Compared to a country like India, where street processions are an almost daily occurrence, New Zealand hardly qualifies as a home of lively festivals and colourful customs.
Such paucity, however, makes us cherish all the more those we do have: the Guy Fawkes bonfire, carols by candlelight, kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve, hot cross buns and Easter eggs . . . and going to the A & P show.
Who has never been to one? Very few New Zealanders, one suspects, judging by the diversity of the populace who turn out for them.
Where else but at an A & P show would I have seen a yuppie couple in designer sunglasses standing next to an elderly farmer with tweed hat and A & P Association membership badge on the lapel of his sports coat, and next to him again a young heavy metal fan wearing a black Metallica T-shirt and eating a barbequed sausage doused with tomato sauce and wrapped in white bread?
We were all watching the highland dancing. Two girls skittered nervously over a bouncy stage, its surface made all the more precarious by recent rain, performing their competition highland fling to the tune of a bagpiper in a kilt and T-shirt. The judge, sitting in an orange plastic chair, was allotting marks on a clip-board. She had already scrutinised the length of the dancers’ kilts, the height of their socks and the state of their hair, and was now assessing timing and interpretation, and whether they had their knees out in the correct positions. Off came a point as one of them knocked the crossed swords.
The siting of showgrounds on the urban fringes of our towns lends weight to the adage that A & P shows are when the country comes to town, and the town goes country.
The shows are socially unifying events, stirring our common ancestral memory of the pioneering rural way of life. Nowadays, they provide an increasingly rare opportunity for townsfolk to get a glimpse of the farming sector, while for the rural community they are a time to catch up with distant neighbours whom they may never see from one show to the next.
Unlike the music, arts or wine and food festivals which have sprung on to the scene in recent years, A & P shows have a venerable tradition behind them. Indeed, in their broad outline, they have remained unchanged for well over a century.
Bill Jamieson is one who can vouch for this fact. Aged 98, he has been coming to the Carterton Show since 1905, and says that the only real difference now is that the show has got a lot bigger. In the 1900s showgoers may have arrived in a buggy rather than by car, and the stock may have been herded rather than trucked in, but the basic idea of exhibiting livestock and picking champions has not changed.
Some events have, of course, been rendered redundant, most notably on the dairying side. Hand milking competitions died out with the arrival of milking machines in the 1940s, and, with the closure of most local dairy companies, so too have cheese exhibitions. These, however, are details.
There are obvious antecedents for A & P shows in the country fairs of England, which date back to the middle ages and beyond. Interestingly, though, formal societies for the exhibition of livestock do not have a significantly longer history in the UK than in New Zealand. The Royal Agricultural Society in England was formed in 1837, the Highland and Agricultural Society in 1784, and the Bath and West of England Association in 1777.
Similar societies accompanied the establishment of farming in New Zealand: the Auckland Agricultural and Horticultural Society was established in 1843, the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association grew from a show of merino sheep at Rangiora in 1859, and the Hawke’s Bay Association was founded in 1863.
The Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand, which is the umbrella organisation for all A & P associations, began as a nationwide conference in 1893, but it was not until 1923 that the Society was formally named and gazetted as such. The following year saw the first Royal Show—a grand gathering of all A & P associations which is still held annually, the venue alternating between the North and South Islands.
For representatives of the big agricultural machinery and feed 1 companies, the A & P show is little more than a relaxed public relations exercise over a can of beer, but for the side-show operators and the stud farmers, it is a very serious business indeed.
Walking around the stalls and pens, with prize ribbons from past shows fluttering like lucky talismans on the beams above, and hanging pots of silk flowers decorating the sides, it becomes obvious that such accolades are vital to the success of stud farms, both in terms of mana and of Mammon, as they will influence the prices for breeding stock in the coming season.
At the Richmond Show, George Shuttleworth, a Nelson Angus breeder, begins the final washing of his beasts 15 minutes before judging is due to begin.
In the cosmetics department, George’s piece de resistance is a plastic spray bottle filled with a mixture of baby oil and methylated spirits. The meths acts as a carrier for the baby oil, explains George, helping to spread the spray droplets evenly over the cow’s coat, and then conveniently evaporating away.
