Brian Viner: 'If Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes by a brass band don't evoke England at its best, I'd like to know what does'
Wednesday 09 July 2008
The Docklow summer fete in aid of the perennially needy church roof takes place in our garden on Saturday afternoon, and although there are a few signs along the A44 publicising this seismic event in Docklow's social calendar, a plug in a national newspaper can't do any harm, and might even help us – though I don't expect anyone will come from Camden Town or even Leamington Spa – to steal a lead over some of the other village fetes, fairs, fayres, shows, galas, fun days, point-to-points, steam engine rallies or whatever else is taking place in north Herefordshire this weekend.
You have to be ruthless in the dog-eat-dog – or, for those who have followed our bucolic misadventures these past six years, the dog-eat-sheep – English countryside to get punters along to your event, especially if the next village is offering a hog roast, or a tug-of-war, or a welly-wanging contest, or anything you're not. We had a chocolate fountain and a brass band at ours one year, and if an interpretation in brass of various Andrew Lloyd Webber favourites, danced to on a parched lawn by chocolate-smeared toddlers, does not evoke England at its best, I'd like to know what does.
Naturally, these occasions are spread over the whole summer, but so plentiful are they even in a county as thinly populated as Herefordshire, that unfortunate clashes are inevitable. Given the keen competition, you also have to put some thought into the name of your event. It is ironic that the French word "fete" has supplanted the old English "fayre", but then you have to borrow foreign influences as and when they suit. Some years ago, I went to a Highland Games near Atlanta, Georgia. It was full of folk in kilts tucking in to cock-a-leekie soup, followed by haggis, neeps, tatties and cranachan, and comparing wee drams of Glenfiddich with wee drams of Auchentoshan. The following summer, I went to a Highland Games near Dundee, where everyone wore jeans, ate hamburgers and drank either Coke or Budweiser.
As for that word "fayre", I don't suppose I'm alone in wincing when I see it. The arbitrary use of medieval English is quite properly considered naff by all right-thinking people, and was beautifully lampooned in a cartoon I saw the other day in a years-old copy of Private Eye. It had two soldiers with crossbows looking down anxiously from the battlements of a besieged castle, and another turning disconsolately to the noble-looking man beside them saying, "Sire, the gifte shoppe has fallen!"
Anyway, who needs ye olde English when fetes and fairs are already such traditional rural occasions?
Ours, in truth, is not a particularly ambitious event, but it still requires plenty of hard work by a small band of highly committed Docklovians, who astonish me each year by descending on our garden like turbo-charged contestants from The Apprentice and making it ready for the tombola-loving masses, if 83 people can be called the masses.
Rural England is full of people like that. Strung across the streets of nearby Leominster at the moment are more than 120 wonderfully colourful medieval-style banners, each one stitched by hand, and mostly sponsored by local shops, whose names they bear along with something symbolic of the town, such as a Ryeland sheep, a Hereford bull, a bottle of cider or a Benedictine monk. It's a delightful spectacle, and represents a true distillation of community spirit. I'm told that the idea was proposed by three women who wanted to add something different to the "Heart of England in Bloom" competition, and were taken aback to see how it captured the popular imagination.
Oddly, on the day that my wife, Jane, first came home from Leominster enthusing about the newly strung banners, she also reported that she and other English people had been outnumbered by Poles by about five to one. This wasn't a complaint, I should add, merely an observation. Although there was a bit of anti-Polish sentiment in the post office, apparently, where dozens of stawberry-pickers were sending home their hard-earned pounds to be turned into zlotys, but not observing the highly tuned niceties of the English post office queue.
Whatever, it seems to me rather uplifting that Leominster should be flooded with Poles on the day that the medieval banners went up everywhere; the new Europe side by side with the Middle Ages. And it's given me a thought: I wonder what "Docklow fete, Saturday afternoon, 2pm" is in Polish?
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