Scotland On Sunday, 29 May, 2011
Scotland’s 4,000 showfolk are finding times hard, but all are determined to keep their wagons rolling
IT is a gloomy spring morning, low cloud drooping like a drowsy eyelid over Kirkcaldy and seeming to almost touch the tallest of the fairground rides.
• John Puller who runs the Crazy Circus fun house
The Links Market spreads for nearly a mile along the Esplanade. Although it has taken place annually since 1304, the fair has the cloistered atmosphere of an independent principality: a neon Vatican; a Monaco fuelled by pokes of chips rather than poker chips.
From across the Firth in East Lothian, the fairground must look like a town in its own right. Its spires and weather vanes are those white-knuckle rides that draw crowds of teens – the gleaming white Air, 30 metres high and topped by a globe, and the terrifying swooping pendulum 2Xtreme with its crowning star.
At the bottom of the latter ride, a stern notice warns: “All riders must have natural legs from the knees upwards.”
The Links Market marks the beginning of Scotland’s shows season. There are about 800 people working on approximately 200 attractions.
Afterwards, like seeds from a dandelion clock, they disperse in a hundred different directions, spending the spring, summer and autumn touring “the run” of fairgrounds, from Dumfries to Hawick to Burntisland to Nairn, which they and their families have visited for generations.
“It is a great migratory loop that tends to begin and end in Glasgow, home to the majority of Scotland’s estimated 4,000 showfolk.
Travelling shows are part of the texture of Scotland’s summer. They go with cut grass and light nights and the fretful, headachey feeling of close weather and a threatened electrical storm.
“No-one who grew up in a Scottish town, especially a small town, will be unfamiliar with the excitement of waking up to see the shows have arrived in the local park. It is a seasonal ritual. You may not notice the first swallow, but you will not miss the waltzer.
“It’s the highlight of the showman’s year, the Links Market,” says Philip Paris, chairman of the Scottish Showmen’s Guild. “It’s the largest fair in Scotland and everybody looks forward to it.”
Paris, like most showmen, is the umpteenth generation of his family in the business. His great-grandfather Felice Parisi was an Italian immigrant who, according to legend, helped build the Forth Bridge then started travelling around the fairgrounds with a fish and chip cart.
On the maternal side, Paris’s family are Codonas, the so-called “royal family of the fairground”; one esteemed member is said to have performed a Punch and Judy act for King George III.
It would be wrong to assume that showfolk, because of their itinerant lives, have no sense of rootedness.
On the contrary, most seem familiar and proud of the intricacies of their family trees and speak with great confidence and ease about what are extremely tangled and interconnected genealogies. More, they feel very much part of Scottish society, not remote from it, and are always keen to point out the patriotic contributions showmen have made, such as clubbing together to pay for a Spitfire – “The Fun Of The Fair” – during the Second World War.
They are intensely pragmatic people grafting in a true family business. Everyone mucks in. You see wee girls working the microphone, encouraging punters to roll up and try their luck on the hook-a-duck. You see boys who haven’t started shaving but whose welding skills would put a Clyde shipbuilder to shame.
The wives and mothers have it toughest, combining domestic life with most of the accountancy and admin work. As one puts it: “If there wasn’t any women in our business, there wouldn’t be no business.”
Showmen refer to the hyperbolic patter they use to attract punters to their rides as “telling the tale”. Meeting them, and asking about their lives, it’s notable that many tell the tale about their own backgrounds in a similarly polished style.
David Wallis, a 66-year-old showman, is here with his Ice Maze. “Born in Liverpool, travelled the world,” he says.
“I left school at 14 and went on the road to the university of life. I’m the fifth generation of my family in this business. I have four married children and ten grandchildren all in the business. So we’re into our seventh generation of travelling showmen. It’s a proud way of life and a labour of love. How many other professions can boast that they take money off people and send them away with a smile on their face?”
Twenty minutes is how long it takes to walk sharply and in a straight line from one end of the Links Market to the other. But no one walks sharply and in a straight line at the shows.
There’s too much to take in. The smell of frying onions and burnt sugar. The chug and clank of cash pay-outs. The teasing spiel of the showmen: “There’s fun and laughter on the inside, fellas,” and the inevitable, time-honoured: “Screamifyouwannagofaster!”
