The Weasel: A prize goosegog, or a big girl's blouse?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Don't be tempted to come to the North Country for a bit of peace in August. While London dozes in midsummer lassitude, North Yorkshire is transformed into a hectic maelstrom of country shows, produce fairs, lifeboat days and village fetes. Sadly, we missed last week's maggot- racing in the village of Rudston (apparently, you have to warm the wriggly blighters under your tongue to encourage acceleration); however, we managed to make it to the 199th Annual Show of the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society, which took place last Tuesday.

For several years, I've been tantalised by this bacchanalia of goosegogs. Egton Bridge is an idyllic spot at the bottom of a precipitous valley, eight miles inland from Whitby. We arrived just in time to see the champion grower being photographed by the Whitby Gazette. Bryan Nellist cradled the winning berry, which he had nurtured to the size of a pullet's egg.

"I've been trying to grow this for 43 years," said Mr Nellist, a retired gamekeeper. "It weighs 29 drams, 13 grains - about an ounce and three-quarters."

"What are you going to do with it now?" I asked.

"Eat it," replied Mr Nellist.

"Nay, it'll be too sour, Bryan," chipped in the Whitby Gazette.

I persuaded Mr Nellist to let me hold the prodigious fruit. Quivering like a jelly in my hand, it felt unstable, as if on the very brink of seedy explosion.

Eric Preston, chairman of the society, kindly offered to guide me round the show, which takes place in the village hall. Single gooseberries were displayed on wooden plinths, like rare jewels, while clusters of twins, sixes and dozens were arranged on plates.

The competition has separate classes for the four colours of gooseberry: green, yellow, red and white. "The seeds are not available commercially," explained Mr Preston. "They are traded among enthusiasts." The heaviest- ever gooseberry at Egton Bridge was a yellow variety called "Woodpecker", in 1991, which weighed almost two ounces. Though yellows are the ones that usually take top prize, this year's winner, a variety called "Bank View", was the heaviest-ever green. "We've been going 199 years..." began Mr Preston.

"You're not that old, are you Eric?" quipped the Whitby Gazette.

Ignoring this sally, Mr Preston explained that Egton Bridge, along with Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, is one of the only two surviving gooseberry shows from hundreds that thrived in this country before the Great War. "This year, we've had more than 100 entries. It's been a good year despite the late spring frosts," he said. "Invariably, there are lots of excuses about the weather. Everyone has their own methods. It's all very cloak- and-dagger. But there's no nobbling like you get with the leek shows in the North-east. It's a very friendly show. Mind you, the prizes don't warrant anything of a nefarious nature."

Along with a silver cup, Mr Nellist won a hosepipe, while Mr Preston, as runner-up, scooped a Royal Worcester bowl. A number of third-prize winners were awarded Remington Dustette vacuum cleaners. "Cheshire weighs in pennyweights, we weigh in avoirdupois: 28 grains to the dram, 16 drams to the ounce," noted Mr Preston. "Come and see the inner sanctum where the weighing takes place."

In a backroom, where discarded gooseberries lay carefully cosseted in cottonwool-lined trays, an impressive set of elderly scales had pride of place. "We bought them in 1937. Avery's has tried to buy them back many times but we won't part," he said.

"We have two people doing the weighing, and two judges to make sure the berries are in sound condition and not tampered with. You can get people trying to slip them over when they're weeping."

It emerged that this year's judges were Mr Preston and Mr Nellist. I asked if this might cause tongues to wag in Egton Bridge and its environs, since Yorkshire folk are not prone to keeping their feelings to themselves if they feel that anything is amiss.

"It's not a problem, because this is the only show you can't fiddle at," replied Mr Preston. "You just want the heaviest berry and that's an end of it. It doesn't matter if it bursts the minute after you've weighed it. It doesn't matter what shape or colour it is, as long as it's the heaviest." Bewhiskered judging panels of yesteryear stared sternly down from photos on the walls. "Not much chance of getting a `weeper' past that lot," observed Mr Preston.

I asked if, like Mr Nellist, he intended consuming the glorious outcome of his labours. His reply came as a surprise. "I always say that if you knew what they'd been fed on, you wouldn't want to eat them. I certainly wouldn't eat mine. My wife won't even touch them. If we want gooseberries for a pie, we go to the shop."

