All The Fun of the Fair

There was not much excitement in our village (if you discount Friday night Bingo at the sports hall) so when the fair came to town it was quite the big occasion. My peers liked the May-time fair best, with its electric dodgems and cutting edge 80’s airbrushed signage featuring girls in leather swimsuits and thigh boots. They even liked the gap-toothed long haired youths that pushed the waltzers ever faster hoping to cause a suburban14 year old to vomit on her Lady-Di-sailor-collared dress. But not me. I liked the steam fair that came in August. There wasn’t much there for the Alton Towers generation, but it wasn’t about the thrills, not the kind you got on the big wheel, nor the kind you got when the gap toothed long-hair waltzer boy accidentally brushed against your dress. My love for the steam fair was all about the look of the thing. The hand painted hoardings and base boards, the matching liveried vans, the lettering, the flourishes, the shields. Of course, the grand pomp of the Jones Domes was absent from behind. Really, they were just empty facades, held up by 2x4 struts and the gilt leaf was just gold paint, but I did not mind. Best of all, these rides were old, vintage, historical. These rides had a prior life, thousands upon thousands of bottoms had rested on each of the galloper mounts carved backs or at least on one just like it – some were replacements, perhaps they all were. [1] As their owner says, “Fairground rides have a considerable similarity to trusty brooms, they can last a hundred years with six new heads and seven new handles!”[2] And in this way, the copies became the original, by behaving as though they were, performing it, believing it, they became the authentic. They were made using the same techniques, they did the same job and travelled the same roads, they were the precious primary, or as close to it as was necessary to keep the illusion intact. An aura surrounded these items as surely as it did inhabit those handmade heirlooms interred in my mother’s airing cupboard. But the rides were not being saved for some impossible moment known as “best”; they were out there living their best, no matter the risk to the gold paint or the plaster scrolling. Through the steam fair I worked out where I wanted to be, out there with the living objects, not the suffocating, suffocated dead matter in the airing cupboard.

And so life became for living, for moving, for doing – the souvenirs and traces just side products. And craft became something to be carried with you, on your clothes, in your hair and in the performative person, the carefully crafted image.

My first gig was at the Kilburn National Ballroom. I was 14. The bands that played are unimportant, although I loved them all. It was the experience that changed everything for me, that tipped the world on its axis. London, at night with no parents or otherwise responsible adults to interfere, smells of excitement, of independence and of possibility. It was summer, the bright, breezy evening contrasted starkly with the dark, stagnant ballroom, with its intoxicating stench of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. It was busy, packed tight, I couldn’t see my feet, nor my friends, and it was so loud, so all encompassing, so intense, surrounded by sound and passion and caught in the unmediated moment of the authentic experience, I cried.

I dropped out of school to follow the rest of the tour; I became an overly zealous convert to my newly discovered religion, the church of rock and roll. The concert tour and the travelling fair have a lot in common. The circus has come to town[3] and with it comes its awesome power for momentary transformation and the bringing of danger to suburbia. Only, some of us cannot bear the subsequent return to tranquillity, we cannot allow ourselves to be left behind in the silence. And so, we went too. An assortment of oddments from quiet towns up and down the country. Sometimes we travelled in the tour bus, but if budget constraints replaced the double-decker sleeper-bus with a battered old transit van we would jump trains or hitch hike to the next venue and collect our guest passes on the door. Then the waiting, waiting, waiting would begin. Waiting through the boring bits, the sound checks, the crew dinners, the drummer’s banal arguments with his latest girlfriend, waiting, waiting, waiting for the magic moment. House lights down, bass vibrating in your stomach and treble ringing in your ears, waiting for the high, the addicts unachievable high, waiting for that first-hit feeling that, despite the constant thrill seeking, can never be achieved again, never repeated.

It was 3 years before I became static again, although I never went home. Instead I halted in London, where else? And Ivy began to post things to me, things that she did not trust me to purchase myself, tin foil, kitchen roll, and air fresheners. She tried to make my squalid, shared flat into a home through the acquisition of the consumable niceties of suburbia. She was trying to keep me static again and she had another approach too, because every package she sent contained the same girl’s weekly comics that she used to bring to our family house every Wednesday. She simply never stopped buying them, some titles had merged, amalgamated, folded, but Bunty was still going strong[4] and so Ivy kept buying it. Every single week without fail, reserved at the newsagents in town. Every week until she died – I was 24.

I have no doubt that should she still be alive, she would still be buying Bunty for me now. I am not sure if this certainty brings me pleasure or some kind of mild horror as I have always had an ambiguous relationship with Bunty and her ilk. My childhood was choc-full of suitable reading material for girls, from the book prizes presented to my grandmother for good attendance[5] through schoolgirls annuals of my mothers all the way up to Princess Diana monthly (with additional lashings of Enid Blyton's rah-rah hockey-playing dormitory-sleeping old gals, that, in the words of Steven Patrick Morrissey, “says nothing to me about my life”[6]. Although I doubt he was referring to the Four-bloody-Marys).

My sister and I were quite spoiled in the context of our village peer group. This was most apparent when viewing our extensive Sindy doll collections and all their associated accessories. This included the much-coveted three-story-town house (fully furnished). My sister kept hers in immaculate condition in a direct binary with mine, its ugly sibling, it’s David Lynchian bad double. No-one seemed to support my sartorial decision to re-wallpaper with “save Worzel Gummage” stickers and the spindly plastic legs of my Louis XVI style furniture was beyond the help of superglue and had consequently been swaddled in brown packing tape. The truth was, I just did not much care for Sindy, nor her pony and trap, nor did I care for her fireplace, tongs and scuttle. She had a big head, she liked gymkhanas and I suspected that she had attended a fee-paying school. The girl that I was really interested in was Barbie. Barbie’s head was not disproportionately large, for a start, plus she was an astronaut, which beat Sindy’s nursing career into a cocked hat. Most crucial of all, I felt sure that Enid Blyton would not approve of Barbie. Of course, Barbie isn’t the kind of role model that any right-thinking person would want for their child, but children don’t see her as an aspirational dream anyway, I certainly never wanted to be busty and blonde like Barbie, rather I enjoyed being her puppet master. I could control her, make her do whatever I wanted. She was my uncomplaining slave always willing to do my bidding, willing to be who I wanted her to be. Unfortunately for her (and her re-sale value) the destiny I selected was as a shorn headed tomboy with nail-varnish nipples and a far greater fondness for Sindy than I had ever personally felt. Controlling the miniature world of the fashion doll felt good. It took some years before I knew why.

[1] John Carter estimates his machine is on its fourth set of mounts in the introduction to Braithwaite, P. (1995) John Carter's Jubilee Steam Gallopers Berkshire, Carters Books.

[2] Carter, J in Braithwaite, P. (1995) John Carter's Jubilee Steam Gallopers Berkshire, Carter's Books.

[3] ...And The Circus Leaves Town is the title of the fourth and final studio album by Kyuss, released on July 11, 1995. Various ex-Kyuss members now play as Queens of The Stone Age.

[4] Bunty, a British comic for girls was published weekly from 1958 until 2001. I read every copy between 1982 and 2000.

[5] My grandmother received various non-prize prizes at school. They were probably the only books she owned as a child. One, the, Big Book for Girls- on the River, is inscribed “Midsummer 1932, 1st prize Standard VII.”

[6] The Smiths Panic 1986

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