A Twist of Fete

Hippo, a bald-shaven bulldog, was towing along two ten-year old Barbie lookalikes, their hair dyed (temporarily) pink. They were holding Hippo’s string in one hand and a collecting tin for the Cheshire Homes in the other. Everywhere you go in England somebody is trying to give you something you don’t want (a free newspaper, a copy of Time Out or a taste of their new apricot and banana frappe) or ask you something you don’t want to tell them (what you think of the range of retail outlets in Terminal Three or why you are not a member of Amnesty International or Greenpeace) or extract from you something you do want (almost always your money, but occasionally your hubcaps).

This was The Buzz, the Busbridge Village Fete, one of hundreds of events of its kind going on all over Britain, and there we were ‘down the rec’, a large swathe of green on the edge of the village, surrounded on all sides by faded red-brick Victoriana, each with a monster gas-guzzling 4×4, or maybe two, parked in the driveway. Why do the English all have such expensive cars and such awful little houses, I wonder?

THE BUZZ, BEE THERE 2PM SATURDAY said the signs and we were there, fervently hoping that BEE was an apian pun, not another lecture in political correctitude. As if to reinforce the purpose of such events, Abba’s Money Money Money was blasting across the cricket-strewn sward and swirling around the gazebos where stallholders tried to shed their load of pot-plants and painted doilies onto a reluctant and somewhat subdued public.

It was an essentially low-key event, with the exception of the two overcrowded Harry Potter Jumping Castles and a brilliant horizontal bungee which had the yoof sliding at high-speed on a long elastic across a sunlight-lubricated plastic mat. A miniscule cycle go-kart circuit offered budding Hamiltons a chance to break a track record and apparently there were donkeys (for the riding of) lurking behind the bowling club. We never saw them. Health and Safety has put paid to jousting, I suppose, but there wasn’t even a morris dancer or a maypole in sight. At least the sun was shining and Loseley were selling their world-class strawberries and cream flavoured full fat high-cholesterol ice cream so we wouldn’t need to have our faces painted as pandas. We could smother ourselves in ice cream instead. I’ve never understood face-painting.

A Bob Hoskins soundalike did his best to give the atmosphere a donkey-free kick-start by bellowing the words “Fun, fun, fun” over the PA but the go-carts couldn’t match the Beach Boys’ T-bird as a source thereof and when the clock on the Pavillion struck four, with Busbridge on a respectable 257-3, we slunk off.

A week later we missed the Bix Bottom Village Fete, which was a shame because they promised a Lucky Dip and a Tombola. We were, instead, saving ourselves up for the Russells Water Village Green Party, this time not an earth-saving political movement with collecting tins, but an opskop which promisingly boasted no pushchairs and only got going at 6.30pm. The Oxford Flint (a surprising and superb English dry white wine from the Brightwell Estate) and tins of Boddingtons (well past their sell-by date) were flowing marvellously as the four brilliant old buffers that make up The Gangbusters struck up one or two Beach Boys numbers of their own, spared us the Abba and then gave a respectable prediction of Elvis doing Hound Dog at 70 after many more peanut butter sandwiches. Hippo would have been impressed.

There were no stalls but the braai was excellent and the good folk of Russells Water let rip until midnight, when the drizzle started and we all retired to tackle someone’s private booze supplies instead. The surprise attendee was a delightful Herero from Grootfontein, called Jurgens, who added a good dash of colour to an otherwise lily-white event. Much to the amazement of the burghers he is going out with their doctor’s daughter.

In fine drizzle and atop a chalky Chiltern, it is hard to imagine that across the land the people of otherwise unremarkable places like Hull and Tewkesbury are crying out for gondolas as their towns become more and more Venetian in character, but the fairs, fetes and festivals carry on regardless on every village green and playing field. Maybe Hippo would have been more comfortable shaking off his Barbies and wallowing in the floodwaters of Hull. Everyone else, though, was putting a brave face in it. But what would you expect of a country where they are sensible enough to sell Nurofen headache tablets from the same machines that sell condoms? Nothing fazes the English.