Gooseberries also made an appearance at the Thornton le Dale show, which took place the following day, but the juicy globes were just one element in a cornucopia of attractions. On the village cricket pitch, a sheepdog showed off its paces by chivvying a trio of white ducks, like a Regency buck pestering the flustered heroines of a Jane Austen novel. Over at the show-ring, a tinny, echoing voice from the loudspeaker announced: "Thank you, decorated horse." Covered in scores of artificial yellow-and- orange roses, an ancient dobbin clumped out of the ring. The arena was subsequently occupied by nobs in grey toppers, not sparing the whip as they whizzed round in their horse-drawn traps.

There were a host of good photo opportunities: a kid nibbling a sign that read "GOATS"; a pig-owner snoozing amid the straw in a trailer, while his Gloucester Old Spot did exactly the same in a nearby pen; Mr Weasel being physically restrained by Mrs W from the impulse purchase of a tin of Solid Hoof Oil (pounds 3). Familial harmony was restored by a prowl round the entries on display in the Crafts & Produce marquee. These included slices of Battenberg cakes like Ruritanian flags, and onions with straggly white roots like a mandarin's beard. Cabbages wreathed by unfurling leaves resembled swirling galaxies, while beetroots sliced in two might have been rare, polished minerals.

The variety of categories was mind-boggling. Someone won pounds 2 for "a bird- table cake (not for humans) using seeds, nuts etc". I also admired the magnificently lumpy specimens that took the prize for "three mangolds, long or globe". Considering that shepherds are a bit thin on the ground these days, there was a prodigious number of intricately carved shepherds' crooks on display. The obsessives who whittle such items could be heard moaning about the scarcity of long, straight twigs. "I won't find many more in my lifetime," one said.

"You should have started earlier," another replied. A message for us all there, I shouldn't wonder.

"She knows, you know!" is an expression that will ring a bell only with readers of a certain age. It was the catchphrase - one of several - of Hylda Baker (1905-1986), a diminutive, frizzy-haired, belligerent Lancastrian comedienne who made frequent appearances on TV in the Fifties and Sixties. This ringing assertion is the title of a one-woman show that can currently be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Jean Fergusson's acclaimed performance is not so much an impersonation as an eerie re-creation of the 4ft 10in funnywoman.

Ms Fergusson, who has also written a biography of Hylda Baker, has captured her astonishing repertoire of mannerisms to a tee: her straddle-legged walk, her tongue constantly exploring her cheeks, her nervous, Popeye- style giggle, her constant struggle to subdue her rebellious bosom, and her eyes, which could suddenly narrow with chilling ferocity. I should add that the show also has plenty of rather good jokes: "He puts salt on his toupee to look like dandruff." "I'd have been an only child - if not for the other six."

But I'd forgotten that Hylda (nee Hilda - the "y" was a stage affectation) raised the malapropism to Joycean heights. These brilliant verbal manglings tell her life story in impressionist form: "a nicer feller never broke breath"; "condescension running down the walls"; "lying prostitute on the pavement"; "I'm not suffering from illuminations"; "they're all prima Donalds"; "Sodom and tomorrow"; "I'm filling up with emulsion", and, most touchingly, "I'm not ready for the great behind!". The star was resentful of any suggestion that this verbal tic had already made an appearance in literature: "I'm sick of Mrs Malaprop. I'll sue her - pinching my material!"

Then there are the catch-phrases. "She knows, you know!" just about makes sense, if you're aware that it was made apropos of Hylda's silent, towering, gormless transvestite stooge, "Cynthia". But surely "Be soon!", customarily repeated as "Be soooooooon, I said!" will be utterly mystifying to the younger generation. They will, however, be familiar with another expression which, according to the play, the comedienne claimed to have invented: "You big girl's blouse - that's one of mine."

This pungent phrase is now part of common currency. A few years ago there was a pop group called John Dowie and the Big Girl's Blouse. Jonathon Green's voluminous Dictionary of Slang defines the expression as "weakly ineffectual person, usually found as direct statement" but offers no attribution, apart from "Originally, like `gobsmacked', from the North of England". Maybe the coinage is in doubt, but if I were Mr Green I'd be inclined to put a reference to the comic's popularising of the phrase in his next edition.

A haunting by Hylda would be a terrible thing.