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The Wine Exhibitionist
by Michael Davey
It’s mid-May. You know the time of year when you expect wonderful weather. Spring is here with all it’s delights - non-stop rain with a slight respite for sleet. You are standing in a field in Devon. Well you are standing - however the field is just a moving sea of mud.

You have arrived at the Devon County Show that morning. In the eighties this was held in a public park in the suburbs of Exeter. The car parking attendant has guided your prized motor car into a parking field. You know it is just going to sink into the ground and need tractors to pull it out. But he only knows to guide you into this Devonshire Quicksand, and as he has an armband and a radio you don’t argue. Lamely you get out of your car and don your wellies, two sweaters and a quilted jacket.
As your feet squelch in and out of this mire your trousers develop
a new pattern - a sort of series of brownie splash marks.

Eventually you make it to the gate of the show ground. The next country bred official attendant is waiting to tell you that either your ticket is for the wrong day or you should be at the other entrance three miles away on the other side of the show ground, The experienced of us have learnt to walk by showing some outdated badge and leave him
to splutter away. 

For many years my late father flashed a badge showing that he was the ninth governor of the main show, the Royal. It was only when I inherited this historic badge did I find out that it was a ladies badge.

Whilst the attendant has been arguing with a legitimate ticket holder fifteen little boys have crept in behind him. A book could be written on these attendants. The high class ones run round in bowler hats just like first world war officers ordering their troops to their death. They couldn’t arrange a piss-up in a brewery. They more than likely couldn’t even find the brewery. But each year they have their three days of glory. Thick, of course they aren’t.

Yet one year at the Royal Show some enterprising fellows cut a hole in a hedge and installed their own turnstile. They then found a few of the cleverer of the bowler-hatted brigade to direct the visitors to their turnstile. Needless to say these fellows were the only people to make a profit at that year’s show.

So, at last you are past these attendants who by eight o’clock in
the morning have managed to bring the whole of Devon and parts of both Cornwall and Somerset to a stand-still. The first thing that strikes you is the devastation from the night before. At least two trading stands have subsided into the local stream which overnight
has become a major tributary of the river Exe.

Bedraggled Nebishes ( these are traders who always have a long face and believe nature is conspiring against them), are just fishing the
remains of their stock out of the river. Fresh-faced farming hands
who are already half-way through their day are watching the mere mortals coming to terms with the conditions, whilst the little urchins are throwing mud balls at all and sundry.

In the show rings tomorrow’s filet and rump stakes are being paraded around with rosettes attached to them by some latter-day female matador with a large hat. Other county notables, also wearing those bowler hats long ago the status symbol of city workers, prod and review these oversize animals.

Eventually having it seems visited Torquay and Plymouth en route you arrive at your own plot. As a revered and long-standing stalwart of these annual celebrations your company has been afforded a prime piece of moving mud, next to the show ring and opposite the listening bank.
However whilst the listening bank has had a team of workmen building a new Exeter branch for the past week we have brought our antique trailer all the way from London, NW1.

This state of the arts 1966 trailer, is an integral part of every
show ground. It is also famous to several of the police forces round
the U.K. It has at various times been found stuck under a bridge on the A1` removing the roof of the South Mimms Service Station or just stuck in the mud. This particular year railway sleepers have been placed on top of the mud slide and the trailer placed on the never to be found again sleepers. The real beauty of this trailer is that alcoholic beverages may not be served from an edifice on wheels. Therefore
it is imperative to jack up the wheels and then open the trailer into a type of wine bar.

This wine bar is unique in that it is so designed to keep the staff
warm and dry and at the same time make sure that prospective customers are left to the ravages of the weather. I was always convinced they were drinking more rain water than wine. But somehow or other this bright red edifice became a landmark on the show grounds for over a quarter of a century.

With the uneven ground it took five of us about an hour and a half
to open it out and prepare for the imbibers of Devon. The newest rookie, known as Mr Henry, is sent out to get some coffee. This poor individual has turned up in a smart Italian suit and expensive Italian designer shoes. No wellies.He also carried a visiting card with Mr Henry followed by the word Tshuuno on it. I thought it was a title, but soon found
out it meant "It's who you know".

