Philip Moss regrets booking late after two disastrous game fairs but the third time is a charm.

Up there with ‘Never fight a war on two fronts’ and ‘Never parachute into an area you’ve recently bombed’ should be ‘Never book a show at the last minute’.

Ian from Margett Leather rang me one recent Friday and asked, as is the way with traders, “Where are you wasting your time this weekend?” As it happened, I had nothing on.

“Have you ever done Canwell Country Fair?” he asked. “I’m setting up there now and I think Zoe (for it is she who does the trade stands) can fit you in.”

Having examined the numerous double entendre possibilities of Ian’s statement, I decided to play it straight.

“Get me a pitch and I’ll be there in couple of hours. If I run anything over on the way, I’ll cook dinner as well.”

Photo: Timo Neton-Syms

What was I thinking? Having sampled every traffic queue that the M5 could offer, I arrived with confidence undimmed at the site, which looked delightful. A parkland setting by an ancient church, crowd of 7,000 to 8,000 expected, perfect weather, delightful organisers who were informative and helpful. With only three rows of stalls, I thought I’d be all right positioned on a cut-through between the main aisle and the main ring. It, however, was not to be.

Regular readers of this column will be all too familiar with my uncharitable views about the great British buying public when I have had a bad day. So to spare you the time and me the effort of finding new adjectives to describe a shitty day’s trading, I’ve decided to stick to the facts on this occasion.

Total number of visitors to the stand: 68. This includes those looking for a place to a) have a pee b) change the baby’s nappies c) allow the dog to vent its bowels and d) the 27 who said, “We don’t want to buy anything, we just love the smell of leather.” Satan has a special corner reserved for these.

Total number of sales: 5 (including a heavily discounted belt just to break the monotony of selling the cheapest item on the stand at the rate of one an hour).

Tea: 1

Coffee: 1

Pasty: 1

That just about wraps it up for Canwell Country Show. To be fair, I accepted the position of the pitch. It was just unfortunate that the crowd didn’t, preferring an alternative route between the ring and the main aisle. The setting was great, the people and organisers pleasant. Like so many events of late, people just don’t seem to have the cash to spend. I can’t even rant on about high ticket prices. At £12 on the gate, it seemed a reasonably priced day out. On reflection, I would have been better off staying at home, stepping outside and setting light to a fifty-pound note.

‘A wise man always takes his own advice’. I’ve tried to find someone impressive to attribute this to. Judging that it’s a statement of the patently bloody obvious, someone must have stumbled upon it at some time. But I couldn’t find anything even remotely like it. Perhaps it’s exactly because no one has ever bagged this truism that I then went ahead and repeated the same whole process at Vale of Glamorgan Show the following week.

I’d been meaning to do this show for years but there was always a clash of dates. I can’t even tell you why I thought this would be any good for me as the crowd seemed ‘well townie’ and determined not to spend as they trudged the aisles in perfect summer show weather. Again the organisers and the staff were charming, but they were badly let down by security staff who seemed to find preventing traders from leaving the site a rare entertainment, laughing at the repeated requests to open the gate.

Most traders work long hours. At the end of a show, they need to get away, often to make deliveries or set up at the next event. “Oh no! You can’t do that,” say the attendant staff. “That’s dangerous, that is.” Yet what could be more dangerous than adding another hour of travel to most traders’ schedules?

At quarter past five, a small queue (I was not the only one to have a bad day’s trading) was at the gate waiting to exit. There were few punters in evidence and there was little activity in the car park beyond. After being told by the gloating and giggling security staff that we would be let out at, successively, half past five, twenty to six and quarter to six, it was six before we were released. By this time, there were crowds of punters using the same gate and the queue of enraged traders now reached back to the main ring. Surely this cannot be good for traffic flow on the public roads and, after another half an hour queueing to get onto the public highway, so it proved. Traffic movement was down to about the speed I have experienced on bad days in Mumbai, with record lows of consideration and charitable outlook evident from all drivers. A real triumph of traffic organisation and one that is repeated up and down this great nation of ours on a regular basis throughout the season.

It does remind me just how little consideration traders often get for the thousands of pounds we pay each year in show fees – which, to be blunt, enable many shows to cover their costs before opening the turnstiles on show day itself. Many traders, I think it fair to say, know more about the successful organisation of events than some of the people who deal with only one show a year. The visiting public’s interests seem to be taken much more seriously than the stallholders who, fellow traders often tell me, feel that they are ‘treated like shit’. The same term comes up again and again in conversation.

Organisers talk about traders as if they are barely domesticated and that the regulations are there to protect the public from them. What tosh! Traders see each other most weekends of the year and are generally a well-organised or helpful bunch, prone to the occasional bout of high spirits. If a trader put on a suit, collar and tie and invested £100,000 in a series of events, he’d be hailed as ‘backing Britain’ and probably have his photo taken shaking the hand of some member of the a local chain-gang or even the prime minister. It’s unlikely that he would be treated like ‘shit’. Yet many traders easily invest around this sum each year in the form of pitch fees. Why should they have to put up with the condescension of some organisers, just because a pin-stripe suit isn’t the ideal attire to empty a 7.5-tonner of stock?

South Downs

The South Downs is thankfully a very weather-resistant area

A lousy pitch in a dead aisle; paying the full whack for fees; a public that seemed to have forgotten the whereabouts of its pockets; being laughed at by alleged ‘security’ staff. Now that’s what I call a bad investment and one that I certainly won’t be repeating.

But there is always a glowing exception. I booked late for the South Downs Show and Hampshire Wood Fair. What a refreshing change! It rained throughout set-up day and, on arrival, the state of the ground and the few scattered tents in evidence, I nearly turned around and went home. However, the cheerful greeting from the girl in the waterproofs and the sensible shoes on the gate persuaded me otherwise. I asked her why there were so few tents. She said that most of the trade would arrive the next morning, after the rain (“which will soon drain away”), from Portsmouth which was only a dozen miles down the road.

And so it proved. The Downs being chalk, the mud was mostly dry by the next morning. Traders arrived and were left to their own devices. Consequently set-up was easy and the show ran well. When traders had a question, they asked the helpful and polite staff who duly assisted. There was no sneering or sniggering. Beer and cider was provided by the excellent Ballards Brewery. Local farms provided really good food from a selection of make-shift tents and shepherds’ huts. The crowd was a good mix of town, country and craft. Saturday was a decent day’s trading. On Saturday evening, the Pompey Pluckers took to the stage with their ukuleles to entertain and raise money for the local air ambulance. As a predominantly female the audience started to appreciate the beer, the tongue-in-cheek music and, finally, each other, I realised that my chances of pulling were zero. However, I shall forever treasure the memory of the traders (a conservative lot at the best of times) standing in a line in front of the bar, supping their ale and staring steadfastly straight ahead, looking neither to the right nor the left. A weekend to remember, and one that I will note down for future attendance.


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