Then there are the sights. Not the obvious flashing lights and whooshing swoop of the rides. But the little things you notice if you’re paying attention. The showering arc of sparks as a jug-eared, gel-haired ned flicks a fag out into the night from the entrance of the puggies.
A show-woman in a gold lam top chewing her nails inside the paybox – a rusting fairytale toadstool that has seen better days. Behind the ghost train, three plump and gloomy teenage girls eat chips ‘n’ cheese as, beside them, a giant Igglepiggle – a prize from one of the stalls – lies on the low wall, unloved.
Walking round, you meet some fascinating people. Fred Wheatley is 83, swaddled against the cold in leather cap and green anorak, and describes himself as “the last of the performing showmen”.
Here with his Outer Limits, a funhouse he built in 1964, Wheatley is known as The Professor on account of both his mechanical know-how and his mental store of fairground lore.
He grew up in the days of sideshows, when the rides were not so dominant and punters would queue at boxing booths, shooting galleries and peep shows. He himself performed a magic act, wearing evening dress, walking up a ladder of swords in his bare feet, and faking his own beheading in a guillotine.
He also travelled with performers that might, though it’s not a pleasant term, be considered freak show acts.
From a 21st-century perspective, the idea of people being paid to exhibit their own physical oddities seems depressing and perhaps even immoral. But Wheatley was born and raised in that culture and sees things differently. His parents had sideshows and so did his paternal grandmother.
“She had a girl called The Pig-Faced Girl who was about 14 and came from King’s Lynn,” he recalls.
“A lovely girl, a good talker, with a wee snout. She had been locked up in an attic so nobody could see her. Her family were ashamed of her. So my grandmother went to ask her would she like a job.
“When she started travelling with my grandmother she felt as happy as could be because she met people and lived with them and ate with them and talked to them.
“She died at the age of 20 in Blackpool. She had gone out to a shop in the rain and caught pneumonia.”
That era, though within living memory, seems impossibly distant from our own. Fairgrounds now are still predicated on the same principle – displaying the attractions to best effect in order to part the public from their cash; “the front of the show gets the dough”, as David Wallis puts it. But the emphasis now is on the rides. It is high-risk big business.
One large new attraction debuting at Kirkcaldy is reputed to have cost over 1 million to manufacture. You have to be confident of pulling a crowd if you are going to invest that much money. The Links Market attracts an estimated 150,000 people over six days.
Although that sounds like a healthy number, few fairs are as popular as Kirkcaldy, and the economic situation seems dire for showmen at the moment.
As a class of workers they are, perhaps, a bit like the farmers – never happier than when grumbling about money. A quote painted in silver on the cab of one showman’s truck sums up the often Eeyore-ish conversational tone: “It was better than this last year.”
Having said that, they do appear to be genuinely up against it. Rising fuel costs are especially crippling as they use huge amounts of diesel to transport rides and run generators. Then there is the fact that the public, struggling with their own household budgets, are spending less than they once did.
There are also fewer fairgrounds with every passing season. Councils, concerned the shows may attract anti-social behaviour, are increasingly reluctant to grant permission. Showmen, for their part, often struggle to afford steep licensing fees. Edinburgh is said to be the hardest place in Scotland to secure a licence.
Even the Links Market, though busy, has a slightly elegiac end-of-days feel – a melancholy base note detectable beneath the sound of blaring pop music and The Blue Danube played on a pipe organ. A number of showmen express their fears for the future of the business and their mixed emotions – relief tinged with disappointment – that their children have chosen another line of work.
“For the first time in history,” says Alan Ingram, 51, a fairground enthusiast visiting from Glenrothes, “there is a chance that the travelling fair as we know it could die out.”
DALMARNOCK on a muggy week day is a brown and red landscape of high brick walls, warm and crumbly to the touch. Behind these are the showmen’s “yards” – gated communities in which, typically, there are several mobile homes converted into chalets.
The showmen tend to tour fairs in smaller caravans – or wagons – but retain chalets as a base.
