As a child I always visited the circuses and funfairs that came to Spalding, because my great-uncle, who kept a shop, was given free tickets or tokens for rides in return for placing advertising posters in the shop windows. I was never very keen on circuses – the captured animals forced to perform tricks, their eyes sad and defeated, troubled me even then. But I loved the funfairs! Yesterday, I stumbled upon one completely unexpectedly when stopping to walk in a small picturesque village when out for a drive.
I hadn’t been to a funfair for many years. The last time that I can recall was during a holiday in France, when my family and I were passing through the handsome old Roman town of Saintes and saw that it was en fête. The main street of the town, which is shady because of the plane trees lining it on either side, had been cordoned off and a modern funfair set up adjacent to the ancient manège (roundabout) that always seems to be there when we visit. I remember that fair especially for its mingled scents of hot metal, warm sugar and cooking meats.
Yesterday’s fair presented me with a similar surge of aromas. The heated metal and candyfloss smells were particularly pervasive in the warm sunshine. What also fascinated was the very dated appearance of the rides – dodgems, cakewalks, giant rocking-boats, one of those terrifying cylindrical rides that depends on centrifugal force not to tip its occupants onto the tarmac as it bends and tilts and, for the younger children, bobbing yellow plastic ducks to ‘catch’ with magnetised canes as they swim endlessly round tiny artificial rivers and a small roundabout of aeroplanes fitted with joysticks for their infant pilots to manipulate them up and down – all standard fairground machinery, perhaps, but, extraordinarily, existing as if in a 1950s time-warp. Each piece was painted and decorated in the same way as those of the fairs that I remember in Spalding as a very small child: there were pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Laurel and Hardy; the cylindrical ride was even topped with a figurine of Elvis Presley.
What transported me back into the past yet more vividly was the wonderful carnival atmosphere that the fair brought with it. Whole families had gathered and were chatting, happy and relaxed, in the streets. Children danced giddily off the rides and played next to them with their friends or tugged at their parents for the cash to buy another go. Fathers pushed buggies and women congregated in groups, sipping coffee or nibbling ice-creams. A local café was selling half-pizzas. Hot dogs, hamburgers, candyfloss and giant sweets proclaiming ‘I love you’ together gave off their distinctive mingled scents. There wasn’t a mobile phone or an iPad in sight. For a couple of hours, it seemed as if I had stepped through the looking-glass into an era of lost innocence and almost forgotten leisure, when it was OK to while away the afternoon doing not much in the company of others doing the same.
Of course, being a crime novelist with more than my fair (!) share of cynicism, I still had my eyes open to the possibility that the opportunity for some nefarious deed might be lurking below the holiday surface. The killing of a young girl on a fairground ride featured in a televised crime programme not so long ago; though she apparently just fell from the ride, she had in fact been stabbed. My eyes turned to the giant fan-belts that powered the more terrifying of the machines; they, too, belonged to a bygone age, an age that depended on a mechanical rather than an electronic infrastructure. What if they had not been inspected with sufficient rigour when the fair was erected? What if a madman were to interfere with them and bring horror to the happy scene? Please don’t worry about me; it’s all just a bit of internal fiction… and I did have a wonderfully nostalgic time!