“It’s like a lady,” says George as he lovingly brushes the hairs along the contours of the muscles. “If she didn’t put on lipstick and rouge, she wouldn’t look quite so gorgeous.”
What will the judges be looking for in his Angus beasts?
“Well, with the topography of New Zealand being so up and down, one of the first things they look for is correct legs,” says George. “It has to stand on four corners. You don’t want bandy legs, or having them bend the other way.”
Then there is the question of muscle: “The stud man and the money man [investor] are in the market to produce muscle, because that fills the deposit book.”
Duncan Guy, a judge at the Clareville show, says he always gets the owner to walk a bull towards him, to make sure the animal is square on its feet. It should put the back feet where the front feet have been, and if it does not, he will be examining the hoofs to see if they have grown crooked.
“I am looking for a perfectly balanced animal,” he says, “not one with a huge buffalo shoulder and no back end.”
As for the all-important muscling, he says there is no use in a big frame unless there is muscle to match. The problem, however, is how to distinguish muscle from fat.
“A good area to test is in behind, halfway down the back leg, on the roll of the thigh. Also, if there appears to be a lack of meat on the shoulder, you know there is no muscle.
“We also look at the width down the back. A bull must look like a bull. By the same token, cows must look feminine—they will not breed well unless they do.”
While the colour of the animal may not be the most important consideration, you do have to be able to identify the breed. For example, if a Hereford doesn’t have its correct marking, it could be mistaken for a Simmental.
One proud breeder whose South Devon cattle fulfilled all the judges’ requirements was Southland’s Atholl Blackmore. At the Royal Show in Christchurch last November, his prized beast was judged Supreme Champion of the breed.
For Atholl, the win was the culmination of over 20 years of hard work. In 1971, he had been visiting the south of England, and was so impressed by the South Devon cow that he went into partnership with other members of his family and began importing them.
In England, the South Devon is a dual purpose breed, yielding both the famous Devonshire clotted cream, and lean, quality meat, with a big eye muscle and relatively low fat content. Southland dairy farmers are beginning to cross established local breeds with South Devons for a beef fattening breed.
Atholl describes the South Devon as a gentle giant. It is so good-natured that kids can ride on its back, he says. “As soon as the cow has calved, she will allow you to pick up the calf, tag it and weigh it. There are not many cows that you can handle like that while they are still licking their newborn calves.”
With dairy cattle, the judging criteria are somewhat different. While in the beef animal the judges are looking mainly for condition, with a dairy cow such as the Jersey they are looking for a fine bone structure, nicely placed teats on the udder, and also for good temperament and character.
As Blenheim farmer Ian Jordan explains, these days the judges are also looking for strong animals. “This is because Jerseys in the North Island began getting too small, and in the South Island they have to be stronger because of the tougher conditions.”
One of Ian Jordan’s animals won the 1992 Royal Show’s Champion Jersey Yearling Heifer, and his top Jersey bull has won both junior and senior championships at successive Royal Shows.
Ian is a believer in immaculate presentation of his stock. To ease the rigours of transportation, the regulation steel mesh floors of his cattle trucks are sprinkled with sawdust so that the cattle won’t get sore feet. His cows are also covered during transit with canvas coats lined with disposable nappies in order to prevent rubbing and to keep the coats shiny.
Prior to the show, new halters are made for the cows and their coats are given a clipping. This is because show time falls between seasons, and cows are losing their winter coat.
This same problem of the springtime A & P show bedevils the poultry breeders. At this time of year their birds are breeding and losing their feathers. Thus, many of the serious poultry club shows take place in the winter, when the birds are harder and shinier.
Nevertheless, the darkened poultry house at the Richmond show is full of squawking hens, roosters, bantams, ducks and pigeons—and full of the perfume of their droppings—as I enter from the glaring sun.
“The biggest classes here were originally game birds,” says champion breeder Barry Benseman, handing me his prize bantam. “A bird should feel like a brick when you pick it up—if it’s like a ball of cotton wool, it’s no good.”