Brightwell Wines www.brightwellvineyard.com

Cracking da Coffee Code

Charles II tried without success to ban coffeehouses in London on the grounds (no pun intended) that they were ‘places where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning His Majesty and his Ministers’. By 1739, fewer than 50 years after his death, there were over 550 of them. Now every fourth shop-front houses coffee. There are 254 branches of Starbucks alone in the capital, plus countless other large franchises and the occasional privately-owned Greasy Spoon. The days of trying to control discussion of the Royal family’s behaviour and that of the government are over. The newspapers talk about nothing else. And the people still talk about the weather.

A working grasp of Italian is essential to be able to order a cup of coffee nowadays. Caffe Nero, a chain which opened in 1997 and already has 100 outlets in the capital and another 150 across the rest of the UK, is probably the most dynamic of the many coffee chains opening up around Britain, offring a proper menu with pasta dishes instead of a range of unspeakable pre-packaged pastries.

Like South Africa, the emphasis is moving towards the healthy and away from Black Forest Gateau and the McBreakfast. But, unlike South Africa, in London they look at you blankly if you ask for a coffee, reeling off a string of options which would mean not a coffeebean to Edward Lloyd, whose coffeehouse in Lombard Street was one of the first of its kind, that meeting place of shipping insurance underwriters in the 17th century which eventually gave its name to Lloyd’s of London.

Mr Lloyd might be offered Espresso or Cappuccino (so far so good for us maybe, but already a bit discomcaffulating for our time-traveller) or Caffe Mocha or Caramel Macchiato. He might opt for an Espresso because it sounded as if it might have come quickly, but no. Solo, doppio or ristretto? Oh, heck and botheration, he’d say, can’t I just have a filter coffee? The barista (oh, yes, that’s what you have to call them) would don his/her sad face and sympathetically tell him he meant an Americano. Mr Lloyd probably didn’t know very many Americans but let’s assume he agrees, relieved to have placed his order.

Tall, Grande or Medio? Er, medium please. Non-fat? Half-caf? Organic? Dry or wet? Ouch. Our man would surely give up and ask for a cup of tea and a sandwich only to be barraged again with teas ranging from Homeopathic to Herbal, Darjeeling to Calming, and what would he like in his Panini? You know the feeling when you just beg for Five Roses, PLEASE not Rooibos, and a Marie Biscuit.

Nowadays most Londoners have cracked the coffee code, so the cunning cafeterians have supplemented the stuff you know with even more concoctions. What do you think a Costa Cranberry and Raspberry Frescato might be? Or a Yoghurt Swirl? Or a Frappuccino? How many different kinds of muffin can there be? How disgusting must a Skinny Carrot Cake Slice be? Do we really have to call pastries Viennoiserie as if we are now to believe that they have come all the way from Vienna? Must we now learn Austrian-German to order a Strudel?

Retreating over the road to The Paul Bakery, we speak French. And even if we speak English, we speak it with such a ridiculous accent that no-one’s following a word. It’s like a Zulu child from Nqutu trying to understand a Rosebanker speaking Fanakalo.

De Gaulle said “How can you expect to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”. In the same vein, Paul has over a hundred different kinds of bread from which to choose. “Wot bred woood Monsieur lark in eez sondweesh?” Oh la la! The word baguette comes winging back from a childhood holiday in Brittany.

“Wot woood Monsieur lark in eez baguette, ze Coulommiers Jambon Cru or ze Champignon Dijonnais aux Poivres or ze Thon Nicois aux Oignons or ze?”

I am becoming one of the King’s disaffected persons liable to start a revolution. Never mind Marie-Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”. May I please have a cheese, ham and tomato toasted on white government loaf and a full-caffeine Coke. It’s time to go back to Juicy Lucy’s.