Rural life has its rhythms marked by the seasons and within these seasons there are various fixed points which help the rustics to navigate their way through their time on earth.
The Duck Race heralds the start of spring (as well as something that goes nicely with newly made Seville orange marmalade), the Gala Week marks the high point of summer and the Flower and Produce Show the end of summer and the beginning of Autumn.
It’s an opportunity for men to display their masculinity in the form of giant vegetables or blooms. For the women of the village this is when they cement their place in the pecking order with the texture of their Victoria sponges and to demonstrate their abilities to provide food through the winter for their families with a range of imaginative pickles and preserves. It is also a chance to demonstrate their decorative skills in flower arranging, as art which Muriel counts as part of the whole ethos of Gracious Living. For the children it is possible to gain a rung on the rural ladder by making a necklace out of vegetables or a floating garden in a bowl.
This year’s junior entries include a glass salad bowl with some rather delicate blooms on top and a severed doll’s leg floating in between the flowers. Beneath the water, which has been tinged with cochineal from a kitchen cupboard, lying on a pile of pebbles at the bottom is a grinning toy crocodile. The entrant, aged 10, has already been identified as a likely candidate for borstal particularly since his mother was caught entering a Lyons’ Swiss Roll as her own. This caused a major pursing of Presbyterian lips. If you want to adopt this look, try sucking a sherbet lemon at the front of your mouth and look in the mirror, with your arms folded and your eyebrows knitted. It is for all the opportunity to settle old scores and establish new rivalries.
For most ordinary people and townsfolk in Scotland, the end of August is too late for a Flower Show, as the remaining garden flowers, already drenched, have a sad and despondent look. For the professional and highly competitive cottagers, however, this is all part of their strategy – for they have ways and means to stretch the season and win prizes. This involves such techniques as embalming leeks within cardboard containers derived from lavatory rolls and watering them with evil smelling concoctions mixed from decayed matter which we will not go into. All right, perhaps we will just a little bit. Put it this way behind every pot of leek and potato soup there is a pile of sheep dung and rain water which is mixed with as much care as any Nobel Prize winning chemist would devote to his or her preparations for a life saving medication in the laboratory.
It is without doubt the high point of the year and the very sight of Young Auld Jock’s temporary annual erection, sends owners of gladioli, pompom dahlias and “mixed floral bunches” into joyous ecstasy . With each passing year the erection by Young Auld Jock of the marquee sees it reaching new proportions and a growing sophistication. For it is the case that generations of Auld Jocks are by tradition hereditary erectors of the Show canvas, with a role that is as important as that of any aristocratic family in the nation’s pageantry. When the sign is given by the grand wizard of the ‘Free Drystane Dykers Mutual Benefit Association’ (founded 1756) for Auld Young Jock to drive the first tent peg into the hallowed ground, there is a gasp of awe as if he were the Duke of Hamilton bearing “the honours of Scotland” before Her Majesty.
It is a matter of pride that each generation improves on the last and so we find the grubby canvas walls of one year followed by the next with covered h pastel interior hangings, then the grass floor covered with boards and even some pretty lights powered by an outside generator. This year there are annexes and walkways to the tea tent lined with the results of a Kodak Brownie competition featuring “ Notable Old Cows of the Countryside”. Unfortunately one or two wags have interpreted this in unexpected ways and have been disqualified, a picture of Lady Pentland-Firth berating a postman for his late arrival has been hastily moved to the “Village People and Personalities” section.
We join the 150th F.A.F.S. at the presentation of the 1959 prizes. The prizes are presented in the name of those who have gone before and are known as “late.” It is a very long process having been going on since noon and it is nearly afternoon tea time.
A visiting “goodwill” party of comrades from behind the iron curtain are totally bemused and peckish. Lady Pentland-Firth is presenting the prizes as the Flower Show was where her late husband perished on a rissole she is dressed in with hints of black in remembrance of her dear late husband. Muriel and Jasper are on the committee table.
“Oh Boris I cannot take much more of this decadence, particularly as out of the corner of my little central party eye I spy a jam sponge that comes with homemade strawberry jam and real cream and was not made by J. Lyons and Company and sold in the Co-op earlier today.”
“I quite agree comrade Vlad. I have pins and needles in my legs and a severe attack of the munchies. We might as well be in Siberia for all the good this is doing us. I thought the party secretary said this would be a ‘culturally enlightening experience’ for us, as well as helping us to make contact with some chums at Cambridge.”
“In truth dear comrade it is not what I expected and I cannot see that they represent a threat to the motherland, most of them are, well how shall I put it….?”
“Exactly, I mean take the Wylie woman who is always trying to get me to attend one of her gracious living lecturettes. I have tried to explain that we just hope to live from one conference to the next. Breathing, rather than gracious, is what we strive for.”
“I quite agree, what use is napkin folding when you have no food”
“And no napkins”
“Still the capitalist lacky woman “what does but not a lot,” and I can to some extend agree with that, she does make a very good steak pie with all the trimmings.”
“You mean the inclusion comrade of the link sausages and extra gravy?”
“Oh I do, comrade I do, but I also like the flat sausage with the well fired roll, we should include that in the next five year plan, all party officials to begin the day with a roll and sausage which is …”
“-WELL FIRED!”. They shout in unison.
“And the Pentland Firth cup for the Hogarth Curve, sometimes known as the line of beauty, in a container (not exceeding 4 inches diameter on a well polished wine bottle) goes to Lady Pentland-Firth.”
Lady Pentland-Firth passes the trophy from her left to her right hand. She then clutched her gloved left hand to her chest and lowers her head and false eyelashes.”
