After the death by boredom of the slow traffic jam, the agricultural-show field was an assault on the senses. The sun was out and my grandson and I wandered around stripped to the waist. Soon we found ourselves among the livestock pens and we paused to watch a line of nine Texel rams being judged by a tall, distinguished-looking man wearing a country check shirt, tweed jacket, mauve trousers, brogues and a bowler hat. We stood next to the single strand of baler-twine fence and watched him weigh the merit of each sheep. Texels have no wool on their faces, which are as expressive and individual as human ones. My grandson, aged six, said he thought that the one on the extreme left had the prettiest face and the second ram from the right had the shapeliest body.
The judge, I think, was looking for breed conformation, symmetry and meat on the bone. He straddled each sheep from behind, exactly as though he were about to commit a surprisingly obscene act, then he reached forward and searched with his spread fingertips down through the thick orange-yellow fleece for the shoulder muscles. Then he ran his hands sensuously over the sheep’s back, thighs and buttocks. I remembered working on a council grass-cutting gang with an old working-class Devon countryman called Henry, and asking him whether it was true that the best way to shag a sheep was to shove the back legs down your wellies. Old Henry assumed I was asking him a serious and important question, however. ‘There no need for that,’ he said scornfully. ‘If ye spread thy ’and over the small of ’er back, she’ll stand for ’ee.’ The Texels’ thoughtful stillness under the judge’s voluptuous caresses appeared to bear this out. Finally, the judge awarded the red, white and blue champion rosette to the Texel with the pretty face, and the blue and white runner-up rosette to the shapely one, exactly as Oscar had predicted, and we moved on, satisfied with the judge’s decision.
Moving up the grassy hill, we decided next to inspect the cattle lines. Among them was a Devon Red bull of a massiveness that truly astonished us. Instead of the usual simple copper nose-ring, his septum was attached to his lead by a steel ring with an elaborate spring leader: even bulls’ nose-rings, one realises, are subject to technological advance.
His handler was leaning against the rail. She was middle-aged, also with a nose-ring. Hers was silver. ‘How old?’ I said, expecting her to say at least ten. ‘I’m 35,’ she said. ‘Oh, you mean the bull! Lord John is nearly two,’ she said. The bone, muscle and prominent sinews in his handler’s junkie-thin arms attested to the strength needed to persuade this bovine toddler to move when he didn’t particularly want to.
The bull stood patiently, unfazed by our talking over his head like this. His bull’s eyes were unsuspicious, his bull mind miles away. ‘Stroke him,’ she said. ‘He loves it!’ So we reached down and mussed the curly hair on his lordship’s monumental forehead, mainly to see how this huge, stoical unit of muscle and bone might express his pleasure. Lord John lifted his head gently, twice, as though mildly irritated. ‘What’s that?’ said Oscar, now leaning out to the side and pointing at the pair of avocados in a flesh-coloured string bag suspended between the bull’s back legs. ‘Them’s his knackers, Oscar,’ I said, didactically adding, ‘They’re what he’s for.’ ‘That’s nothing, my dear,’ said the handler to Oscar. ‘My husband’s are bigger than that.’
We wandered away. The tented restaurants reserved for judges ‘only’, or ‘only’ employees of this insurance company or that legal firm, gave the show a strangely corporate air. If I’d wanted to, and had the money, I could have gone home with a tweed shooting jacket for £350, an outdoor wood stove for a £1,000, or a brand-new three-litre Landrover Discovery in graphite, on the road, for £41,000. Instead of which, we bought ourselves ice creams from the van. Oscar asked for chocolate-chip flavour; I for honeycomb. At the first lick, Oscar’s scoop dropped off the cone and on to the ground. When I asked the man for a replacement, he argued with the conviction and confidence of a man in an exalted position that the negligence was entirely on Oscar’s part and that he was therefore under no obligation. I argued that he hadn’t rammed the ice cream into the cone hard enough with the curve of his scoop. And that if he didn’t give us another, I’d come up there and show him what I meant.
Albeit with bad grace and muttering about ‘chavs’, he furnished us with a replacement scoop.
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