Ramble through the fairgrounds of an agricultural show; you are coursing through the heart chambers of tribal ancestry. I love shows because they short-circuit the passivity of rote society. They restore a healthy flesh & blood anonymity to the show-goer which is quite different from the mundane anonymity that comes from being society’s rote consumer/audience zombie. These shows are earthy, pagan, exploitative, humbling, dignified and ridiculous all at once. They are an aspect of our species which is significant in the same way as funerals and marriages. For those of us who see festivals as places, as opposed to events, they remind us that time and history are circular, not linear. The fairground is symbolized as a carousel; a chiming colourful centrifuge; a force that stands separate from our mundane world but which is also within its own constant musical motion.
“There are lads for the lasses there’s toys for the bairns
There tumblers and jugglers and folks with no arms
There’s a balancing act here and a fiddler there
There are nut-men and spice-men at Copshawholme Fair” – traditional song.
The flags of city-states and guilds snap in the wind and the paragon beasts of the field are displayed by squire and farmhand dressed in styles both customary and smart. Pig pens are splashed and dappled with ribbons of gold, crimson and proud bright blue. Prize goats are groomed like collectable dolls and the trade talk amongst the farm folk murmurs without start or end under the clamour of the city crowds.
Everyone is met face-on. The dignity of a family’s calling is on show and shared with us all. A breeder will talk with you for fifteen minutes about his champion hounds or rams or roosters. You learn something from them all and you glimpse other vigorous worlds and clannish communities. I’d never heard of Bracco Italiano gun dogs before being introduced to two splendid specimens by a pioneering Italian breeder who’d had them flown out from the Old Country. And the cat people are almost evangelical in their enthusiasm for the Maine Coon, the British Shorthair and the Selkirk Rex. This is not consumption, not marketing, not spectatorship – there’s nothing ‘in it’ for anyone other than communication – yet people will queue for it. So it seems we’re not all owned by the saturating advertisers after all. A lot of people still want to crowd in delight around somebody’s moonfaced cat.
Sideshow Alley is where the wild things are, forever. Maudlin rows of clown heads grind east-to-west in a frozen song of yearning hunger. There is something ritual about this. Something mendicant in the visitor to the sideshow. A sense of deranged pilgrimage.
The garbled laugh of clowns through the dirty mesh of a PA. The totem of the clown – the trickster and Fool – is emblazoned everywhere. He chatters in a beguiling nonhuman weirdness, calling you in no particular direction across the fairground. The hydraulic demons which loom above the shrieking gates of their rides (a ride being a hellbound journey) are themselves totems of giants, imps and wood gods. Representations of old and wild spirits, Gothic folk figures and quasi-medical Victoriana hangovers. Their maledict stares offer us the chance to dance in the madness of their realm. The Devil is gambolling and capering among ten thousand light bulbs. The phlegmatic screams from the distorted PA reflect the actual human screams in the same way these warping mirrors reveal us as bloated mooncalves… grotesques abroad in the land of Bedlam. Alice Cooper and Axl Rose and Angus Young are painted up on the rides and played loud, like saints in some temple of savage abandon. Herein is the clamour of what rock’n’roll can stand for, funnelled through the bloodlines of animistic pageantry. The carneys crack the whips here, in this sugary magical hell. We are anonymous and there is no prejudice. They shout at me with isolating force – daring me, and cajoling and flattering – and when I surrender and take up the mallet or water cannon, they whoop and ridicule and then hand me the tiny priceless prize and there’s that one second of offstage acknowledgement and decency, for we are all playing a game. We are all Fool Knights in an inferno of clowns and red devils, bristling stupid with inflated swords and maces. We go tripping into the mockery of rationality’s stasis, just as we’ve always done.
And all of this at Easter, these rites named for the Saxon goddess of life and renewal, and the hare spirit at large and abundant with eggs while, in the poultry pavilion, prize roosters strut and shine in colours of brilliance unmatched. Christian sects, in keeping with the ubiquity of the legends which live in the soul of the human animal, invoke a Hebrew god-king slain and reincarnate. Round and round we all go, as riders in the squeaking painted gondolas of the Ferris wheel.