At our first terrier, lurcher and ferret club show of the new season, I was stewarding the ferrets again. I always get given the ferrets. I'd rather steward the terriers or the lurchers, or even stand at the gate taking the entrance money. But when the stewarding jobs are allocated at our pre-show meetings, no bugger else wants to do ferrets so they give it to old muggins.
The ferret steward's job is to shout out the name of the class, take the 50p entry fees and ferrets from the competing owners, place each ferret in a numbered showing cage, then assist the judge by passing him a ferret when he asks for one. Once the judge has come to a decision, the ferret steward shouts out the numbers of the winning ferrets in reverse order, distributes rosettes and congratulations, returns the ferrets to their respective owners, and prepares the cages for the next class by mopping up any urine and faeces and spraying the cages with Dettol. With 12 classes and an average of ten ferrets in each class, the ferret steward is the loudest and busiest steward on the show ground. You're too busy to chat, eat or drink, let alone exhibit your own dogs or ferrets. You get bitten. And after the show you go home stinking of ferret.
The ferret judge I assisted at our first show of the season was a silent, conscientious man. He had this little notepad. I'd pass him a ferret. He'd look in its earholes and make a note. He'd retract its upper lip to expose the carnassial teeth and make a note. He'd look at its feet and count the toes and make a note. He'd even blow on its back to see if the fur fell back correctly, and he'd make a note about that. And he took such a long time deliberating over his final choice that for once I had time to relax and talk ferrets with some of the owners.
Actually, a cursory glance is enough to tell most judges which ferrets in any given class are outstanding. Any subsequent close examination is simply to check that nothing is seriously wrong, like a foot missing or an undershot jaw, and to make the exhibitor think he's getting his 50p's worth. Beauty in a ferret is in any case entirely a matter of personal taste. Some judges prefer their ferrets big, others small. Some favour albinos, others polecats. There is no written standard. But this judge was a stickler for detail and wanted to make a show of impartiality. Between classes, while I removed the faeces from the cages and restocked them with more ferrets, he underlined this impartiality by standing outside the tent and examining the sky. The exhibitors were pleasantly surprised by such conscientiousness at first. But as the afternoon wore on I could sense that some of them grew tired of it.
We were still only on class seven – Best Matching Pair – when the sun dropped below the trees and it turned much colder. I popped my head outside the tent and saw that the lurcher and terrier shows had finished and the show rings were dismantled. The two ladies in the horse-box had stopped serving teas and were busy packing up. Back inside the tent some of the ferret exhibitors were showing each other their watches. Our club chairman – a dead ringer for the late Donald Pleasance – came in. He was rubbing his huge hands together for warmth and looking a bit concerned. Taking me to one side for a moment, he asked me which class we were on. 'Class seven – Best Pair, Mr Chairman,' I said. 'F–ing assholes!' he said, then he went away again.
By the time we finally got to class 12, the championship class, in which the judge picks a champion ferret from all the previous 11 class winners, it was nearly dark. He'd seen all these ferrets before, but insisted on having them out and looking at them all over again. Because it was too dark to see fine details like teeth and claws, I drove my old Volvo into the tent and the judge scrutinised each ferret by the light of my dipped headlights.
We'd finally reached the end. All the judge had to do now was pick out his champion and reserve champion and we could all go home rejoicing. This judge wasn't one to be hurried, though. He deliberated long and hard. He'd been deliberating for a considerable time when the owner of one of the ferrets in question, a big man with mud on his coat, stepped forward and removed his ferret from its cage. 'Well I've just about 'ad enough of this – all this judgin',' he said. 'Me and Satan's going 'ome for our tea.' And with a cheery wave to one and all he and Satan pushed their way out of the tent and were gone.