Squids in with the pipe-smoking oysters

North Country Fair: Travels Among Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows by Harry Pearson Little, Brown, pounds 14.99; Pete Davies finds himself in stitches over the eccentricities of rural England
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It was the fudge that did it - that, and the image of the man trying to buy a rabbit "with a fiver in one hand, two slices of bread in the other, and drool running down his chin". After the tale of the supranaturally dense Archway Baby, and a wild digression on the staying power of cinder toffee, I could take no more. I fell from my chair to my hands and knees hooting helplessly, so buckled with laughter that my lower back was in pain. The only glimmer of consolation through the blinding haze of mirth was to reflect, between heaving for breath, that at least I wasn't reading this on a bus.

Harry Pearson is funnier than Bill Bryson. The Far Corner had more laughs per page than anything ever written about football; now he's written a summer book (on the grounds that this time he wanted to be warm) and it's a prize onion of a tome that'll leave you streaming at the eyes with merriment. Trawling through the sheep fairs and flower shows of the rural North, pausing to salivate over the cake stalls, or to reflect on such zoological marvels as the pipe-smoking oyster and Toby the Learned Pig, Pearson unveils a hidden England ripely stuffed with arcane history, overflowing idiosyncrasy, and cinnamon doughnuts.

You will learn, for example, how the traditional crafts of Westmorland preserve, inter alia, folk memories of the time "when great herds of squid roamed the Pennines, cropping the heather, squirting ink at curlews and filling the night with their plangent mating calls". You will find here revealed the doping scandals of the pigeon-racing world, in which cortisone- addled Belgian ringers develop paranoid psychosis and accuse you of following them around. You will meet The Man Who Couldn't Whistle, suffer collateral Tupperware damage, gape at giant Angevin rabbits with burrows the size of drift mines, and you will quail with fear before the English male at play in the resort town of Seaburn - "Deliverance dressed in a kiss-me- quick hat."

Indeed, Seaburn was so terrifying that Pearson never did find the annual show of the North-East Budgerigar Society, and had to head off instead to Egton Gooseberry Fair. Let him not be accused of lacking diligence, for all that; in these pages no quirk is left unturned, no hobby unexamined, and amid the wilder flights of fancy there are also pleasing ruminations on our rural past, and our lost relationship with the land and its livestock. In places where winters come so fierce that you get horizontal icicles, Pearson calls up the ghosts of the reivers and the drovers, the shepherds and the showmen; if mostly you'll be laughing like a drain, you'll be spurred to the odd moment of reflection as well.

Pearson manages this because he is, ultimately, a gentle writer; his comic eye is razor-sharp, but never malicious. He says of his preference for the donkey over the horse that the former "owes its survival in this country to its ability to charm and amuse a few enthusiasts", and continues with the modest and uncomplaining thought that, "As a writer I strongly empathise with donkeys."

I can think of a few writers who could use that humility - but I suspect that with this second book, Pearson will win more than a few enthusiasts. He is, after all, addressing major questions here. How many of us have not wondered, at one time or another, why the earwig has its pincers on the wrong end of its anatomy? How many of us have not thought it odd that Satan should opt to stalk the earth in the guise of "a vaguely preposterous and rather smelly farm animal"?

Pearson's portrait of the billy goat as a kind of livestock superlad is a gem - not least when he considers the possibility that, with his hair cut and his horns shorn, the modern goat may be racked with doubts about his masculinity. Iron Billy, maybe?

But while this passage comes spiced with an authentically spooky tale of sinister goaty goings-on, I find myself pressed to decide if it's the book's finest hour. The ferrets run it close, as do the guinea pigs - but then, when even the index is funny, it's pretty hard to settle on one passage or another as the best. I can only recommend that you lie down somewhere quiet and tuck in - lying down, as I found to my cost, being the only safe posture in which to tackle this rich feast of country fun.