 As he squelches off to cadge some coffee off the listening bank all the regulars on the show ground watch in amusement. He earn’t a few choice comments from the onlooking trio of Harvey Smith, David Broom and Alan Oliver. Mr Henry returns some twenty minutes later with five
free coffees, one pair of ruined Italian shoes and a massive cleaning bill for his suit.

The remaining members of the sales team, nicknamed the mortuary men because of the large wicker baskets they have been seen to lug around,
are Ron, Ron, Chicky and Eddie. Characters they are.

The old pro is Eddie. He knows no customer’s name, just what they
buy. He can smell them entering the show ground. Reminiscent of Rumpole of the Bailey he is the embodiment of a professional drinker even though he hardly ever touches the stuff. He has never been known to place his hand in his pocket to withdraw money and he has never passed
a fruit machine. He waits on the stand like a predator stalking his

He also was never adverse to trick or two if he could earn more commission. One new boy at a show in Scotland managed to obtain a substantial order. He asked Eddy how to fill in the order form. The first thing Eddie told him to put EG in the salesman’s corner. It was only months
later after Eddie had put his earnings into a fruit machine did we learn that it was not his sale.

But the bogus Mr Pearson story is typical of him. One day at the Newark & Notts show, which is held on a wind-swept former airfield outside of Newark, a bowler hatted character complete with neck brace arrived at the stand. He was being served by the aforementioned Mr Henry.

 It soon became apparent that he was ordering a substantial amount of wine. Somehow or other, as was his wont, Eddie had taken over the sale from Mr Henry. Several thousands of £s were involved. The gentleman gave his name as Mr Pearson, and stated that he was the son of Lord Cowdrey. As the family business includes the Financial Times, Penguin Books and Madame Tussauds amongst others even Eddie was getting excited.

Eventually the large order was completed - it was big enough to fill a lorry for delivery to Grantham. Somewhat unsteadily the “bogus Mr Pearson” staggered off. However shortly before the show was going
to close he re-appeared and asked if anyone could give him a lift to Grantham after the show. Eddie volunteered, drove him to Grantham and actually bought him some drinks in the Crown & Anchor in Grantham.

Obviously we were not going to deliver the wines totalling thousands of £s without payment or proper references. Phone calls from London soon showed this character to be a former horse groom and the address
given that of his grandfather. Eddie would never serve another customer with a neck-brace on. And, of course the blame went on Mr Henry, however the order had the initials EG on it ! 

Chicky is a East-ender from London. His suit is held together by a watch and chain in his waistcoat. His hand luggage always chinks to the sound of bottles. His rhyming slang captivates customers - the
Gaubickelheimer Kurfurstenstuck he calls the Gor- Blimey. 

One day at the NEC in Birmingham where the unions are very strong
the team were building up the stand on a Sunday. Firstly they shouldn’t have been there on a Sunday and secondly they were doing work which should have been done by a Union member.  

Very soon a gaggle of shop stewards arrived and the whole place came to a standstill. We rather convincingly made out that we could not understand a word and they gave up as none of them could speak a word of French. 

 As they were walking away Chicky came down a ladder, stepped back from what he had been putting up and in a pure cockney accent said ” It’s bloomin ‘andsome ain’t it ?”

The two Ronnies - yes one is big and large and the other is short
with glasses - make up this motley mob. Small Ron believes that he
was an ace pilot during a world war and thereafter was a racing driver.
He has whiskers to prove the former and has never been known to drive the company’s lorry faster than 30mph to prove the latter. On days off a chopper picks him up to fly to Formula 1 Grand Prix meetings as he is invaluable in the pits. Ron Dennis the boss of the Maclaren
team wouldn’t move without him. No one else has ever been able to
find the Earls Court formula 1 track yet!

 One year at the Bath & West Show virtually a squadron of Second World War veterans arrived at the stand. Small Ron served them and very
soon he was one of the “few” and regaling them with his days as a
fighter pilot. They placed a substantial order with Small Ron and off they went. We offered to get him a war ace’s outfit .

