I measure out my summer in invitations to judge classes of flowers, fruit and vegetables at local village shows. The flower-show calendar is as changeless and as adamantine in its continuity as the high days and holy days of the Christian liturgical year. Or rather it was.
In the past, as I have prepared to set out to one of these shows, armed with my RHS Horticultural Show Handbook, schedule of entry classes, tape measure (to assess the longest runner bean) and gardener’s knife (to cut into a beetroot’s bloody heart), I have sometimes thought how pleasant it would be to stay at home in my own garden, for judging is very precise and tiring work. But always I go, and always I am glad I have, since a village hall well-stocked with produce and handiwork is an enlivening sight, and one that encompasses, in its understated way, an extraordinary amount of effort, talent and expertise. Two hours later, I drive home, the richer for a bottle of wine or bunch of flowers, and some diverting gossip with kindly, public-spirited souls, some of whom I have met once a year for 35 years without a break, and whom I count as friends.
Many small local shows were founded in the 19th or early 20th centuries by paternalist landowners or clergymen, keen that ‘cottagers’ should make the most of the allotments or gardens, at a time when good husbandry might be all that kept Want from the door. Others were spurred into being by wartime necessity. Nassington show, to which I am invited every August bank holiday Monday, dates back to 1880, a time when there were few ways for villagers to show off their hard-won domestic skills, few occasions when they could live for an intoxicating moment in the ring of sanctioned, respectable competition, and few ways of earning a little extra money. But times have changed: shows have long been declining, slowly but inexorably. The first question I ask a member of the committee on arrival concerns the number of entries. Usually they are ‘down a bit’. Holidays are the enemy of the horticultural classes in shows, since success requires so consistent an effort all season. How ironic it is that in 2020, when so many people have spent more time than usual in their gardens, and have taken fewer holidays, they have had no outlet for showing off their best.
In early September, our own village flower show committee, of which I am a member, staged an exhibition in my garden. People brought their dahlias and courgettes, tomatoes and asters, flower arrangements and hand-knitted shawls, paintings and crafts, and laid them out on tables put up on the lawn. Nothing was judged; it was simply an opportunity for us all to see what our neighbours had achieved during lockdown, and to raise a little money for the local hospice. People lingered, luxuriating in the novelty of uninhibited sociable exchange with their friends in the safety of fresh air. We staged the exhibition to keep a connection between last year and next, for fear that something might be lost, irretrievably, if we did not.
In his poem ‘Show Saturday’, Philip Larkin described the Bellingham show in Northumberland in 1973, still, as then, a wide-ranging country show, with carved walking-stick competitions, a domestic arts tent, pony events, terrier racing and the like. If small flower shows have been cancelled this year, so too have all the many county agricultural shows, hound puppy shows, and shepherds’ meets, which do so much more than simply mark the seasonal rhythm of rural life. Think of what it means to sheep farmers to be denied the opportunity to show off their best tups for breeding, or to nursery growers who cannot now exhibit their newly cultivated pelargoniums. The cancellation of the great commercial RHS flower shows — Chelsea, Tatton, Hampton Court, Cardiff and Chatsworth (the last two in 2021 as well) — along with the national shows for plant specialisms like carnations, dahlias and alpines, has been nothing short of disastrous for the organisations involved.
In ‘Show Saturday’, Larkin lingered over the blanched leeks ‘like church candles’, the broad bean pods (one split open) and the cookery classes, ‘pure excellences which enclose a recession of skills’. Now that the continuity between one show year and the next has been torn so violently and jaggedly, it may never be sewn up neatly, and those skills will recede still further. Worse griefs have rolled over us during this pandemic, for sure, but I hope we have hearts large enough to mourn the small losses as well as the great. Larkin finished his poem ‘Let it always be there’. I wish I could be certain that it will be.