Sunday, 27 June 2010

All the fun of the fair

Every so often, the expensive and glossy area of Hampstead Heath is invaded by a somewhat less glossy phenomenon. Arriving in a convoy of lorries and trailers, Coggers Fun Fair appears each bank holiday, all shining metal, technicolour plastic and canvas covers. At night the covers remain in place, keeping warm and dry an array of steel plates and beams and unlit light bulbs, but during the day something else emerges, like a fairy ring of mushrooms popping up through the grass. Vast metal monsters, unfurling and whirling, flashing lights chase one another along the edges of trailers. Loud foreign voices boom and cajole, drawing in customers to ride and scream, to be tossed and bumped and spun.

(Image courtesy of hampsteadheath.net)
On the last bank holiday an Accidental friend, another friend of hers and I spent a merry afternoon of shrieking and giggling at the fair. We took a ride on the Sky-flier, lifted high in the air and twirled like a majorette's baton. We rode our favourite, the Waltzer, screaming as we spun round, our necks snapping back so fast as to give us minor whiplash. The Accidental friend's sunglasses hurtled off her head and onto the running board, on which the ride's operators balanced like surfers. "My sunglasses! My sunglaaaasez!" she shrieked like a banshee until one running board surfer kindly rescued them. We sat for endless minutes waiting for the Joker to start up and toss us high into the air like a juggler's props. When it finally did however the small child in the car behind us brought the ride to a somewhat unscheduled end as he sobbed miserably for the duration, wedged into the ride between his two oblivious and insensitively grinning parents. Until well into the evening, bumper cars clashed and tiny wooden child-sized vehicles drove round and round in eternal circles. Hoops were tossed over bottles and balls were thrown at targets, all for the sake of winning a suspiciously smelly soft toy or a blow-up dolphin with a perplexing pink appendage.

Behind the flashing lights however is a fascinating culture. The families who tour the country bringing these wild rides to this usually refined corner of our city are part of a long-standing community of British travellers, who proudly live their lives very separately from mainstream society. Their children do not attend mainstream schools, and although they may have more permanent winter quarters, their homes and lives are on the road, or encamped on their fairground sites. They speak their own languages cobbled from ancient tongues and traveller slang. Whilst this may seem a somewhat curious way to live in our extraordinarily interconnected modern world, society might learn something from this unique community. Familial ties are strong within traveller communities, and although they marry very young, and usually always within their small community, divorce is extremely rare.
Maybe if one's work consisted of watching sensible adults descend into hysterical children with the application of speed and plastic safety bars, it is entirely normal to experience a deep desire to flee it all and remove oneself from this strange mainstream society of ours! But for those "sensible adults" among us there can be few things more satisfyingly fun than a regression to childhood, and nothing provides that quite like a funfair.

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