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The (agricultural) show must go on

Friday 16 July 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard confesses to a personal anathema towards agricultural shows born out of hard personal experience but admits that the success of the Great Yorkshire might force him to change his ways

A GOOD contact of mine at Defra – yes, there are some people there who know what they are at – invited me to a meeting at the Great Yorkshire Show this week and, rather shame-facedly, I declined: I sent back an email saying that for me, such events are best described as “aggro shows.”

To explain, I have to go back half a century when I was a cub reporter on a country weekly and spend much of my summer laboriously covering such shows in mind-bending detail for a wage that barely kept me in bus fares. I was learning my trade the hard way - but to this day I feel it was sometimes unfairly hard.

Bullish at the GYS

I was sent off to these events to back up our full-time agricultural correspondent, whose job it was to collect the results – hundreds of them – for the prestige entries, the cattle, the heavy horses and the gymkhana classes, all of which had to be printed in lists of first, second and third with the (properly spelt) names of the owners and, yes, the prize winning animals.

My role, as a despised junior, was to do the same with the minor classes like the pigs, the fur and feather, and the Womens’ Institute cakes and flower arrangements. Minor they might have been but they had still to be reported exactly right or there would be hell to pay.

Trouble was that my so-called mentor, who was supposed to be helping me as part of my training, also liked a drink. And, in those days at least, all the trade stands had lavish budgets for entertaining guests with free booze and my senior colleague would take full advantage.

One of my crystal-clear memories of my early working life was to go into the Press tent at one of the bigger shows to find him lying flat on his back still in his chair, his legs above him on the desk draped over the paper’s one-and-only portable typewriter, with his head and shoulders stuck out into the show ground under the tent flap.

Sounds funny, I know, but that meant I had to cover the whole show on my own, hundreds of classes to be marked first, second and third. I had to write all this out by hand, because I daren’t move the typewriter, and go into the office the following day – Sunday – and spend 12 hours typing them all out. Alone, of course.

But I got it wrong. Desperate to get it finished, I left out the names and generations of the landrace pigs. Like monarch of the realm, their owners gave them titles like Gorgeous Gus the 12th. I got the names right but left out the generations.

That Friday, when the paper came out and the complaints came rolling in, the agricultural correspondent reported me to the Editor and I was lucky to escape being fired after the first, and worst, dressing down of my young professional life.

Such closures have left a gaping hole in many a country calendar

My so-called mentor never looked me straight in the eye again. And, for 50 years, I have harbored a shouldering resentment towards agricultural shows and, in particular, landrace pigs with royal pretentions.

So back to this week’s Great Yorkshire Show which advertises itself as the biggest event of its type in England. That, sadly, is probably not hyperbole. For the agricultural show, as important as Christmas in the country life calendar, is a dying breed in many parts of the country.

Last year, the Royal Show itself – the national farming get-together, the crème de le crème of such events, shut its gates for the last time at Stoneleigh near Warwick– closed down after 160 years, an event which another contact of mine says “sent a huge shock wave through the countryside. Many of us simply could not believe it.”

And the Royal was not alone. The Royal Lancashire has gone, so has the Leicester County. Others which have survived have had to revise their programmes to make them more user-friendly to non-farming visitors, with dodgem cars and bouncy castles. And many of those are still losing money.

Such closures have left a gaping hole in many a country calendar and a sullen resentment amongst some country folk, many of whom seize upon them as symbolic of the fate of British agriculture after a decade of neglect by a Labour government. We will have to wait and see whether things will improve under the new Coalition.

Yet the Great Yorkshire Show goes from strength to strength, according to my informant. Entries this week were at a record level, perhaps boosted by the fact that rival events have gone to the wall.

But great credit should also go to the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, which has diversified the use of its Harrogate showground to maintain its financial health in hard times. Perhaps it is time for me to forget a 50-year-old injustice and pop along the A59 next year. But for pleasure alone – I won’t be reporting on it!

Feedback received on this subject:

Another good article, John. It's the same at local level. The Skipton Young Farmers' Club Show almost folded, saved only by the Club amalgamating with Silsden Young Farmers' Club with the show now being held alternately at Skipton and Silsden. The reason? There ain't no young farmers left.

They've become almost as Rare a Breed as some of them keep. The average age of the British Farmer is now something like 57 years, and that takes into account many farmers who continue to work well into their seventies. Something else the new head of DEFRA could do well with addressing.

Simon Smith Skipton

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