Terence Blacker: Fleece the incomer, and other rural pursuits

The best way to initiate newcomers into the ways of the countryside is to rip them off
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The Independent Online

It is high summer and the school holidays are almost upon us. Soon, around the lanes of the British countryside, people-carriers and estate cars will be driven by harassed parents pretending that they are having fun, accompanied by children who stare blankly out of the windows. Each will be wishing they were elsewhere: Dad down at the snooker club, Mum with her lover, the children with their friends' parents who go abroad for their holidays.

It is a mystery for those of us who live in the country that people who actually watch Big Brother for entertainment find rural life dull. It is the time of year when drama, violence and heartbreak are in every hedge and field, when the whole of nature is behaving so riotously it could have a universal Asbo put on it.

The humans are interesting, too. If visitors just observed the world they are visiting, they would become aware of the unchanging rhythm of rural life giving an restless urgency to everything we do, from the weekly shop at Safeway to wearing cowboy boots at a line-dancing extravaganza in the village hall.

Yet, in their superior ways, those on holiday scurry to the nearest beach to be sand-blown by an east wind, visit a steam rally, or traipse wearily around a chilly stately home. For the more adventurous, it is essential to visit a village fête, not only for fun and laughter of the country kind but also for the insights into rural life it provides. Look out for these traditional favourites:

The crockery-breaking stall

Domestic violence is still popular in rural communities, and the sheer expertise of the plate-smashing reminds you that, in many households, a row is hardly worth the description unless it involves minor injury and a call to the police.

A car-boot extravaganza

Cups, plates and bowls too naff even to be smashed are for sale in the car park, where miserable couples sit slumped behind a small display that includes a broken kitchen clock, a small armless doll, a bald doormat and two Catherine Cookson library books.

How many teeth has Jimmy?

Old Jimmy Mickleburgh has been doing odd jobs around the village (cattle-purging, chicken-sexing, dog-castration etc) for years. He is not a great talker - his only conversation is the word "Lately?" - so few people know how many teeth he now has. If you guess correctly, Jimmy will empty your cess-pit for you.

Fleece the incomer

The best way to initiate newcomers into the ways of the countryside is to rip them off. In the main marquee, you will find the stalls of every iffy trader in the area, from dodgy thatchers to alcoholic planning consultants, from pervy GPs to builders that no one who lives in the area would dream of using.

Who's the father?

Kayleigh from the pub is up the duff again and, as is traditional at this time of the year, villagers are asked to guess the identity of the lucky daddy. Nobody has ever won this competition, since Kayleigh is a bit hazy on the question herself, but your money goes to a good cause - the fostering costs of the baby.

Teddy abseiling

This involves watching a teddy-bear with a rope round its neck being lowered from the church tower by the vicar. Only the most simple-minded or warped child will be amused for long.

The Local Swingers Club

There was controversy in the fête committee when Mr and Mrs Brown, a raddled couple in their forties known only for singing in the church choir, revealed that they had a busy swinging co-operative and argued that, like the Countryside Alliance, it should be allowed to canvass for new members. Particularly welcome are couples who can bring an additional skill, such as cake-making, playing the piano or brewing their own beer.

At the end of the day, everyone gathers in the marquee and dances the twist to the sounds of the Sixties, played by local band Wally Garnham and the Shaky Shaky Hips. Who said life in the country lacked excitement?

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