What on Earth is the Great Yorkshire Show?

“ Working in the rain cutting up wood
Didn’t do my little brother much good
Lost two fingers in a chainsaw bite
All he does now is drink and fight “

Show of Hands: Country Life.

The Sheffield based part of the Ghost Labs team (Geoff, Max and Mark) went up to Harrogate to join Pippa and Brendan from the New Vic Theatre at the Unite Pavilion at the Great Yorkshire Show. I knew things were serious when Geoff announced that he had his wellies as the day before there had been a lot of rain at the show. I too demonstrated my environmental nous by having some walking boots on. Alarmingly Max was in a pair of Nike airs. Oh well the sun was shining. The usual theoretical debate started; somewhere near Leeds the sat nav was ignored and I tried to convince a sceptical Geoff and Max that you could navigate by clouds. As we wound our way through the Yorkshire lanes we reflected on Malinowski’ s “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” and how the  Trobriand islanders could navigate by sticking their hands in the water . Malinowski lamented the passing of island life in his classic work but his methods kicked off the eternal debate of how to represent the other. In driving from the city to the Great Yorkshire Show I wondered how I might portray the show sympathetically. In the end I realised that the show was very familiar to me but I what I did not expect was to share in Malinowski’s lament for something lost.

In the 1840s, just as Chartism was at its peak, the Great Yorkshire Show was established. For 100 years it led a nomadic existence in the county, shifting between sites in Leeds, Hull and York. In the post war period the show settled at Harrogate attracting about 50,000 visitors. Now it is the premier agricultural show in the country, attracting 100,000s of visitors. The site is vast, some 250 acres. There is a dizzying array of stalls selling fashion, tractors that look like they are out of Mad Max, organic food, all manner of rural services including estate agents for the country pile that we all wish for, specialist insurance for one’s armoured tractor and more. We had entered through the earthy brown gate and were immediately intrigued by a mass sheep shearing competition. It was still going when we left but by now there was a sense of crisis as the Welsh, yes the Welsh, had won all the day’s medals and the MC was desperate that Yorkshire regain its pride as another group of reluctant sheep were manhandled on stage. Those sheep looked big to me, I would not like to pick them up: that takes skill and strength.

As we wandered towards the Unite pitch you could just see the main arena where the gymkhana takes place and all the animal exhibitions are held. I spied the Black Sheep Baa and knew that we were close to Unite. Seeing the climbing wall meant that we were on top of Unite and I was happy to see the union’s next door neighbours: the Country Landowners Association, an organisation as far removed from “the fight back Union “ as it is possible to be. If Durham had a coherence to it, the Show was about juxtaposition. Unite, next door to the top of the rural tree? You could not make it up but there it was. I had hatched a secret plan to swipe the Tarot cards and do some readings on the gentry but no one appeared to be there; all was quiet with the landowners despite what looked like a nice breakfast menu. We then found out that Michael Gove had just departed the CLA after doing some media interviews. That evening I caught him on Look North babbling away about how he liked Yorkshire cheese and that it would be safe after Brexit. So the good people of Wensleydale can now sleep easily in their beds as the great Gove would look after them, just like he did with schools I reckon. I would have cheerfully kidnapped the cards to perform a reading on Gove in front of the BBC but it was not to be. Gove had gone like a will o’ the wisp to haunt another field, leaving the CLA pitch silent and empty. Perhaps they had no trust in him either.

Unite have a marquee at the Great Yorkshire Show as a legacy of organising agricultural workers. In an urban society we can be dismissive of rural life but Unite’s presence at the show reminds us that the countryside is a place of production at least as much as one of consumption. It is not all about rambling, climbing or cycling in the Dales or the Peak. The countryside is a place of work where underneath the bucolic charm there can be violence. I  know that. As a Worcestershire lad I would cycle out of town to help on friends’ farms with the harvest; there were always guns around and there were always accidents. Friends of mine would go hunting in the local woods to shoot anything that moved and then shoot anything that did not move. Visits to casualty were not uncommon. Later in my teens I worked on the hop farms of the Teme valley and accidents occurred all the time. A friend of mine drove a tractor into the main pole that anchored an entire hop field: he was told off by the foreman who showed some sympathy when he explained that the accident due to all the wires around could have resulted in decapitation. At that point the pole crashed to the ground and the entire hop field collapsed. £ 30, 000 of damage done in 30 seconds. Amazingly my mate was not sacked.

Show of Hands remind us that country life is not all bucolic charm, there are industrial accidents too. These accidents result in injuries that are similar to ones that you would get in any factory. The difference between urban and rural life might not be as sharp as some would argue. So much of industrial Britain was actually dispersed in rural areas rather than focussed exclusively in the cities. The Durham Miners Gala is a rural phenomenon. In the North Derbyshire pit village where I once worked, in the aftermath of the Great Strike it was part of my job to organise fishing as part of the curriculum. Every Wednesday afternoon a group of 15/16 year olds rather than do P E or Personal and Social Education were allowed to wander off to the local ponds and fish. One wonders what the creator of the EBAC, Michael Gove, would have made of that. The following morning, I would check that all was well by asking, “Good fishing?”. The most I would normally get in reply would be “Yes” or “No”. Sometimes I would ask “What did you talk about?”. If I was lucky I would get something about the Blades or the Owls but not much more. I never wanted anything more. Neither did the school.