“Yes, very solid and heavy, and such lovely shiny feathers,” I eagerly assure him, hoping he will take the malevolent little beast back again quickly, before it sinks its beak into my hand.
“We cut the cockscombs off so they can’t grab each other in a scrap—of course, these birds were originally bred especially for cock fighting,” he goes on, asking me to note the nice deep angry red colour of the eyes. Pale, wimpish eyes are useless.
As with other animals, points are taken off for obvious defects, such as the front and back toes out of line with each other, or the presence of scale, lice or broken feathers. The judging is actually a process of elimination.
At the levin show, members of the Horowhenua Kennel Association are revelling in their great hobby. Dogs of all shapes and sizes are being led around in a wide circle in what is known as a ribbon parade. They are not only pedigree dogs, for the event is seen as a learning process for those preparing one day to enter the big championship shows. Here they can gain experience in handling dogs in the ring, in full view of the public.
Without a doubt, the most extraordinary looking dog is a Hairless Chinese Crested. True to its name, it has not a hair over its pink and black mottled body, except for a giant puff on its tiny head. Owner Shirley Hick tells me the breed was once used by wealthy Chinese as hot water bottles, and says that when they get into bed with you, you can’t last long with them, as things do indeed get too hot.
“Border collie” is about as close as one could come to defining the breed hard at work at the sheepdog trials. However, while our common sheepdog may have begun as a pure border collie back in Scotland, she has since been crossed with so many breeds that New Zealand farmers now virtually have their own breed going.
The sheepdogs-130 of them will compete at the Manawatu Show—are specially trained for competition, learning a more complex set of commands than those normally used on the farm. Keith Barrett from Hunterville, who has been competing for the past 16 years, says that it usually takes between two and three years of training before they are in top form.
Elsewhere at the show, junior shepherds compete to correctly rank four ewes from best to worst. A solid heavy fleece is what is wanted, as it costs just as much to shear one kilogram off a sheep as it does to remove five. Parting the wool, the contestants look for the desired amount of crimp which gives the wool elasticity. They force the sheep’s mouth open to inspect the teeth, then walk behind t he animal to check that the back legs are not sagging down on the small sections above the feet known as the pasterns. They also check the wool around the tail of the sheep (known as the britch), to see that it is not too hairy and goat-like.
After they have made their assessment and given an oral presentation to the small group of people watching, the judge gives his verdict. He lights up his pipe and proceeds to use the stem as a pointer.
“This is a nice long sloping ewe, a little harsh in the britch perhaps, but we have ranked her first. Second is this ewe with a nice dense medium fleece of wool, a little weak patch on the shoulders, perhaps, but still good. The third ewe we think has a weak neck. The shoulder blades are too high, and she is not very good on the pasterns. Number four has bad back pasterns, bad colour and poor confirmation. The winner is Malcolm Wyeth, who goes on to the Royal Show in Christchurch. Congratulations, Malcolm.”
The more serious contestants in the equestrian events travel not only to the Royal Show, but do a circuit of many minor shows as well, in order to gain points in the bid for the world championship. Emerging victorious from the second round of the jumping at the Horowhenua Show with the fastest time, and without knocking off any bars, was 21-year‑old Catrina McLeod, riding NRM Falcon.
Catrina is one of a group of all but professional horse riders. In the A & P show season, from spring through to late summer, she travels the country, attending about three shows a week. In Catrina’s case, this demanding schedule is made possible by sponsorship from NRM Feeds, who pay her travelling expenses, the shoeing of her horse and the vet bills.
Catrina counts herself lucky that she is able to live with the support of her parents on the family farm at Martinborough and has the opportunity to train every day. She says New Zealand must be the cheapest place in the world to ride horses, because of the land space and the absence of hefty barn fees. Nevertheless, she longs to get overseas.
When it comes to dedication at a purely hobby level, it is difficult to out-do the vintage machinery enthusiasts, Invariably, their gleaming machines will bring up the rear of the grand parade—the procession of champion animals which takes place without fail at 2.00 p.m. on the final day of each A & P show.
For the grand parade of the 1992 Manawatu show, the machinery buffs displayed a dual-seater tractor used in the UK during the Second World War. There is one seat for the driver, and another for a plane spotter.
