Dirty deeds in the shires

Murdered budgies, poisoned flower displays, nobbled leeks... Recent news from Middle England has had a nasty edge to it. Victoria Summerley looks into the dark heart of rural life
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The Independent Online

Have you ever wondered why Midsomer Murders, the popular detective series starring John Nettles as Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, sets so many of its episodes against the backdrop of the village fete?

It's picturesque and colourful, of course; a way of bringing a little bit of noise and bustle into the quiet English villages and sleepy thatched cottages that are the regular locations.

But I suspect the creators have cottoned on to something that might not have occurred to the more innocent among us: namely, that the annual village jamboree is not only a celebration of community spirit but also a hotbed of intrigue, at which the more destructive emotions – jealousy, envy and the desire for revenge – often come to boiling point. Dark thoughts often lurk behind the white canvas of the tea tent.

Take the village of Cayton, four miles south of Scarborough, and a tribute to the art of the amateur horticulturalist. Bedecked with hanging baskets, tubs and containers of vibrant bedding plants, it is a regular finalist in the Britain in Bloom competition, whose winners will be announced later this month

In May, however, police were called in when it was discovered that some of the villagers' prized shrubs had been sprinkled with the weedkiller sodium chlorate. More than 30 floral displays were affected and traces of the white powder were found scattered around the roots of plants and in tubs and containers.

Sodium chlorate was banned in the EU last year, but consumers were allowed to use and store existing stocks until May this year. This made it unlikely that the damage was a spontaneous act of vandalism, and locals suspected that the damage was done by a villager. Les Hutchinson, chairman of Cayton in Bloom, said: "People have had little hassles with us in the past. Obviously someone has got a downer on Bloom and they want to wreak havoc."

The casual observer might consider this a bizarre or isolated incident - but this sort of thing occurs more often than you would think.

In August last year, Richard Pastewski, 57, of Newton Abbot, Devon, was another victim of weedkiller. He had hoped his dahlias would win a gold medal in the Torquay Allotment Association Show, but, a week before the show, his flower beds – and only his flower beds – were sprayed with a herbicide.

In September 2007, allotment holders David Evans and Malcolm Conaway, from Leadgate, Co Durham, were convinced they had produced a crop of show-stopping leeks for their local produce show. Hours before the competition, Mr Evans arrived at his allotment to discover a saboteur had uprooted the the leeks and slashed them to pieces.

Mr Evans said: "I cannot believe how vindictive someone can be. This hasn't been done to win a show. It is either down to jealously or pure spite. They have come in and systematically destroyed everything we've been working on for more than a year at this allotment. We'd been saving these leeks for the Leadgate show – they were the best ones I'd ever grown and I think they'd have had a chance of breaking the show record."

In July 2007, Dorothy Mills, an octogenarian from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and twice a winner of the local Britain in Bloom Best Small Town Garden section, reported her potted geraniums had been stolen on the eve of judging. She then received a phone call from an anonymous woman telling her she had no chance of winning the category a third time. "It's a bit nasty, considering it's only a competition," said Mrs Mills.

Nasty, yes. Even nastier, and far more grisly, is the case of budgerigar breeder Andrew Pooley. Last month, he was set to defend his title at the Cornwall Budgerigar Show. But the night before the show, his "best of breed" champion Penmead Pride was stamped – yes, stamped – to death. Another two birds were found squashed on the ground and 21 – worth a total of £2,000 – had been stolen. Seven more died of shock.

The attack took place some time during the night of 19 August after Mr Pooley, 58, from Delabole, near Camelford, had checked his birds for the show the next day. At 9.45pm, he went to take a last look at his pride and joy, but left the aviary door unlocked. He said: "The person or people who did this must have known exactly which ones to take because they only targeted my show team. They all had identity rings around their legs but this person is obviously an expert who would know how to remove them, leaving me with no way to prove they are mine. They have taken the best of the best. It must have been someone who wanted me out of the show."

We all feel jealousy and envy from time to time, but what drives an individual to transform these emotions into such extreme and violent acts? And is the fact that these events take place within a small local community or a tightly-knit group of enthusiasts likely to make the situation worse?