 The next year the squadron returned, and one of their number said ” Ron we tried to find out about you in the records and you don’t seem to be listed”.

We all waited to see how he was going to wriggle out of this one.
He said ” Room 43”. They all looked at each other bewildered. Eventually one of them said “what is Room 43 ?”. Ron replied ” This was the code for those of them that had taken part in the Berlin Airlift and in case of trouble their records had been removed. !”

Big Ron eats for England. After a days work on the stand he cadges
his meals off other stands. Saxby’s, the pie makers, must have had the emptiest waste bins in Britain each evening. He can make plastic
knives and forks spark as he eats with them. At one lodging house
the landlady offered him a slice of cake - he took the remainder of
the cake and left the lady with the slice. He would shout out from
the stand “Bl--dy waste of time”. If a passer by actually reacted
he would repeat ” A nice taste of wine ?, sir/madam ”. 

He has a heart of gold and one day at the Southport Flower Show he is on the stand and it is pouring with rain. He sees an old lady in a wheelchair stuck out in the rain and runs to assist her. He rapidly starts pushing her down the tarmac path to wards the stand. However in front of the stand is a grass verge. As Ron and the little old lady hit the grass the wheelchair comes to an abrupt stop and the little old lady doesn’t.

These four are part of the folk-lore on British show grounds. They must have sold more wines to the great British public than any other foursome. They became landmarks throughout the show grounds and the bed and breakfasts of the UK. For 260 days a year they sold wines
by the case from Wadebridge in Cornwall to Aberdeen in Scotland. Not only at County shows but also at Horse Trials, Golf Tournaments, Game Fairs, Flower Shows, Boat Shows, Caravan Shows, Ideal Homes Exhibitions, etc,etc. Indoors and Outdoors and then served at wine tastings held in either leading hotels or Sports Clubs.

Exhibitionists are a creed of their own. Like truckers they assist
each other. Like Bedouins they pitch their tents and set up for trade.
Some of to-days largest companies emanate from building up a clientele
on the showgrounds. There are the grafters who do a demo to an audience.
When a new one performs the old hands stand at the back and then hold
up signs saying 9.6 or similar.

One character pinches his electricity off any source he can find.
Ask him how things are going and he gets out his calculator and says
business is up by 0.1112% today. 

Another always gets it wrong - he will be selling ice creams in the
freezing cold and hot drinks in the heat. Then there is the umbrella
man who asked us all to look after his stand while he answered the
call of nature. We soon found out that the call of nature was an hour’s
session at the bar.

I once bumped in to Mike Winters (of Mike and Bernie Winters fame)
in the Drum & Monkey Restaurant in Harrogate. “Hello”, he said, ”
what are you doing here ? ”. I told him I had come up for the Great
Yorkshire Show. His response ” Whose in it ? ”

Then there was our greatest irregular - Ian . An old time Thespian who was rather hard of hearing and terribly well spoken. He used to do half days at the Ideal Home Exhibition - it took him the other
half of the day to say goodbye to us all. An old customer came up
to the stand and informed young Ian ( All of 76) that unfortunately
another one of his old customers had passed away. Not understanding a word ,Ian said ” Never mind tell him to come round for a drink tomorrow.”
Another person asked where the conveniences were got the answer ” It’s by the case sir”.

Another Thespian who used help out was Harry. I think his main part was standing in water for days on end in one of the films about the sinking of the Titanic. 

His main problem was his eyesight. Opposite our stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition one year was the AA stand. On it they had full size pictures of AA men. Harry was regularly calling them in for a drink.
After his first week on the stand he informed us that ” when the fat lady sings ” he was going out to get a new pair of glasses. The following Monday he came along resplendent in a new pair of glasses and promptly removed them everytime he looked at a label or order form.

The bottles used to stand on optics upside down. Above each bottle was a copy of the label the right way up. Harry had to try and read the upside down label on the bottle.