At the Royal Show in Christchurch, amidst a display of chugging pumps and vintage shearing machines, I watched a mechanical cross-cut saw (that looked as if it were straight out of a Dr Seuss children’s book) cutting through a log with remarkable efficiency. It won first prize for its owner, retired engineer Izaak Koole.
Izaak also won a prize for his vintage shearing plant, which came from Castle Hill, a sheep station in Arthur’s Pass. Izaak spent three months taking it to pieces, cleaning and repairing it, and putting it back together.
“Then, the first time I took the machine out to an A & P show, I dropped it from the trailer and both its metal arms broke off. I could have cried.”
Untold hours must also go into the handcraft displays of the Country Women’s Institute and the women’s division of Federated Farmers: the patchwork quilts, embroidered cushions, Christmas decorations, and fabric-covered boxes.
At virtually every show, you will see, in the halls set aside for home industries, displays which are known as courts. These are tableaux of objects depicting a theme. Until about 10 years ago, the courts simply illustrated a room in a house, but then somebody decided to group them around an idea, such as a song title, the name of a show, a day in the life of a farmer, or, at the Horowhenua Show this year, a book title. Entries included Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood and Hairy Maclary’s Rumpus at the Vet.
Behind glass—or, at the more old-fashioned shows, sheets of wire netting—are displays of a craft which is rapidly dying out in urban New Zealand: home baking. All the old favourites are there: sponge sandwiches, Madeira cakes, pikelets, scones, queen cakes. It is a living history of New Zealand colonial cooking.
Strict rules ensure objective assessment of the baking. Judges are usually brought in from out of town, and, to further avoid accusations of favouritism, all entries have a number rather than a name.
On the days preceding the show, when contestants bring in their entries, stewards are on hand to collect, display and make up schedules. The schedule is strictly adhered to. For example, if four of a particular biscuit are called for, then the judges are not interested in seeing five or three. And it would never do to ice a rich fruit cake.
At the Richmond A & P show, something of Nelson’s alternative lifestyle rubs off in the form of a stall selling Indian food—vegetable kofta, with a sweet ‘n’ sour tamarind sauce, and samosa. In a nearby hall, carnivorous scavengers of various ages wait hungrily for the titbits dished out by Mike Carr, a tutor-chef at the Nelson Polytechnic, who is demonstrating how to sauté meat on a revolutionary induction cooker. Powered by conventional electricity, this appliance sets up a magnetic field on the top of the stove, and when an iron or stainless steel pan comes in contact, the circuit is completed and the pan itself becomes the heat source. Induction technology has the advantage that there is no hot element to burn hands or ignite cooking oil—Mike demonstrates this fact by putting the pan half on the “element” and his hand on the other half: the pan keeps cooking, the hand stays cool.
A few metres away, a stall publicising Hokitika’s wild food festival offers grilled huhu grubs at a dollar apiece. “They taste like peanut butter—honest!” the stall holder assures a prospective customer, who, having swallowed the thing whole, claims it was indeed nice, but more reminiscent of whitebait.
Rather more in line with the Anglo-Saxon tradition are the grilled venison steaks offered by the New Zealand Deer Farmers Association at the Royal Show. A team of trainee chefs from Christchurch Polytechnic are getting the feel of working in a busy professional kitchen and are barbequeing the venison for two minutes only (any longer and it will dry out), while further down the chain others are stuffing it into pockets of pita bread with shredded lettuce and Mexican tomato and chilli sauce.
Visitors to the Manawatu Show were encouraged to taste samples of cooked possum while they watched a possum product competition, where models paraded possum fur coats, anoraks and jerkins made of possum suede.
Carmen Fernandez, a lecturer in nutrition from Massey University, handed me a possum sausage roll. As I ate, she outlined the remarkable qualities of possum meat: it is very low in fat-0.7 per cent, compared to 10-15 per cent for beef and lamb—and yet it never dries out.
“When you deep-freeze meat,” she said, “a lot of water normally comes out when you thaw it. With possum meat, however, the water is bound to the tissue, and virtually none comes out when you defrost it. Furthermore, once minced, it does not need to be bound with eggs to make patties or hamburgers.”
