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July 04, 2007

The (Royal) Show Must Go On - Except this year: Lincoln Allison reports from the Royal Show in the year the last day was rained off

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Royal Show
at the National Agricultural Centre
Stoneleigh, Warwickshire
1st - 4th July 2007

Lincoln Allison reports from the Royal Show in the year its last day has been rained off due to health and safety concerns.

The first Monday in July 1970 and the first day of my first Summer Vacation as a university lecturer, a day spent clearing the correspondence which has accumulated on my desk during the examination period. It has been a fraught year, what with "sit-ins", stolen files and subsequent revelations and the University of Warwick has been much in the news. Sometime after opening time my automatic pilot takes me towards one of the bars in Rootes Hall, the university's social building. Halfway up its main staircase, lost in my own thoughts, I realise I have entered a different world from the bejeaned student world of last week: there are cowboys, mounties, Bavarian bandsmen in lederhosen . . . For the moment, the Campus has become subsidiary to, indeed taken over by, the much older neighbouring campus of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. It is the week of the Royal Show, an event which has taken place nearly every year since 1838.

This is the greatest of all agricultural shows in England, standing above the county and regional shows as they stand above the town and village versions. In 1970 it was well into its highest period with more than a quarter of a million visitors over its four days and claiming to be both the greatest agricultural show in the world and the best attended single event in the country. It is now a long way behind the National Hunt Spring Festival and the Wimbledon Tennis Championships and only about 140,000 visitors were expected in 2007. It is no longer Warwickshire's uniquely acute source of traffic problems; it no longer dominates the University of Warwick's conference trade; nor is it the case that all restaurant tables in Leamington Spa are booked for the period.

I have occasionally had some sort of connection with the event. My wife, when young, once worked for a firm selling machines for extracting the stumps and roots of trees from the earth: they didn't sell any. A silversmith I knew used to show up and stay in our house for the duration. He was there because the show involves the award of hundreds of prizes. But the only retainable thing you got for showing (say) the Supreme Champion Belted Galloway bull was a poxy rosette, so farmers would commission themselves a commemorative silver trophy. I have been connected with the National Forest Company which maintained a presence in the forestry section for a time. And I have helped take parties of schoolchildren round the show. But mostly I have been as a tourist.

I always used to buy a raffle ticket to win a Dexter cow. These are by far the smallest breed in Britain and Ireland - essentially miniature cattle - and they arouse a fantasy of fresh milk from the garden. It's just as well we never won. And can you name the 26 breeds of cattle recognised by the RASE? There are even more breeds of sheep and pigs, though fewer of goats. The animals are at the heart of the Show and it made no sense to hold it in 2001 when Foot and Mouth was around.

Apart from the animals, my favourite parts of the show have always included: the country sports section where you can try out clay pigeon shooting, archery etc; the flower tent, especially the Women's Institute flower arranging competitions which massively expanded one's concept of how meaningful flower arranging could be; the food, especially the pasties in the Cornish Excellence pavilion and the hot beef sandwiches taken from the ox roasted by the British Simmenthal Society. Actually, the food is one of the thing which has improved over the years. Since farmers were encouraged to diversify and "maximise add-on" when subsidies ceased to be entirely concerned with maximum production in 1984 the range of cheeses, sausages, sweets, ice creams and so on produced on British farms has increased gratifyingly. And, though I can take or leave much of what goes on in the Grand Arena, the "Dancing Diggers" - the JCB formation team of enormous digger-tractors dancing to music - is something every human being should see once in a lifetime.

I go to Cheltenham and Wimbledon regularly as well as to the Show and the difference in atmosphere is profound. The other two are part of what I would call our contemporary events culture. They are places to go because you think you are in the swim of things. They are excellent places for people-watching, but also for celeb-spotting ; they are mainstream. The Show, on the other hand, is primarily for people who by the very nature of their lives do not go to events; it is backwoods, not mainstream, a meeting of people who spend their lives halfway up hills or on the far side of fens. Apart from an occasional member of the royal family and the relevant ministers (in which context it must be admitted that David Miliband seemed rather good at "making the right noises" as he hit DEFRA in his rapid move round the ministries) it isn't for celebs and people who cut a dash. Like British agriculture itself it is rather detached from most people's consciousness. When I taught classes on "Agriculture and the Environment" I used to ask the students whether they could name an ancestor or relative who farmed. Hardly any of the English ever could, but the substantial minority of students from continental Europe nearly all shrugged with surprise and said, "Of course".

