Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 17 January 2009

Matter of judgment

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I’m in the barber’s chair, getting a trim, studying the reflections of the waiting customers in the mirror. One man, about 60 years old, his head in the Daily Mail, looks vaguely familiar. We’ve met somewhere before, I think.

Then I remember. It was at one of our lurcher, terrier and ferret club summer shows. (Our club was disbanded shortly after the chairman died, so it must have been ten years ago at least.)

I was stewarding the ferret show. We’d erected a gazebo to keep the sun off the show cages, and we’d strewn straw bales around for the exhibitors to sit on. The appointed judge was an old-school ferreting man of some renown and we were thrilled that we’d been able to get him. Unfortunately his car had broken down irretrievably just outside Bodmin. Half an hour after the ferret show was scheduled to begin, our club chairman came hurrying across the new-mown meadow grass accompanied by a last-minute replacement judge. He introduced me to this man, announced the change of advertised judge to the patiently waiting exhibitors then left us to get on with it.

I announced the first class, white hob kittens. Then I began taking the 50 pence entrance fees and placing the ferrets in the numbered show cages. As I did this, I noticed that the replacement judge had his back scrupulously turned away. Excellent. An experienced judge, then. If he couldn’t see which ferret belonged to which exhibitor, nobody could accuse him of favouritism.

But when he turned round and I gave him his first ferret to examine, and we saw that he was wearing gardening gloves — new ones — we were dismayed, to put it mildly. Any future cultural history of this rural backwater will be essentially worthless without at least a paragraph on the occasion, towards the end of the 20th century, when a ferret judge at a local show wore gardening gloves. None of us could believe our eyes. Cravenness of this order was unheard of. More to the point, a judge can’t prise a ferret’s jaws apart to examine its teeth or get a sense of the animal’s strength and vigour if his fingers are sheathed in gardening gloves. A ferret’s health and efficiency can be properly assessed only with bare hands.

One or two exhibitors laughed. Old Dick Dobney, three parts human being, one part bullock, gathered up his wooden ferret crates and departed immediately. Tony ‘Nubby’ Prettyjohn, who lives with his sister in a caravan, loudly stated that he was going over to the horsebox we used as a show office, commentary box and venue for the prize draw to lodge a formal complaint.

As steward and committee member, I wondered whether I ought to have a word with the judge about the gloves. But there was something noble about the way he carried on regardless, apparently unmoved. Here was a man who knew his own mind and who had the courage of his convictions, if nothing else. As I passed him a ferret he looked me steadily in the eye, not unkindly, challenging me to reveal my own position on the controversy. I maintained a poker face.

During the interval between the white hob and the white jill kitten classes, our chairman arrived to see if there was any truth in the reports he’d heard about the ferret judge wearing gardening gloves. He was a big man with a cruel face and a dry manner.

‘Nice gloves,’ I heard him say to the judge, as I squirted the empty cages with disinfectant. ‘Yes. I always wear them to judge ferrets.’ ‘Kits too?’ said our chairman. ‘Yes. Have you ever been bitten by a ferret kit?’

Our chairman, whose father was a professional rabbit trapper, and whose huge and capable hands bore scars inflicted by badgers, didn’t deign to answer. He looked at me, then he looked at the exhibitors, then he left the gazebo. It was shortly after that that his health began to fail. We used to joke it was the gloves that killed him.

And here was that ferret judge again, or his reflection in the mirror, now seated, the hands he was so keen to protect that day holding apart the pages of the Daily Mail. Suddenly he turned and looked my reflection in the mirror steadily in the eye, not unkindly. Norman pushed my head forward to dry razor my neck. Whether he recognised me or not, I couldn’t say.