I finished the sausage roll and moved on to a small pottle of possum curry. It is mildly flavoured meat, not a bit rank or gamey, and I actually enjoy it. It is delicious. No, really, you must believe me, it is!
But if Carmen and I are fighting an uphill battle to convince Kiwis that possum is edible, the hot dog and candy floss sellers have no such problem.
Their caravans are besieged with permanent throngs of takers for their wares: battered sausages on sticks, dipped in bright red tomato sauce, and comets of sticky pink cotton wool. What sortie around the sideshows would be complete without this favourite showground fodder?
A blind person would be guided to the area by the smell of frying fat and spinning floss alone—that, and the pop music broadcast at fuzzy full volume, the clash of metal and whine of strained go-kart motors as the local lads sabotage each other’s cars, and the screamed reprimands from the Maori operator dressed in leather and steel-capped boots, a spotty red bandanna gathering in his bulging dreadlocks.
While the number of side-shows appears to have shrunk in recent years (an indication, perhaps, of increasing competition for the entertainment dollar) they are still the highlight for children—and for many adolescents, hoping to impress the pairs of teenage girls who lounge around with looks of studied boredom.
The hissing, hydraulically operated octopus which twirls its passengers up and down and around may seem the ultimate in technology, but really, it is no more than a successor to the “Chair-o-Planemodel aircraft slung on chains which came into being in the 1920s. Back then, wily operators would give seating preference to young girls, knowing their screams would attract more customers.
Those plastic windmills on sticks have also been around for all of living memory—at least since the 1930s, when they were made from celluloid, and never seemed to last much longer than the trip home, during which they would be hung out to spin from the car window.
The kewpie dolls on sticks also date from the 1930s. For more than 30 years, cousins Isabel Harper and Dora Gosney have been decorating the dolls with lace and glitter and selling them at A & P shows. As she mopped her face in the heat at the Royal Show last November, Dora had to admit that it felt like it, sometimes.
Another old-timer, Kevin Smith, now in his 25th year of travelling the South Island shows, sells windmills and lucky dips. However, he is also right up with the latest and greatest novelty: giant inflatable plastic softball bats and hammers, which cause helpless giggles in grown adults as they indulge in a ’90s version of the pillow fight with their children.
What have gone forever are the freak shows, which would be condemned today as being in extremely poor taste. At the Manawatu show, in the years preceding the First World War, for example, such shows featured a horse with five legs, a ewe and a heifer each with six legs and a bullock with his heart in his throat. All were alive, but one wonders how well.
At the 1918 show, there was a “half sheep, half goat” from Queensland. The animal purportedly had four inches of Merino hair on one side of its body, and goat hair on its stomach. Hercules the giant (alias Patrick O’Connor from Tipperary), supposedly the largest man in the world, was also there. Worse still, two “large” children from Foxton were put on display because of their enormous size—one of them reached 27 stone in later life.
Nevertheless, it was with innocent awe that as a child in the 1960s I stood inside a tent at the Richmond A & P show and ogled at the He-She. This bizarre human being was split down the middle: she wore a shock of red hair down her side of the head, and he had oiled black hair on his. One eye was mascara’ed, the other was not. One half wore a suit and tie, the other half a dress, with heaving bust, revealed fleetingly to prove there was a real breast and a nipple. I was so fascinated, I bought an autographed souvenir photograph. “It has to be a woman,” said my sister Jenny when I got it home. “Look at that slender feminine hand in the man’s suit pocket.” But I was never so sure.
I also remember a charlatan who made a thoroughly unconvincing show of catching a bullet in his teeth, and bending “iron” rods that nobody was allowed to test beforehand. But the stoical Maori who stood stripped to the waist with his arms outstretched, copping darts in his back, was genuine enough. Rather gruesomely, the darts thrower would dip the tip of each one in a cup of disinfectant before he threw it.
Then there were the former motorcycle speedway champions, fallen on hard times and forced to make a living from the Wall of Death—a huge wooden cylinder, inside which they circled around and around on their motorbikes with their eyes closed, centrifugal force holding them miraculously at a horizontal angle.
