Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Anyway, the fete was a huge success, and was blessed with warm sunshine, which had been organised by Robert, the chairman of the parish council. The man is a marvel. Indeed, as someone said afterwards, "Everyone else brings problems to meetings, Rob just brings solutions". I seem to remember Margaret Thatcher saying that of Cecil Parkinson, or maybe Norman Tebbit, but I bet neither of them had Rob's level-headedness in the face of a seemingly intractable problem, like where folk arriving at the fete were going to park their cars. The obvious place was the field that adjoins our drive, but it is bounded by a rather forbidding iron fence. "No probs, we'll take a section of fence out," said Rob. "As long as we remember to put it back before you have 200 sheep in your garden, that'll work fine."

Jane and I smiled weakly, but, of course, scarcely had the fete finished than the fence was back in place, with not one ewe chewing our cabbages. However, I mustn't give the impression that it was a one-man show; at least 10 per cent of the Docklow community, which, admittedly, is only 9.3 people, gave copious time and sweat without the slightest fanfare. On the Saturday morning, Jane and I fretted that things weren't going to come together in time, but when we next looked, there was a tea-urn in the conservatory and a marquee on the lawn.

I suppose all rural counties are full of people like this, but human beings, unlike cowpats, are so thin on the ground in north Herefordshire that there must be a larger proportion of them here. No summer weekend goes by without 20 or more fetes or shows or races or rallies, all to raise funds for local churches or charities, and all organised by posses of cheerful, ruddy-cheeked volunteers.

The day after our fete, we went to the splendid annual Richards Castle Soapbox Derby (chief cheerful, ruddy-cheeked volunteer: Steve Worth) to cheer on our friend Ian, whose "soapbox" was a tank constructed out of, among other things, a wheelbarrow. It was a proper, working tank, too, at least as proper as anyone is ever likely to see on Hanway Common. On his descent, Ian stopped, swivelled the gun turret, and fired at a distant hut on which was painted the words "Staff Toilet". The first two "shells" exploded left and right, but the third scored a direct hit, whereupon the sides of the hut collapsed to reveal Ian's mate Richard holding a white flag.

It was very funny and beautifully done, and particularly resonant for those of us who don't know Richard but already associate him with lavatorial difficulties. Apparently, on a visit to France a few years ago, he stayed in a small auberge where he was assailed by a terrible dose of diarrhoea. To make matters worse, there was a problem with the cistern, so that when he flushed the loo, the water rose and - horreur! - overflowed. It was not, as you can perhaps imagine, a pretty sight. Nor a particularly fragrant smell. Aghast, Richard sought out the owner, a woman who spoke no English, just as he spoke hardly any French. He took her to his room, opened the toilet door, and summoned the only two French words he could think of that seemed remotely appropriate, accompanied by an involuntary flourish of the arm. "Voilà madame," he said.

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is on sale now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)