 One day we had arranged a wine tasting in Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Harry turned up on a pair of crutches with a broken leg. This would not be of much help as at a wine tasting as we used to take trays of the drinks to each table. For some reason we took him with. On
the way we were passing Bibury, one of the most beautiful villages
in the Cotswolds. When we got there we got out for a stroll near the river and Harry promptly fell in. I’m not sure what the customers thought about this bedraggled character on crutches at the wine tasting.

Another irregular came to work at the Ideal Home Exhibition which
usually lasted the whole of March. This character asked to leave the
stand after three days to answer the call of nature. He was taken
ill and did not return for two and a half weeks. My father reckoned
that this created the record for answering the call of nature.

But of course the piece de resistance was my father Alec. Twenty volumes wouldn’t cover his antics. He was the wine merchant supreme. The first man on the show ground in the morning and the last to go home at night.

 He was the exhibitionist , the man the customers would come to see
and for that privilege they bought his wines. His stories were legend,
he never got a joke right yet the audience laughed hilariously. He
was either loved or hated - there was no middle way. 

The stand had to be meticulous. Everything had it’s position and heaven help anyone who altered anything.

The wines had to be served in a specific order so that the tasters
enjoyed the best taste of each of the nectars he was selling. Dry
white wines first, then the sweeter ones, followed by rose and then the heavier red wines. Sherries and ports were only served after orders
for the wines were taken. Biscuits had to be consumed in between so as to clear the palate. If you were caught serving out of order he would take the bottles and glasses away from both you and the potential customer.

If another stand encroached a half an inch over into his plot he would have it dismantled and rebuilt in the right position. On the stand was a large sign which state “Free Wine Tasting To-day”. Just under this sign in the smallest letters were the words “by invitation”. He selected his customers. Originally if you were well dressed with a collar and tie he would serve you - people in jeans were ignored. As for someone wearing a deerstalker hat he was more likely to win the lottery than get a drink.

 One particular day at the Royal Windsor Horse Show a rather noisy lady in full riding gear decided to take up his free wine tasting notice.


He asked her if she had an invitation. Of course she didn’t. He went on serving a valued customer, and she kept butting in demanding a drink. Eventually he informed her that if she continued he would empty the contents of the spittoon over her, she continued and as good as his word he deposited the contents of the spittoon over her.

Unbelievably she stood there with this gooey ,purplish mixture mixed
with running mascara and make up. She was far from pleased and set off for aid. A few minutes later she returned with the secretary of the show and the police. I don’t know what he said but the secretary and the police joined him for drinks and bought some wines. The purple lady was ignored. He told Welshmen we couldn’t ship wines to Wales
and convinced everyone that his sparkling rose was an aphrodisiac.

But when he told the staff off people came from miles to watch it. The mortuary men were sacked daily, sometimes hourly. In fact in the early years before he found the mortuary men he had experienced a bigger turnover of staff than ICI.

I remember a family used to come to the wine tasting at the Grosvenor House in Park Lane. It was an annual ritual and they believed the entertainment was far better than the lights of Regent Street and the pantomime at the London Palladium.

When he had an appreciative audience he was at his best. The champagne flowed ,the stories got more incomprehensible and the customers bought more.

 One day a regular came to his stand at the East of England Show. The customer was a dentist with a pleasant sister, who according to the custom of the day had a large beehive hairstyle. As they were good customers the champers was opened and the cork flew. My father remarked that it was lucky he hadn’t hit them. However what he failed
to notice, and what the rest of the staff did notice was that the
sister had developed a hole through the middle of her bee-hive hairstyle.

When I first joined him he left me in the office to amongst other
things recruit new salespeople. Although we had four or five regulars there were times when we needed extras. This usually happened for
the Ideal Home Exhibition in London and the Royal Show at Kenilworth.
As many of those who were interviewed for the Ideal Home Exhibition never turned up he used to over recruit. Many a year about thirty characters used to turn up on the first day. On a forty foot stand this made things rather cramped. If one man raised his left hand the one next to him had to raise his right hand. Rapidly these numbers used to diminish over the first week.

One year he went off to run the Royal Show and left me to recruit. All he said was “If they can walk send them up”.