The flea circus was before my time, but my step-father remembers it well: “The fleas had microscopic little carts with wheels glued to their backs, and the only way you could see the detail was through magnifying glasses, supplied by the circus owner. As the area of the circus was very small, only a limited number of customers could stand around it at any one time, which perhaps explains the high entrance fee—five shillings—which in the 1930s was a huge sum for a New Zealand school child to find!”
There also used to be professional wrestlers, and Bill Jamieson remembers Queensland Harry, an Australian with a wide-brimmed hat, who used to offer a pound to anybody who could ride one of his bucking horses for a minute.
He also recalls a pen at the south end of the oval at the Carterton Show which contained one bullock, two hoggets and a pig. For two shillings, people could enter a competition to correctly guess their combined weight.
Walking the fuzzy line between education and entertainment at today’s A & P shows are the acres of tents and stands belonging to various agricultural and industrial enterprises.
At the Power Up tent, for example, Wairarapa area sales manager Sean Blenkin offers a startlingly dramatic demonstration of his product, a Canadian oil additive designed to reduce friction in moving parts of engines.
Using weights to bear a small lug of steel down into hard contact with a moving wheel, he invites me to compare the size and depth of two grooves, one when Power Up-enriched oil was used, and the other when it was not. I have to admit there is a significant difference.
Outside the AMP tent there is a rowing machine for prospective life insurance clients to test their level of fitness, while standing beside his trademark concrete mixer is Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt.
He is promoting, of all things, a do-it-yourself salt lick for cattle.
New Zealand farmers consume 5000 tonnes of salt blocks a year, he explains. “The salt is mixed together with minerals and a binder—I can’t tell you what it is because it is secret. But anyway, it is very hard to bind salt. By brewing this product up in a concrete mixer themselves, farmers can make their own salt blocks for half the price.”
Tim is also promoting Maxicrop: “A lot of people say seaweed doesn’t work, so I spread it on the floor here last night, and look how green it is this morning!” he says, pointing at the carpet. He flashes his famous smile, and everybody laughs, even the older folk who once would have branded him a Commie agitator.
The patter of a nearby jewellery hawker is equally entertaining: “I’ve got six pouches here with Dunhill chains, and this one here cost $60 by itself. Now today, I’m giving this one away free with the others. That’s right, free as the ground you’re walking on, and free as the air you breathe. That’s free, F-R-E-E. My problem is not selling these things, but getting hold of enough of them, so I’ve got my mother out each night climbing over walls and stealing.”
The policemen standing at the door of their command post are not amused, particularly as the huge audience is blocking the pathway.
Traffic control at A & P shows might well get out of hand if the police did not receive assistance from a group of paramilitary volunteers, the Legion of Frontiersmen.
This I discovered on the way into the Manawatu Show, when I found my entry into the members’ car park barred, in the friendliest possible way, by an elderly gent resplendent in the Legion’s swashbuckling black uniform.
Dating back to the founding of the Legion in Britain in 1904, the uniform is a symbolic amalgam of Empire: from Canada comes their Mountie-style stetson hat, from South Africa their boots and breeches, while the chain-mail epaulettes are reminiscent of the knights of Old England.
The Legion’s founder was Lord Baden-Powell, who went on to form the Boy Scouts after the Legion decided as a matter of policy to exclude children.
Later, the Legion became a true fighting force, serving in Gallipoli and Belgium during the First World War, and providing 9000 volunteers for the Second.
I met Cyril Rosewarne on patrol among the trade exhibits at the Manawatu show. With 12 years of service in the Legion, Cyril regards himself as a relative newcomer, as the longest serving New Zealand member has been in the Legion for 60 years. Cyril is an old soldier, having served in Japan in 1947, and then in the Korean War.
“My friend and I had a charmed life,” he said of his war service in Korea. “Once a mortar shell landed between us and split down the middle in two, unexploded. On another occasion, a shell whistled into the trenches and slid to a halt in our under-cover shelter, again without exploding.”
Suddenly a deafening noise breaks out as a chainsaw salesman begins a live and very rowdy demonstration before an audience of two, both of them boys holding their hands over their ears.
