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Chapter 19. Henry – A Village Show, Prize Cakes and Some Rhymes

If you’ve time, I’d like to have another word with you. I have to make the most of every opportunity, you know, before I’m put out to grass for good. The other day I went to the village show in the village of Berringford, Anne’s village, in Somerset. They hold it every year. There were several white tents and marquees in the green fields and there was bunting over the entrance.  It’s one of the events of the year in the village, and all the gardeners had been watching over their fruit and vegetables for the last few weeks to bring their roses and their potatoes to the peak of perfection on show day. No Olympic athlete prepares more thoroughly. The six best carrots, the six best shallots, the six best onions and so on.  In the main ring there is a show jumping competition and then some gymkhana events for children with their ponies, and there are prizes for the best cows and sheep and goats.  You know the sort of thing.  Behind the elms at the edge of the field, the old church tower looks over the scene, keeping an eye on everything as it always has.  The show takes place on the second Saturday of July, and I try to get there every year.  There is nothing like summer in Somerset.  Come rain or shine, nothing can compare with it. Nothing. I start up my car in Chiswick, point it westwards, join the M4 and after a couple of hours I am happy. When I see the peak of Tollbury in the distance and then the tower of Berringford church, I have the feeling that I am back home.

In one tent they have the competitions for the best Victoria sponge and fruit cake and I always wander round and inspect the entries on their doilies in the cake stands. (Do you remember Godfrey putting a doily under the machine gun to protect the Regency desk in the window of his cottage? Do you remember that?   ‘This is war, not Sothebys’, shouted Captain Mainwaring!) The judge of the cake section has to taste all the exhibits, and this must be the most enjoyable job on earth. Sometimes she hesitates and doubts and has to have a second or even a third mouthful. And to do that on a summer’s afternoon in Berringford.  What more could you ask for?  To wander round importantly and actually be obliged to have a slice of each cake!  This is every child’s dream! Never mind about wanting to be an engine driver when you grow up! But as usual I am out of date. What child today would want to be an engine driver? Anyway, in a corner of the cake tent were the entries of the children’s poetry competition. I went over and read one or two and I noticed that any poem which rhymed was put bottom of the list. This was so systematic that it seemed to be done on principle. In the village poetry contest rhyme was anathema.  What a pity!

Poor rhyme has been consigned to the bin, and not only in Berringford village show, but everywhere, it seems, and it needs a word or two in its defence!

Take the absolute rightness of Coleridge’s rhymes in the ‘Ancient Mariner’ in verse after verse. Not a sound is out of place. The poem actually has the title ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, doesn’t it! What about these lines, when the wind dropped and the ship could no longer move:

‘Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.’


My English teacher at Waterbury said, after reading that verse to us, ‘Coleridge wrote ‘The Ancient Mariner’ so naturally that every word was just right and when he finished the poem, he said, ‘So that’s done and, well I never, I have written it in rhyme!” And what was it Keats said? ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all!’

Now take Byron. Here are the first four lines of ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’. The prisoner chained to the pillar in the dungeon of the castle is telling his story.

‘My hair is grey, but not with years,

Nor grew it white

In a single night

As men’s has grown from sudden fears.’

Every rhyme is right. Just right.

Do you want to see the difference between poetry and prose? Here’s the prose version.

‘My hair is grey now and this is not because I’m old, and it isn’t because I had some sudden shock, which also makes men’s hair go grey very quickly.’

How slow that sentence is! But the poetry flies and it is the rhyme that gives it wings.

If you’re interested in what happened to the prisoner, find the poem on Google and read it to the end. How many of you reading this will actually do that? Not one in a hundred, I’m afraid!

Sometimes rhymes are just for fun.  Read this aloud. You didn’t did you! Now, don’t be afraid, just do it! Read it aloud!

‘The shades of night were falling fast

The rain was falling faster

When through an Alpine village passed

An Alpine village pastor.’

Take the rhyme away, and then read it:

‘The shades of night were falling fast

The rain was falling faster

When through an Alpine village walked

An Alpine village vicar.’

Oh dear! What a let down!

Actually, we could redeem that version a little with another rhyme!

‘The shades of night were falling fast

The rain was falling quicker

When through an Alpine village walked

An Alpine village vicar.’

But the original is so much better.  The original always is. 

Take Byron again, tongue in cheek now and making fun of his own rhymes,

‘But – Oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual,

Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?’

He actually managed to find something that rhymed with ‘intellectual’!

What about Paul McCartney?  How many times have you hummed this song?

‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away,

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.

Oh, I believe in yesterday.’

Now take away the rhymes. Here we go.

‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed a long way off,

Now it looks as though they’re here for ever.

Oh, I believe in yesterday.’

No, no, no!

Rhyme gives that finishing touch.  Rhyme feels good. It is re-assuring. All’s right with the world!  It should never have been banished from the children’s poetry corner in the cake tent!

There’s another thing while we’re here and I have you to hand. If you are still with me, that is.  Or perhaps you’ve gone off to make yourself a coffee?  I can’t help wandering a little but bear with me.  Bear with me. There is method in my madness. Now, here it is. Have you noticed how humanity is losing the art of description? People no longer describe anything. They send a photo on their mobile phone.

Think back to Cleopatra on Cydnus.

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes.’

Enobarbus did pretty well for a rough, plain-spoken soldier. What would he do today?

‘Cleopatra, you say? On the Cydnus?  Ah yes, I was there alright. She looked really cool. I’ll send you a couple of pics on WhatsApp.’

No burnished throne, no poop of beaten gold and no purple sails. Just a pic.

But this is already becoming yet another hobby horse and that is far too much riding for one day.  And I haven’t mentioned Anne at all.   I am sorry.  I’ll do better next time.  I really will.