Tuesday, 22 June 2004

All the Fun of the Fair

Untitled - detail (Oil on board) Posted by Hello

Maybe walking for two hours on a sore foot wasn't a good idea, but, hey, the Hoppings are in town!

The largest travelling funfair in Europe, the Hoppings comes to Newcastle's Town Moor for a week at the end of June every year. As a child, it was always something I looked forward to with huge anticipation and the visits there, especially at night, were filled with excitement and wonder.

I still remember the time my parents steered me clear of any stall where I might have won a goldfish. Our last goldfish had recently died and they didn't want another. He'd lived on for years after killing off all other competitors in the tank and I think they were glad to see the back of him. Anyway, just as we were leaving the Moor, their attention was diverted just long enough for a lovely couple to come up to me and say, "Here, sonny, would you like this goldfish?" That one lived even longer than the previous one.

The days of giving away goldfish are gone, of course, and it's clear that most of the tat given away now comes from pretty much the same warehouse. Most of it made in China, I should imagine.

I met the Frootbat beside the bandstand in the Exhibition Park at about 3.30 and we set off up to the Moor. There's always a sense of bewilderment, I find, when I get to the Hoppings. A sort of "Where do I start?" This is compounded by the fact that the Hoppings now grows appreciably year by year. For years it consisted of two long rows but these have increased to four.

The answer to where to start is actually the same every year. Walk up the first row to the top, walk down the next, up the next and so on. And despite the increased entertainment, it's always laid out more or less the same every year.

First of all, there are the fortune tellers - the innumerable daughters of the one and only, the original Gypsy Rose Lee and the occasional Gypsy Rose Higginbotham. They were always an attraction to young women and I guess it's still the same now. Why is it young men never want to know how their lives will turn out, I wonder?

During the afternoon, of course, there's not a lot of activity, and the lady clairvoyants, evidently unable to tell when their next punter will turn up, sit about in the sunshine outside their caravans, trying to catch an eye.

Sunshine! There's an innovation of recent years. For some reason (connected perhaps with the Fair's origins in the Temperance movement) the week of the Hoppings always coincided with the most torrential downpours imaginable. Wellies were always de rigeur when I was a kid, and at least one visit was a complete washout.

But global warming seems to have brought about a change in the fortunes of the showmen. OK, so it rained once or twice this week, but the ground was still firm and only the occasional slough of bark-covered water lay here and there to trap the unwary. But then if you're daft enough to not watch where you're going, you're just as likely to walk into a mess of discarded noodles, a heap of fallen chips or a slippery ice cream cornet. All part of the fun.

After the fortune tellers, there are rows of hoopla stalls, hook-a-duck stalls, penny arcades, darts stalls and shooting galleries and even a few of the old lucky number stalls (where you pick a straw and push out the ticket from inside).

Rounding the top of the Moor, you start to come down the row of sideshows. In my youth there were real sideshows - boxing booths, ghastly old women doing "artistic tableaux" to the strains of "The Swan" by Saint-Saens, dwarfs and three legged sheep and halls of mirrors.

The crooked mirrors still survive as part of the Houses of Fun - those places where the floor shakes back and forth and blasts of air blow up girls' skirts. Some things never change, though the number of girls in skirts has, I suppose.

Many of the sideshows now are developments of two basic entertainments. The Ghost Train in various forms still seems to pack 'em in and people still come out looking slightly breathless and rearranging their clothing. The Rotor seems to have made a big comeback, although the original, which was doing no business the last few times I saw it there, has gone. But there are lots of new ones declaring their "sticky walls." The Rotor, in case you don't know it, is the ride where you go into a room which slowly spins, then picks up speed until you're stuck to the wall....and then the floor drops away.

Down the middle of the ground are the big rides. Waltzers, dodgems, helter-skelters and one or two old fashioned merry-go-rounds with properly painted horses. I even saw a set of shuggy boats for the kids. But mostly the really big bits of technology have taken centre stage here. There's a colossal Big Wheel, the biggest I can remember at the Hoppings. How the hell do they transport such a thing? There are a surprising number of people prepared to pay big money to get strapped into a metal ball and then get flung heavenward by two massive bungy-ropes.

So how many of these potentially suicidal rides do you suppose the Frootbat and I went on? Absolutely correct. None. We went to see the fun, not take part in it. I guess the showmen could tell that, because with one exception, none of them tried to rope us in. The exception was a guy who was either very desperate or simply the world's worst judge of character.

"Come on lads," he yelled," kick a football through the goal!"

The Frootbat! And me! Kick a football!!!

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