But the wood-chopping arena is where the crowds really love to gather. Indeed, only the equestrian events in front of the main grandstand draw more spectators.
The reason is simple: wood-chopping is exciting, and instantly understood by the general public, as it is nothing more than a straight race to finish first.
A collection of brawny men emerge, carrying oblong wooden boxes with handles like suitcases. Inside are the mysterious instruments of their art: a selection of axes with gleaming silver blades, a towel, bandages and a shaker of talcum powder for their hands.
Most competitors favour brightly coloured singlets emblazoned with the crossed-axes logo of their club. With a pen they carefully draw up the part of the pine trunk they are about to chop, then practise their swing in slow motion, like a golfer.
The youngsters begin, then a wave of chopping ripples around the arena as older, tougher hands join the fray. A group of wives and girlfriends, sitting on a rug and sharing a thermos of tea, stand to their feet and yell for their men. It’s all over in a minute.
The sport must be a huge consolation for macho men past their peak of youth and fitness, for here the youngest, strongest and fittest do not necessarily win. Indeed, more often than not the young bucks lose to middle-aged codgers with balding pates and spreading bellies. At the age of 67, for example, the celebrated Johnny Creighton is still winning competitions in New Zealand.
It’s all in the technique, you see. “You need a certain amount of strength, of course, but it is mostly about placing blows correctly,” says John Hunt from Rangiora, who has been chopping for 42 years. He wipes his brow with a towel, fresh from thrashing a field of young men at the Richmond A & P show—despite a 20-second handicap.
John spends six months of the year in the United States, touring the county fairs and participating in lumberjack exhibitions. The rest of the year he earns a living by sharpening competition saws and axes.
John says he grinds the edges of the shiny axes by machine these days. “You get a more even radius, and flatter surfaces on both edges of the axe.” But he still works the grind marks out by hand, finishing with old razor hone stones, which he maintains are still the best.
While John is quick to acknowledge the excellence of the new ceramic axes, he says steel axes are still standard issue. They are made in New Zealand from Austrian steel, and the best ones come in two pieces joined by allen bolts. This is because it is not good to disturb manufactured steel by creating an eye for the handle.
Handles are usually fashioned from American hickory, chosen because it provides a little “give” without breaking. In the early days of New Zealand wood-chopping, manuka handles were common. “Manuka was good,” says John, “except that it went brittle after a time and was liable to snap at a crucial moment.”
As a professional, John Hunt is an exception in the sport, for, despite the fact that small sponsored cash prizes are handed out to the winners, axemen are not in it for the money. Nor, as you might think, are they all from the back blocks. The strongest clubs tend to be in the cities, and one recent champion was, of all things, a newspaper journalist.
Not so with the sheep-shearing, which is a chance for the professionals to pit their skills against one another. Although the contestants are given a set number of sheep to shear and told to go for it, the first one finished is not necessarily the winner. While one set of judges time the shearers and count the number of strokes, out the back a second set of judges examine the sheep as they come off the floor. They are looking for wool cut twice, wool left on, or nicks in the skin, and levy penalties accordingly.
At the end of the contest, the times are weighed against the penalties from both sets of judges, and the shearer with the lowest score wins.
The contests draw good crowds—usually very animated, as among the spectators are loyal knots of girlfriends, wives and mates from the shearing gangs, cheering their man on.
At 5.30 p.m., with the shearing events over, the stall holders packing up and the last of the townsfolk driving out of the car park in the paddock next to the showgrounds, the shearers and various hangers-on settle down to a few beers and a barbeque of lamb chops provided by local farmers. There is talk about who is going to beat whom next year.
But will there always be a next year for the show?
One certainly hopes so, for the sake of future generations of New Zealand city children. At one time, perhaps only 30 years ago, most children would have had an uncle or a family friend on a farm somewhere, where they could go in the school holidays to help with the milking or the shearing, and experience what country life is all about.
Now, with our greatly diminished rural sector, the number of city kids with country cousins is much smaller. For many urban children, both now and in the future, the A & P show may be as close to real farm life as they will get.