Genevieve Fox finds rows of boxes and a mass of identical blobs at the Southern Hamster Club Show `Hamsters are exciting to breed - you can predict what you'll get in the litter '
"I am a hamster fan's husband," beams Stephen Franklin, 51, eyeing a plastic fish tank teeming with baby hamsters. "Margaret is a clock fan's wife."

Margaret, 49, is a nervous, mousy woman in a lilac mac. Her last hamster, her sixth, died from a stroke last August. She is attending the annual Southern Hamster Club Show, the Crufts of the hamster world, at St Leonards-on-Sea, in the hope of finding a replacement.

Margaret is one of 290 members who attend the monthly events held by the club throughout the region each year. "I've kept hamsters for 12 years," she explains. "I first started when I was living in digs. I needed an animal that wouldn't make a noise and disturb my landlord downstairs and wouldn't be lonely when I went out.

The spectre of Freddie Starr hangs over the show. "Why does everyone make jokes about eating hamsters?" protests Andrew Dornford-Smith, 28, who is running the sales table with his fiancee, Rachel, a 25-year-old hamster fancier. Behind them is a pinboard plastered with aerial photographs of champion hamsters. Except for differences in colour, they look identical: oblong blobs on carpets. In front of them are three tanks, each consisting of a layer of sawdust and an undulating layer of fur. Occasionally the top layer rises as a baby raises its mini snout to yawn or to nudge, nosewards, further into the corner of the tank and the other sleeping bodies.

On the main show bench opposite more than 80 small wooden boxes are lined up with military precision. These are the show pens, presided over by a lady with bouffant hair and a white lab coat, her left pocket heaving with badges.

Her name is Jasmine. You can tell from one of the badges, which spells out her name in wooden letters, surrounded by painted flowers. The other badges include "I love hammy" and the enamel Club badge. Jasmine has spent three years training to be a show judge. Today is her big day. If everything goes smoothly, in the eyes of Mrs Quincey, the club President, who is serving her eleventh year of office, she will be a fully-qualified show judge by the day's end.

There are certainly no distractions to hamper Jasmine's concentration. There are no agility demonstrations, no games, nor a single hamster driving itself demented on a wheel. Most are asleep, either in tiny pens, as the "show" entries are, or, if merely a "pet", in a no-frills cage with a used loo roll for entertainment. A regulation slice of cucumber is plonked on sawdust with not so much as a water bottle or a chew to be seen, so there's no chance of watching them shove at least a fifth of their entire body size into their expandable cheek pouches.

No one is even selling hamster merchandise - the multicoloured see-saws, slides and fairground-style cage accessories advertised in today's pet magazines. People are just walking around, staring at the 133 entrants - as they have been since 10.30am and as they'll continue to do until 5pm when the winners of Best in Show, Best Opposite Sex, Best Dwarf and, for amateurs, Best Pet, are presented with silver trophies and pink rosettes.

Meanwhile, David Baglin, a 27-year-old trainee dwarf judge, snatches a mini hamster out of a pen, grabs a barbecue grill, flattens the unsuspecting rodent with one hand, and flips it over like a waffle to check that its nails are trimmed. The hamster's tiny legs are flaying in a grotesque dead ant parody. He is judging the size, coat condition and colour, nails, tail, tameness and firmness of body. "Showing is a serious business," says dwarf judge Melissa Chamberlain, 28, who is overseeing David's training. "For some, winning is the be-all and end-all." She has 180 hamsters, several of which have been entered for Best Dwarf and Best in Show.

She selects their names from Greek and Roman mythology. "We go through the alphabet," she explains, "so we've got Jupiter, Mars, Orion, Pegasus." Her hamstery is called Wellington Hams. "Named after the Duke of Wellington," she says. "My husband does Napoleonic re-enactment. He fights on the British side."

Nathan, 14, is the only teenage boy at today's event. Males seem to discover hamsters later in life, some never at all. "Girls are more interested in hamsters because of their caring tendency, but I find them really interesting. Most people at my school play with computers but I prefer hamsters." Nathan is exhibiting Honey for the first time, but doesn't seem to hold out much hope of winning. "She is too small and her face isn't cute enough."

"A hamster is an exciting animal to breed," chips in Andrew from the Sales Table. A radio ham dressed in black with a plaited pony tail, he looks as if he'd be more at home at a biker convention than a hamster fest. "One of the things that attracts me about hamsters is that you can trace recessive and dominant genes and predict what you'll get in your litter."

Margaret, by this stage, has her head inside one of his tanks. She is communing with the babies, stroking, cooing, cajolling, in an attempt to make the right choice for her new pet. She is anxious not to repeat her past mistakes.

"My second hamster, Thomas (all my hamsters have biblical names, I'm vaguely churchy), was a real Doubting Thomas. He was very nervy," she recalls, "and he never really learnt to trust me. He'd make a squawking noise, and whenever I let him out of his cage he ran around the house weeing."

Across the hall, the winner of the Best Dwarf category has been announced. "It's my hammy!" exclaims Melissa, blushing. David, her trainee, insists he had no clue who owned it. It is also a lucky day for the President - her hamster, Bullseye, has won theBest in Show award. Meanwhile Margaret finally takes the plunge and chooses a six-week-old sable for £4, which includes a computer-generated pedigree chart. "It seems very responsive," says her husband.

The day is drawing on and back at the main show bench Jasmine is in reflective mood. "No matter how tough the going gets," she says, stroking a candidate so hard it looks as if it might collapse in the middle, like a folding bed, "you can't give up with all those little 'uns to care for. My ex-husband wouldn't have approved of me keeping a roomful of hamsters, but that no longer matters. Fellas come and go, but hamsters stay. They keep you sane."