And that is the basic problem for agricultural shows: the farming community is quite small. If you try to extend your appeal beyond it - into wine, rural fashion, 4-wheel drive vehicles etc. you may attract a wider interest, but you will also lose some of the agricultural character of the event and become what Robin Page (a kind of fundamentalist spokesman for agriculture) calls a "glorified car boot sale". It is not, of course, alone in experiencing a tension between the wants of its core "community" and the interests created by a wider world. Thus when I arrive at Gate 2 this year I necessarily notice that I am walking past the outlets of shower fitters and confectioners and tile manufacturers. Not to mention the AA and the RAC and the endless insurers and financial managers. It all raises the nightmare vision that all events are really run for the benefit of the retail sector and the financial sector. In the main arena a supposed medieval tournament is taking place: specifically, the Black Knight and the Earl of Warwick are knocking seven bells out of each other.

The reason I came through Gate 2, which is the furthest from my home, is that most of the car parks I would normally use are under water. It seems that many people have turned back and given the show up as a bad job. Listening to the stallholders I pick up two recurrent themes: they wouldn't have bothered if they hadn't have paid in advance and you get a better bang for your buck at the Royal Welsh. Quite large areas of the food hall are unoccupied. And there are important bits missing. The rural sports section now consists only of quad bikes and archery: the latter is, at least, something farmers actually do. When I ask what has happened to the events involving shooting . . . . . yes, you've guessed it: Health and Safety. The Cornish pavilion seems to have disappeared though there is a good variety of sausages, pies and cheeses in the Lincolnshire one.

The flowers are now in a building rather than a marquee, but there are definitely fewer nurserymen exhibiting. I am reminded of how much I love looking at the bonsais, but every time I've bought one it has died. The flower arranging is back, but it seems to have slipped out of the direct control of the Women's Institute and is in the hands of NAFAS (National Association of Flower Arranging Societies). I worry about the politics of all this. Like most people I am relying on the WI to take over the country in some future crisis and like all red-blooded males I yearn to join, to make jam, arrange flowers, sing hymns and get my kit off. This year's categories include Funky Foliage, Trends and Traditions and Haute Couture. If you are not familiar with the genre I ought to report that it all has remarkably little to do with flowers but is, rather, a form of modern sculpture in which some living material is used. Sadly, even though it is pouring outside there is plenty of space to wander.

When the storm passes and the sun comes out people flock out onto the streets (which are arranged in a grid at the RASE showground like New York or Milton Keynes) and for a while it is like the old days. Everybody looks happier and the girls all look prettier. I make for the real show - the animal sheds - marvelling as before at the colossal buttocks of the Simmenthal bulls. For townees I should stress that these do not provide us with rump steak, but with topside and silverside. My favourites, though, remain the Dexters, thigh-high bovine hobbits. I note, however, that you can no longer enter a raffle to win one. Instead, you can enter a sweep for a bottle of whisky by estimating when a particular Dexter cow will give birth. Do I smell health and safety again? Or animal welfare? In the sheep shed my favourite is the Exmoor Horn, a handsome, stocky, bull-like animal with elaborately curled horns. The pure-bred version is not really used commercially, except for breeding dual-purpose hybrids with other breeds. I don't really have a favourite pig, though Gloucester Old Spot is my favourite name.

After four hours and another storm, I leave: my front-wheel drive Rover can handle the mud while the Jag next to it is calling for a tractor tow (tee hee). It has been like one of those visits to a significant childhood place: the Show seems smaller and shabbier and less significant than it used to. I have only bought a rather derisory handful of things. The Show must go on; it will go on; it will revive from the nadir of this year. But it will never see its great days again and those organising it will face impossible dilemmas in trying to define its identity.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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