Siege warfare must have been a messy business in the 16th century. Combatants were faced not just with arrows, swords and spears but also newfangled firearms, cannons and bombs. Most of these were ineffective against stout stone walls and well-designed fortresses, but the petard – a small bomb – was rather effective at removing barriers, doors and even corners of buildings. Making these devices was still a dangerous task, and rogue petards were the death of many an artificer. Descriptions of engineers being blown into the air or hoist by their own petard populate the pages of Botticelli right through to Shakespeare. Petards, like traders’ tales, were notoriously unreliable.
I was hoist by my own petard when I believed the story given to my by another trader (who shall remain nameless) about Countryman Fairs demanding payment for chippings delivered to a stand at Kelmarsh – an incident that I am now happy to confirm never happened. Who knows why another trader would give me such a distorted version of events. Mischief? Boredom? Longstanding blood feud? Penis envy? Perhaps we shall never know. We traders are complex psycholo… psie, cykologee… creatures who act as much on instinct (the ‘trip, kill, sell’ reflex) as reason (reacting violently to requests for discount). I am also delighted to correct an additional error in my Kelmarsh report: Ian Harford of Team Wild was in fact attending an event in Texas, not at a show at Thame in Oxfordshire.
To Bisley then, where the shooting competition takes place in weather that is rainy and cold in equal measure. The appearance of a set of women’s underwear at the top of a flagpole announces in traditional style the arrival of the trading community. I understand that the underwear is now freshly laundered and is ready for collection from Dave behind the Pavilion Hotel bar.
The layout of this event includes stands on the covered bar veranda conveniently situated within easy reach of the bar and loo. It has the added attraction of having a lid, meaning that all but the windiest weather is kept at bay. An enjoyable afternoon sipping tea under cover is punctuated by the sound of the hotel owner, Mr Shaun Hopwood, earnestly and forcefully advising people to find somewhere else to park their vehicles. Trading was hard but not impossible, and with such a specialist shooting crowd it’s reasonably easy to work out what they are going to buy and supply the same.
The alleged English summer is now fully upon us, and shows come thick and fast. From Bisley, I go directly to Highclere where the country fair is in full swing. An improved layout and brilliant sunshine ensure two days of what must have been record crowds. Even so, the organisers still take the precaution of putting down steel tracking to ensure easy trader vehicle movement in the event of a summer torrent. Happy punters stay on late, assuring additional business at the close of both days. The unscripted collapse of a large tree behind the trade stands adds a bit of drama and an early chainsaw wake-up call to an otherwise relaxed and profitable show.
Off to Northampton, and a meeting with the leather finishers. Mrs Moss has nagged me to tidy myself up, so taking her at her word, I don the last suit in my wardrobe that fits and set off early.
En route I call in on an elderly uncle who lives just outside Stratford-upon-Avon. Though not enjoying the best of health, he is still affable and as active as his condition allows. Short on small talk, he immediately suggests we drive around the farm to check the cattle. The suit is not doing too well after several gate openings, not to mention being sat on in a farm vehicle interior that appears to have seen service as a builder’s skip, but no matter. By the time we get to the top field I am resigned to a dry cleaning bill.
As to fully justify this extravagance, we go round a hedge to discover a cow having some difficulty giving birth. The calf appears to be coming out backwards so will need to be turned. “You just nip out there,” says Uncle John, “and give the old girl a helping hand.”
Seeing that there is no plan B, I lay down my jacket on the front seat and spend the next several minutes with my arm up a bovine birth canal struggling to turn the calf in utero. Apart from the lashings of amniotic fluids, urine and faecal matter which now coat my right arm up to the shoulder – hair, ear, suit trousers, shirt, socks, shoes and all – I am also aware of the other cows in the herd who are beginning to take a none-toofriendly interest in my activities.
“Well done!” shouts Uncle John, chucking me a towel that appears to have last been used to clear up after a particularly bloody day at an abattoir. I cancel the meeting and drive home where, after attempting to clean the van cab, I burn the suit.
Finally to Ardingly, and the increasingly urban South of England Show, which turns into a disaster. Rather than take the weekend off, I panic and end up booking an immensely expensive bit of shedding right by the main ring. The hours grind past as the sales barely trickle in, and by the end of the first day I am nowhere near paying off the cost of the stall. I only reach this target at the end of day two, leaving a bare day to pay for the diesel, the beer I was forced to drink and the food I was forced to eat by peer pressure.
Needless to say, it was too little, too late. I ended up taking exactly what I would have made had I attended a show that was 75 per cent cheaper. This show still operates on the basis of ‘nothing is too much trouble for our traders’ – and they mean every word of it. There is no space allocated for vehicles behind the stand, so set-up and takedown days are chaotic. Never failing to spot an opportunity to make money, the show ground operates a deposit system under which each trader has to deposit £50 before being allowed on the showground. The deposit is redeemable on exit only strictly before 9.30pm.
It really isn’t a small showground, and I’m sure that with a little effort on the planning side vehicles could be parked behind stands and not outside the showground in remote orbital car parks that appear to be in a different county. Still, it’s my own fault for panicking and booking a stand – it was just as inconvenient when I last did the show four years ago.