“Oh my how unexpected, Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, poor but honest cottagers, I am so unworthy of the honour , it was a team effort and I accept it on behalf of all of us on the estate of which I am just the custodian.”
“Boo, Fix…..what a load of rubbish,” shouted a woman newly arrived in the village like a rabbit caught in headlights – “that is not a trophy presented by a late person, Lady Pentland-Firth is early if not almost living.”
“Of Course she has a point Muriel,” whispers Jasper who is also hungry.
“Oh Jasper, let’s not go down that avenue. We all know it’s a fix, it’s been a fix since it was first set up 150 years ago and opened by the Duke of Wellington who was having an affair with the then Lady Horatio Pentland-Firth, who liked a well polished wine bottle. ”
“As to a team effort, Muriel It may be stating the obvious, but I doubt she had even seen the curved arrangement on a well polished wine bottle until she saw it on the show table under section 5, subsection 34b which includes a novice class which can never win.”
“I know Jasper, it has eye bin though. It’s how things work, you know. Just thank your lucky stars we are not living in Comrade land. Just look at the two of them over there, they look so envious of our time honoured hierarchical and socially controlling rural pastimes. I will give them a wave.”
“And the Late Countess of Minch Cup for three blooms in a base of sphagnum moss with assorted beasties goes to Bunty Haystack, and if someone wouldn’t mind passing it to her in the wheelchair due to her bahookie having been peppered with shot on the Glorious 12th.”
“Thank you your Ladyship,”
“Not at all, just include me in one of your Rural Crime novels as a philanthropic and loveable character,” (whispers to chair) “or you won’t be winning again.”
“Look there she is waving to me Boris. I hope this is not a prelude to an engaging conversation which results in my attendance at one of her Canapés for Cocktail Party Demonstrations.”
“Be thankful Vlad that you did not have to spend the afternoon in his Museum in a Shed. Who would have known that the British have so many designs for five bar gates or that Milestones would be so well documented. At least we interrupted by the woman what does but oh so little with the ten o’clocksies, elevensies, lunch, afternoon tea and suppa. So much eating and drinking it’s amazing that they won the last unpleasantness with the you know who’s. Not only that dear comrade, but, he has sherry and gin hidden in an enamel bread bin.”
“He is ok, he has some sympathies with us; it is the women who are the most dangerous. Let me tell you comrade under no circumstances go into the Grinling Gibbons Rumhe with that aristocrat Lady Pencil Sharpener or what ever her name is. Trust me, comrade, you will see things you never thought possible even after a night on the old potato juice.”
“I know exactly what you mean the Wylie Woman’s cousin, the very capitalistic Miss Lulubelle Du Bois, said she would like to share her bilateral trade ideas with me over a piece of meat between two rolls of bread, they call kit something I forget what, but it will be the end of westen Imperialism you mark my words”
“And did you see them?”
“Her bilateral trade ideas.”
“All I can say is nothing is as astonishing as her voice! She likes to sing and it sounds like arctic ice breaker. She wants to know if I would play my balalaika for her.”
“I thought it was Lady whatsit who wanted to see your balalaika at one of her country house concerts. I hear she is planning a special evening.”
“I bet she is. Shall we go to tea I think it’s nearly the end? Who would have thought anyone could get so excited over onions on a plate of sand? Mind you comrade the beetroot looks good.”
“Do you think they might like our traditional recipe for Beetroot Soup with sour cream?”
“I have mentioned this to the Wylie woman who says foreign soups are regarded as revolutionary and might lead to the down fall of what is left of the British Empire. However, she is surprisingly in favour of foreign soups”.
“Let’s give them a demonstration then.”
“Well thank goodness that’s over Muriel. Oh goody, here comes Mrs Travers with the tea order.”
“Something of everything Mrs T please.”
“Very well Mr Wylie and would you like tea or coffee?”
“The strawberry or the chocolate gateau?”
“I should say so.”
“May I join you?”
“Of course Patience and well done that was quite a marathon.”
“Oh one is born to prize giving you know. I was so taken aback with winning the price for the Hogarth Curve on a well polished wine bottle.”
“Yes it must have been a surprise for the 150th year running.”
“Oh completely, and did you see the comrades from the trade delegation lapping it all up. A bit more of this sort of thing and that curtain will come down. I have asked one of them to show me his balalaika as a prelude to a concert at the Hall. It would be such fun for winter we could all arrive in sledges.”
“Only if there is snow”
“Jasper you are always so glass empty. You are not having two gateaux are you?”
“Yes I have the munchies.”
“Really Muriel I don’t know how you put up with him no wonder you keep him in that shed. Now where are the comrades? I have asked them to join us and I suppose that ghastly Haystack woman will come if she can manoeuvre her bahookie with the pitted shot through the link corridor. By the way Muriel did you see that picture of me with the postie? So marvellous of someone to appreciate my role in our little community.”
“Oh Patience you have no idea how much.”
“Oh Muriel how sweet of you, oh look there’s our great author just coming past the sausage rolls. She looks in a bit of a state.”
“What is Bunty?”
“ Oh nice of you to ask a spot of wind I think, it’s those pickled onions , but enough about me. Come quick, it’s the comrades, they are sitting at the judges’ table…”
“Well it’s a bit cheeky Bunty, but hardly an international incident.”
“Suppose Muriel they happened to be suddenly…..”
“Suddenly what Bunty?”
“As in not early or not even……”
“Well that would be different.”
“Well actually Muriel they are both late, quite newly late I would say.”
“Yes Lady P-F quite late… Late enough for a future flower show trophy – dead actually.”