 Several years later our roles reversed and he was doing the interviewing. However his interview was like a monologue, and as long as he had an audience he took them on. 

This particular year he had interviewed a man who he told me had experience in the wine trade, and I should take him up to the Royal Norfolk Show for training. It did not take me long to realise that the poor man was physically incapacitated. With each step his foot did a full circle and landed unevenly propelling him forward. The trailer was up several steps. we had to hoist him up. Every time he fetched a glass of wine he ejected it forward as he walked.

When I returned from the show I told my father that it was impossible to keep the man. Regardless my father took him and several other new
recruits up to the Royal Show at Kenilworth on the Saturday morning to prepare our stands.

 I usually arrived on Sunday evening. It transpires that my father had got our lame friend together with another recruit to move a large hardboard back board onto the stand. As soon as our lame friend moved
forward he ejected the back board, which duly landed on the foot of the other participant.

 When I arrived on the Sunday evening the sight of my father coming towards me having to stop every few yards because of his heart condition was one thing. He was flanked on one side by the lame recruit walking in his circular fashion and on the other side was the other recruit with his foot in plaster. At least when I took them on they could walk. After he had experienced our lame friend for the four days of the Royal Show my father dismissed him as he had failed to inform my father about his affliction.

What my father and the mortuary men taught me was that wines are to be drunk. Everyone has their own taste and that you should buy and drink what you like. He made sure that customers only bought what they enjoyed and had tasted. He also made sure that there was continuity
of those wines and he kept every order ever made so that he knew the customer’s taste.

 He provided a service and his wines were bought by Peers, Ministers ( both Parliamentary and Episcopal), thespians, farmers, equestrians, golfers, dustmen, and anyone who wanted to hear a bad joke. This even
included a Prime Minister and an heir to the throne.

One late lamented customer was known as the grocer ( not the aforementioned Prime Minister). He was one of the largest car salesmen in the Midlands, both in wealth and stature. He always wore a large diamond tie-pin and said ” I’ll have a gross of these and a gross of those etc”

My father hated listening to those he called ” brown boots and no
breakfast”. These people would come up and discuss wines from the premier vineyards and if lucky buy the smallest quantity of the cheapest. They would talk absolute nonsense. We all preferred to match the tastes of the genuine customer.

With over 70,000 customers on our books we didn’t recognise them all. But most of them recognised us. Some customers had placed in excess of 100 orders. They trusted  us and our wines. We served most tastes and at most prices. 

My father and I travelled to France, Germany, Italy and Spain to select the best wines for our clientele. We quickly realised that over 15% of all cultivated land was covered by vineyards. They were run by vineyard ” farmers” and we then sold much of the wine to other farmers.

Near the end , after he suffered repeated heart attacks I rationalised the business and came to a startling discovery. Because of the continued
rate of inflation within two years we were buying much of the wine
at the price we had sold it for eighteen months before. Further over that period we had had considerable expense travelling the country, standing in muddy fields, staying in hotels, and delivering the wines throughout Britain. 

It would have been far more profitable and less stressful to lock the cellars for two years and then make the profit on one sale at a fraction of the expense.

This we did. Unfortunately my father passed away in 1987. The reason was he had lost his audience. Eddie was last heard of as a Punch and Judy man in Covent Garden. The two Ronnies I believe still work for the new proprietors. Young Ian was last heard of as an inmate at the
Variety Home in Twickenham . Chicky got himself some wheels and has never been heard of since. Mr Henry didn’t last very long like many others.

In 1988 I was part of the team at Drummond & Co  where we decided to let the customers profit in the same way we had done by holding on to stock. Since then we have seen to the investing of more than £50 million into the finest wines on behalf of customers.

 But when I state I learnt about the trade at the grass roots I’m
sure you will understand that the understanding of fine wines and
the appreciation of them is open to everybody.

This article is intended to give you a basis on which to learn a little about wines and maybe a bit about wine exhibitionists. THE
BORDEAUX MANAGED WINE INVESTMENT plan gives you the basis through which to participate.


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