What it's all about, Ali?

16th September 2005 at 01:00
I love the summer. I love everything about it.

True, I sometimes take it ill when well-wishers say "Have a good summer" because August is a busy month at the adult learning inspectorate, when all the school-leavers go to work and start training. Not for us the five-week break of schoolchildren and American presidents. Nevertheless, summer's heat slackens the sinews a little and there is a more relaxed air about the place. Relaxed not least, of course, because the double-headed monster, politics and the press, sleeps in the sunlight, and those who step lightly can safely pass it by.

But the real celebration of summer's end is, for me, the Great Dorset Steam Fair. For about 10 years now, our family has trooped off to this event, regardless of the fact that none of us has any particular fascination for traction engines. Forget ideas of a few engines standing in a grassy field behind the village hall, surrounded by cheerful jumble stalls and hoopla in aid of the church tower. This is on a different scale entirely. As you approach on the Salisbury to Blandford road, the fields ahead seem to have sprouted diamonds, the reflection of the sun from thousands of car roofs.

As you come closer, the hillsides crowd with tents and tractors and fairground rides ancient and modern, with smoke from a hundred or more traction engines and steam lorries and from the exhausts of every weird and wonderful agricultural machine ever made.

There are horse ploughing matches and the London to Norwich stagecoach whirling round behind a team of Polish greys. There are parades of "interesting and rare" vehicles, with the last surviving Commer motor caravan of 1955 greeted by the commentator like a long-lost child. There are hot-bulb oil engines the size of a London taxi, which produce two and a half horsepower to endlessly churn an asthmatic irrigation pump. There are cider tents, hog roasts and pasty stalls. There are vendors of garden gnomes, boiler suits for children (why didn't we latch on to this when they were small?), two pairs of boots for pound;4, and heaps of rusty iron among which there might, just might, lurk that last component needed to complete the 10-year restoration of the machine which will take pride of place in the parade ring next year.

And, the aristocrats of the place, traction engines in steam, the pride of Burrell and Fowler, Ipswich and Leeds, each one now worth a king's ransom.

What an extraordinary clue to the technical culture of this land they are! They are like massive pieces of jewellery. The fit and finish of each piece, the artistry which sneaks into the spoking of wheels which must weigh a ton apiece, tell the tale of the true character of this West Country crowd.

They are a motley bunch to the urban eye. There are couples where he looks like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but with earrings, and she is a plump cowgirl.

There are enough tattoos and well-rounded bellies to make a Samoan chieftain feel at home. There are more cowboy hats on this hot summer's day than I've seen in Dallas. There are the true inheritors of the creed of copper-bottomed English engineering, in boiler suits, boots and anything from flat 'ats to bowlers.

There are the contented men who sit presidentially among the heaps of rusty metal, brick-red themselves from a week of torrid weather and scrumpy, their neighbours back home liberated once a year from looking out on to a front garden scrapyard and, no doubt, hoping against hope that less will return than went away.

I love it. It is England rich and strange. When I hear politicians of every stripe talk of getting more closely in touch with modern Britain, I know that what they have in mind looks nothing like this. I'm not romantic about it, well not very. I'm certain that here and there lurks an ASBO and that by the time the fairground closes in the early hours, there will have been some binge drinking to rouse the St John Ambulance volunteers from their summer dreams.

What I love is that this is the England of the ruled, the governed. Wat Tyler and the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt had the certainty and durability of these people. They are the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and cousins of the people Ali inspectors work with every day.

They are what hides beneath the phrase "the individual learner". They are, above all, the reality which makes riding the waves of today's or tomorrow's airy theory of national governance worthwhile.

Summer brings them out. The politician who stays behind to sit out the dog days in Westminster has a unique opportunity to see who is at the nation's heart - and who, in the end, calls the tune.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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