Stomach churners

17th March 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Thrills, spills, chills, "LOOK AT ME, MUM, never been so sick before, you can see up all the girls' skirts, OOOO, just one more go, PLEASE." "roll up, win your prizes at the hoopla, every throw a lucky one, never mind, sir, better luck next time, get your prizes, LUVERLY prizes, try your luck, sir?" Theme parks miss the point, with their manicured lawns and their managed queues; and school fetes, with the odd bouncy castle lolling helplessly at the end of the playground, don't compare with going to the fair. It's all about transgressing norms: it's meant to be a waste of money, a place where you get ripped off in your change ("What do you mean you gave me a fiver, you never did! OK, so call your dad. Big man, is he?"), where lewd men leer at scantily clad girls, where children throw up on their nice new trainers. "Watch out! There, what did I tell you? I knew he shouldn't have had that toffee apple. Not after the candy floss, the hot dog, the burger and the rock." It is a waste, of course. But sometimes a bit of waste is good for the soul. The word fair comes from the Latin feria, festival, which suggests letting rip.

Funfairs date from medieval times and the livestock fairs held in market towns on holy days. Other fairs, known as Mop Fairs, were for hiring labour - and for spending rare bits of disposable income. All kinds of mountebanks, from jugglers to proprietors of freak shows such as bearded ladies and giants, set up their stalls near the main action.

There were no regular shops, so those with goods to sell were drawn to the market; no fixed places of entertainment, so circus acts followed the fars. By the mid-19th century, as many or more people came to the twice- or thrice-yearly fairs for fun as for serious commerce. Then, in the early 1860s, came steam.

It's only with steam that the rides came in. You can't produce much of a mass thrill with a horse and cart or a few boys whipped to power a "hand-turned dobbie". But with a steam engine, a hurdy-gurdy, some painted scenery and an eye for the really queasy effect, you can produce the Waltzer, the Gallopers, the Roller, the Crazy Frog, the Hard Rock Ride, the Frisbee, the Chairs (as here), Topbuzz, the Caterpillar, Tunnel of Love, the Paraglide, Big Wheel and Dodgems.

Anything for a scream, a laugh, a loss of control, a lurch out ofroutine, a heroic venture."See me!Did you SEE me, Mum? Dad? Did you see me? I went round so fast! Did you see me? Did you?" And at the end of the day, no harm done. A wobbly tummy, a few stains on the jacket, throat hoarse from shrieking, a bit of throwing up, a bit of growing up and back we go to our nice comfyhomes. Meantime the professionalsof the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain and the Fairground Association of Great Britain strike their pitches and trundle off across country to add a spice of adventureto someone else's bank holidayweekend.

Weblinks Official site for Showmen's Guild, with history and regulations: www.funfair.ndirect.co.uk A personal, quirky site with good illustrations Dave Belton's Funfair World: www.funfairworld.co.uk National Fairground Archive: www.shef.ac.ukuniprojectsnfaJump On, Jump On by Brian Steptoe, Jumper Book pound;19.95, colourful history of rides

Photograph by: Adam Woolfitt


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