their marvels she pointed out the trim yet stretching top, the shaped calf, the perfectly joined toe and the strong double heel, all executed with needles of great fineness. No 13 was it? She also considered sublime a slipover embellished with flecks of gold Lurex which I didn’t much care for but seems to attract old ladies as surely as jackdaws.

One industrious person (must be a man) had submitted a 2ft model of Saxtead Mill, all made of matchsticks. Why do they do it?”

Photo: Tim Waters

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One Response to “July 20th 1975”

  1. Steve Gale Says:

    Marvellous stuff Cliff.

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