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Country folk -V- city louts: whose voice should be heard?

Friday 08 August 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard compares two major open-air events staged in Yorkshire and asks why it is always the yobbos who get favoured treatment

ONE of the daftest quotes I have heard in a lifetime in journalism came last week from a man trying to organise a pop festival in a Leeds park. Why was it, he moaned, that local residents wanted the pop festival moved whilst no-one complained about the disruption caused by the CLA Game Fair at Harewood.

Well, the man must have spent the last few years on the moon because the aforesaid pop "festival" has in the past few years become a celebration of drug-taking, litter, violence and riot.

Last year, for instance, the crowd burned down the toilet blocks for a bit of fun. One doesn't like to ask what several thousands youths full of drink and drugs did when they needed the loo later.

Compare this with the Game Fair at gorgeous Harewood House last weekend which attracted a record 130,000 visitors over three days, making it the most successful country sports event in the world. Sadly, I could only attend for one day, nowhere near long enough to see half of it never mind it all, but I was absolutely knocked out by the skill of the organisers.

We went early on the Friday morning, we thought, to miss the rush. What a hope! Just half an hour after the gates opened, there must have been 2,000 cars parked laid out by courteous but firm marshals. They continued to pour in for the rest of the day without undue delay.

By each gate there were big notices saying "No dogs in cars because of the heat" but there were hundreds of well behaved game dogs on leads, many of them competitors in various trials. No animal died of heat exhaustion that day, although the weather was sweltering.

One of the main complaints against the Leeds pop event is, year in, year out, the mountains of litter left behind and damage done to fences, shrubs and trees. At Harewood, there were so many litter collectors going round with spiked sticks that they couldn't find enough trade -we were all pocketing our own litter to take it home.

There were more guns on show than in Dodge City, for clay pigeon shooting and other events are one of the mainstays of the show. But the only policeman I saw all day were two directing traffic on the public road outside the park. Inside, all security was in the hands of the CLA marshals and, as far as I could see, they had nothing to do either.

This is not to say that there was no boisterousness. The beer tents did well in the searing heat - as always happens at any gathering of country folk - but there was never the slightest hint of violence.

Had this been a football match attended each day by 40,000 fans, the mounted police would have been out in force. With so many guns about, they might have had to call in the SAS too.

The only blemishes of that first day - or triumphs in my view - was the fact that Ben Bradshaw, the junior environment minister, literally ran away and hid when confronted by red-coated huntsmen with hounds which will have to be put down if hunting is banned.

In the same vein, the producers of the new, politically correct radio favourite, The Archers, were virtually laughed off stage when they tried to persuade the audience that the programme really did represent country life. It's approach to the fox hunting has been quite interesting: it hasn't mentioned it, just as the Today programme, also on Radio Four, ignored the last countryside march in London.

This startled reaction from a top politician and senior members of the media interested me a great deal because it confirmed what I have been saying, and writing about, for the past decade and more: these two important sectors of British life have absolutely no idea whatsoever of how country folk think and feel.

They do, however, have deep sympathy for drug crazed pop fans who wreck the biggest park in one of our major cities, even resorting to arson as entertainment. When it comes to dishing out our hard-earned taxes, they will be the beneficiaries, not hard-working, self-disciplined country folk who can gather in their tens of thousands and leave barely a crushed lager can behind.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. Perhaps we have been too quiet in the countryside, perhaps we have not made a big enough fuss when our way of life is under threat. Signs are that this is changing, that a great swell of militancy is afoot, which the countryside marches have proved. We might need to make a great deal more noise if our case is ever to be heard.

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