I have seen the crowds fade away
and the ferris-wheel come
to a creaking halt
and the engines gasp
their last weak sputter—
I have seen the lights dimmed
and the stands covered up
and the last explosive car
spurt into darkness.
I have heard the parting shouts
echo into fantastic silence.
I have seen the trampled grass
smothered in the oppression
of loneliness and the crickets
come forth—I have seen the night
reclaim its own.
(‘Carnival’ – Herman Gund)
Carters Steam Fair was in town and I went to have a look, impelled by a faint nostalgia. And what nostalgia remained was more for the experience of fair-going than the attractions themselves. But my timing was wrong: I soon realised that fairgrounds are, for me, indissolubly linked with dusk and not daylight. And the London fairs I went to when I was a kid were far more rumbustious affairs than this turned out to be. Carters boasts that it’s an ‘authentic travelling funfair entirely consisting of rare vintage equipment’. The rides and booths are beautifully decorated and superbly maintained, though there was a slight air of the museum about the place. Perhaps that too was down to my mid-afternoon timing.
I did wonder what the kids habituated to the autonomy of the games console and the vastnesses of the Web would make of it though. If, from your bedroom, you can command mutant armies, vanquish zombie invasions, and direct the colonisation of distant planets, won’t this all seem a bit, well, tame? Come to the fair, the parents plead, it’ll do you good to get out a bit, you’ll enjoy it. It’s called a steam fair, they say, which might put one or two of the YA fiction readers in mind of the ancient genre of steampunk. So the kids get there and as far as they can see all the machines are working off electricity, not steam. And everything is really slow. They start early with the technology these days. Doubtless there are six-year-olds who possess not only the neural speed and cognitive agility of fighter pilots but also the cunning and savagery of barbarian emperors. Even the managed violence of the dodgems will seem sedate to these prodigies.
I expect some of the kids will have experienced the theme park gigantism of the likes of Thorpe Park and Alton Towers (which I’ve noticed now call themselves, in the American style, ‘resorts’). By virtue of the scale and speed of their rides, these venues do at least offer some visceral experiences, something to get the adrenaline and cortisol of even the most jaded gamester flowing. The attractions are the products of large creative teams that do have more in common with the games industry than the fairground grease monkeys of yore. And if the new Wicker Man roller coaster at Alton Towers lives up to its name and introduces an element of human sacrifice to the experience then the frisson could be considerable.
According to the National Fairground and Circus Archive at Sheffield University (and who knew there was such a thing?): ‘The first evidence of a steam-powered ride dates from 1861 when Thomas Bradshaw presented his merry-go-round at the old Pot Market in Bolton on New Year’s Day’. That must have been quite a day. In the last century and a half fairgrounds have gained speed and sound systems but lost variety. The typical late Victorian fair offered much more than rides: there were wild animals, freak shows, fortune tellers, wax works and boxing matches. What travelling fairs like Carters provide is, understandably, more limited. The wild animals are freed, the freak shows are in cyberspace, and the boxing is banned. The culture evolves but Carters hangs on, apparently thriving.