The mix of life between the urban and the rural stretched into the inner city. 30 years ago I lived on a rough street in Sharrow, Sheffield. One of the local families would regularly take the dogs badger baiting out in Notts. “Militant” Bill lived next door to one branch of the clan and was somewhat shocked one summer’s day after hearing much squealing, oinking and cursing to see blood appear in the shared drain of his backyard. On sticking his head over the fence he saw the remains of a slaughtered pig: “Sorry pal, had to be done. Do you want some?”.

Unites’ presence at an agricultural show reflects a way of life that obscures the town or country divide. Many of the folk at the show probably come from Leeds, I bet some were at the Miners’ Gala but what they come for is a sense of community as well as a nice day out. By attending they are engaging in civic life, contributing towards community cohesion. Unite’s exhibition contributes towards the sense of community by highlighting struggle in the context of democracy. Hence it is popular. Last year the exhibition took visitors through the story of the Luddites, industrialisation and the Suffragettes. This year a carefully crafted installation called Northern Lasses reminded us of the role of women in industry. We were shown that women played a significant role in munitions during times of war: they drove ambulances while bombs rained down thereby challenging gender roles long before the second wave of feminism emerged in the sixties and early seventies. The Ghost Lab was in a niche towards the end of the exhibition at the point where the story was brought up to contemporary times, the lab fitted nicely. Folk had their readings done, talked about change and continuity, legacy and renewal. One of the telling conversations I was able to have was with a group of girls who reflected astutely that though things had changed, women faced significant discrimination in the workplace and that was why we needed unions.

The exhibition was busy on Wednesday with at least several hundred visitors, so a great place to have a Ghost Lab. Yet next door the CLA was eerily quiet: had Gove silenced them all? In previous years by mid-afternoon with the Pimms flowing there had been much guffawing and hooting. Last year I had witnessed animated conversations about the consequences of Brexit: “Not good for my business model, old boy.” This year all was quiet: did the CLA have their own ghosts? What was Haunting them? In contrast to the exuberance of Durham the show seemed muted, perhaps that is always the case but I am not so sure. Something has changed.

If there was a symbolic event that illustrated that change it was the regular appearance of armed (with machine guns) police. No doubt they were after Unite’s ice cream and were happy to flirt with the young women, but I was disturbed by this militarisation of the show.  Unite stands in the tradition of the Luddites, the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists etc. Yet here is an armed policeman standing right outside a Ghost Lab; that is eerie. All is at peace but think of Peterloo, the Newport rising and Orgreave to consider how those guns might be used. In a stable democracy? Surely not? Of course it could not happen in good old Blighty. As the Unite exhibition teaches us trade unions are a vital element of civil society, yet that does not stop me worrying.

Much of contemporary literature on (the not so) new social movements focuses on the city yet the Durham Miners’ Gala and the Great Yorkshire Show reminds us that critical forces and events can be found in the rural ‘fringe’.  The Unite exhibition stimulates discussion about the type of education needed in these anxious times. The Social Haunting Project creates a space in which we may be able to conceptualise and theorise what is happening ‘out there’ particularly in the neglected communities of the north.

So what on Earth is the Great Yorkshire Show? Well it appears to be place of craft and tradition, a place of conservatism and preservation. A place where urban dwellers can buy into an imagined community or the privileged can consider downsizing.  Unite’s presence connects with these desires: a place where folk can learn and reflect, where they can dream and hope but in contrast to a lifestyle shift, the union’s presence points to a collective solution.  The Show reflects a yearning for community, an establishment of a common ground. Yet, like Durham, it is overwhelmingly white: it does not seem to reflect the diversity of our society. Is the Show anachronistic? An imagined community of 1950s nostalgists? I think it is more subtle than that; it deserves investigation.

I left feeling that the show was a place where the ecology of the Earth in its natural, social and psychological dimensions are known to be not working and no one is really sure what to do. All of us were enjoying a nice day out looking at the stalls and the contests hoping it would all be the same next year and in ten but knowing deep down that is not how it is going to play out. I thought the Show was quiet, as in silent. Conversations were muted, serious. A poignant contrast to the exuberance of Durham. Perhaps at Durham “the Ghosts had begun to speak”, but at the Great Yorkshire Show we were all sitting by the “unquiet grave”.

We crave to be secure to know where we are going, but stuff happens. We yearn to dwell, but have to be nomadic. Perhaps nostalgia is a yearning for consistency. We are tired of being told to adapt, to embrace the future, to be modern. Hence we are haunted not by the past but the future so we cling to imaginaries that will never exist. Malinowski concluded his great ethnography of island life realising that it was doomed. No longer would there be the Kula trade, no longer would there be the great rituals accompanying an expedition beyond the coral reef. No longer would there be the magic of the flying witches. No longer would islanders navigate the seas by touch and feel. Malinowski’s forced exile because of the Great War would make him confront the disenchantment of the world. Was Malinowski nostalgic? A representative of empire despite his Polish origins? Of course, but he could see what was coming. He did not see the horrors of the war with the Japanese, but he would have not been surprised at the cargo cults that erupted across the Western Pacific, local cultures warped by the abundance of war time capital.

If Malinowski was alive now, what would the great ethnographer have seen at the Great Yorkshire Show. Would he see parallels with the Argonauts of the Western Pacific? Folk clinging desperately, nostalgically to a way of life doomed? Maybe. But if he had wandered into one tent covered in red he might have seen re- enchantment and hope.

Many thanks to Andy Pearson, Unite’s regional Educational officer in the North East, Yorkshire and the North East for letting us have a Ghost Lab for the day as part of another great exhibition.

Mark James, Unite Community Co-I

Mark JamesComment