Dr Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist and clinical director of the City Psychology Group, says: "Such drastic acts of destruction, aggression and violence are people's attempts to eradicate undesirable feelings in themselves. By destroying the competition, a person is attempting to eliminate their own feelings of inferiority and low self-worth (such as failure or rejection), that they fear will arise inside them, should they come to lose the competition.

"In cultures where certain competitions are given a great amount of importance, are associated with a certain social status or reputation, and where other interests and hobbies may not exist or may not be as socially respected (say within a smaller community), the cost of losing such competitions may result in a significant loss in social standing and a consequential, intense feeling of inferiority, that some may feel needs to be avoided at all costs."

Professor Windy Dryden, professor of psychotherapeutics at Goldsmiths, University of London, points out that such resentments need to be put into context. "These sort of incidents are like a chemical reaction: it requires particular ingredients. The presence of some of these might make you vulnerable, but the presence of all leads to a reaction. Very often they involve close communities, and there is usually a relationship history. First, you have to remember that what to the outsider would seem a ridiculously trivial affair may be to a member of a local community or group the highlight of the year.

"In cognitive behavioural therapy, we have the concept of personal domain, which is all the people, things and principles which are at the heart of what matters to an individual. The extent to which something is at the centre of that domain is going to affect how they react.

"To the outsider, this is about a budgerigar, or a hanging basket – they can't understand why it matters. The content throws people off the scent. In fact it's about something much more important than that. It's about the self and the conditions we believe we have to have in order to feel we can live our lives."

Professor Dryden, who is the author of a forthcoming book, Coping With Envy, believes that to understand such acts, we must distinguish between envy and jealousy.

"Jealousy is feeling a threat to something that you already have. Envy is the extent to which someone has something that you prize but don't possess. Someone who is envious of something will try to rubbish it, undermine it, in order to bring about equality. They will have to acquire it or destroy it.

"Envy is much more likely to lead to the situations we're talking about. It's a particularly ugly emotion, because we know we're not supposed to feel it, and so we don't own up to it which means we can't deal with it."

Jealousy also plays a part, which is probably why, when you read any account of such seemingly innocent institutions as flower and produce competitions, rumours of skulduggery inevitably surface. There are tales of people painting vegetables, or glueing florets on to cauliflowers, or buying fruit from shops, in order to maintain their prize record.

At pet shows, it might be whispered that a breeder has given their prized animal illegal treatments, such as fur colourants or muscle toners. The canny owner will keep their pet's feeding dish at the back of the cage to thwart any ill-natured rival who might feel like slipping some dope into it.

It all makes the plot of Hot Fuzz – the film comedy in which the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, along with the local police chief and the manager of the local supermarket, murder anyone whom they think might jeopardise their village's chances of retaining its "Village of the Year" title – seem slightly more plausible than its creators may have intended. Middle England's hobbies might be wholesome enough, but they generate in some passions that make many kinds of dark deed seem justifiable.

And it's not just antisocial types who are to blame. In the case of village festival organiser Miranda Skillings, whose scarecrow was "stolen" in July 2009, the people responsible were the forces of law and order. Mrs Skillings, who lives in the Norfolk seaside village of Brancaster, near King's Lynn, had put up a 7ft scarecrow dressed as a policeman complete with fake radar gun on the road outside her house. But the local constabulary failed to see the joke. They said the radar gun gave out an "inappropriate message" and they duly removed it.

Mrs Skillings explained that villagers traditionally put up scarecrows in their gardens as a way of publicising the annual fete. Last year there were around 50, and the idea of having a policeman was to warn motorists to slow down as they came through the village centre.

However, Inspector Dave Buckley, of Norfolk Police's Hunstanton and Burnham neighbourhood policing team, didn't approve. He said in a statement: "We gave permission for the organisers to create a scarecrow of a police officer – but the owner of the scarecrow used a plastic drinks bottle to symbolise a speed radar gun. As a result, an officer removed it as it portrayed an incorrect and inappropriate message to motorists.

"We appreciate the spirit of the family-oriented festival but our priority is the safety of motorists. Speed radars are used to prevent casualties on our roads and to address the irresponsible actions of motorists. They should not be re-created by the roadside in jest."

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