These homes look substantial and well kept, some with diamond-pane windows and porcelain figurines on windowsills. Babies air in the old- fashioned Silver Cross prams. Parked up near the chalets are various fairground rides undergoing maintenance.
A boiler-suited man up a ladder screws a coloured bulb on his Spider-Man waltzer. The smells of this place catch the back of the throat – hyacinths, hops and the stink from the sewage works.
Although there are similar yards in Stirling and Edinburgh, the east end of Glasgow is where an estimated 90 per cent of Scotland’s show families spend the winter and any downtime between fairs.
Yet you could live in Glasgow your whole life and be unaware that this – a town within the city – was here. Dalmarnock is the district with the highest concentration of showfolk. They are thought to constitute a third of the local population. Swanston Street, Shore Street, Strathclyde Street, Cotton Street – that’s where you’ll find them, hemmed in between the railway line and the Clyde.
The look of the area is a strange mix of post-industrial and chintzy-suburban. There’s a strong sense that this is where objects usually in motion come to rest: flitting lorries, black cabs with their bonnets up, Super Whippy ice-cream vans parked on vast lots.
There’s a surreal sort of beauty to this part of the city, if you look in the right places. One place is the yard of 60-year-old Melvin Thomas in which he stores his collection of vintage fairground equipment – everything from wooden wagons to the hoopla used by his grandfather.
Though the fairground culture is intensely pragmatic and tends not keep objects that have outlived their usefulness, Thomas values the heritage. His father died when Thomas was in his early twenties and the collection seems to be a way of retaining a closeness to a parent lost too soon. “It’s total sentiment,” he says. “And it’s keeping me poor.”
Some of the yards are protected by CCTV. Though it is uncommon, it is not unheard of for there to be trouble with the local community, in particular from neds who confuse showfolk with gypsy travellers.
There is a clear distinction between the two groups, showmen insist; they are not an ethnic group and their travelling is for business reasons, rather than from any inherent cultural disposition towards being nomadic.
It used to be that showmen would refer to themselves as travellers, and some still do out of the hearing of “flatties” – outsiders – but there has been a deliberate shift in public language to emphasise their own identity. Not that they have anything against gypsy travellers, they say, but they feel it is terribly unfair that they should experience bigotry by proxy.
Rodney Johnstone, a 42-year-old showman, lives in Govan. He does not allow his sons, Kieron, 15, and Rodney, ten, to leave the yard unaccompanied or to mix with the local children.
“We’ve had people throwing stones and calling us gypsies,” he says, “and we’ve had lorries set on fire and dogs shot with air rifles. That’s why we have cameras now. At Kilmarnock last week one of the stalls had its shutters ripped off and the prizes taken out.”
For the showfolk, for the most part, the yards are a safe and supportive space in which you live near relations and people you have known your whole life. It is, says one showman, a self- contained culture not unlike an old-fashioned pit village in which it is common to use the terms “Uncle” and “Aunty” as tokens of respect and familiarity even if those addressed are not actually blood relations. You are never stuck for a babysitter in the yards, and people tend to look out for the elderly.
Florence White, Aunty Florence, lives in a yard not far from the Dalmarnock cluster. She is 74 with blonde bobbed hair and glasses, and can trace her family back to lion-tamers and female boxers. She is sometimes known as Florence Matchett; her great-grandfather, inviting wagers at his boxing booth, would say: “And I’ll match it!” – a phrase that became the family surname.
Her father John, also a showman, served during the Second World War as the driver of Field Marshal Montgomery, a position he acquired thanks to his considerable mechanical skills.
“There’s a lot of brains in our business that never get used,” says Aunty Florence.
It is certainly true to say that the showmen are enormously resourceful and creative people, though many have had very little education. One showman in Kirkcaldy, Gilbert Chadwick Jr, 46, admitted he could barely read or write, but he is one of the world’s most accomplished creators of ghost trains – an achievement that requires great imagination, engineering nous and an eye for the market. His intelligence and artistry are almost tangible.
Until relatively recently, it was usual for children from show families to leave school at 14. Their educational experiences tended to be poor. They would move school every time they moved town, a fortnight here and a fortnight there, and it was common for children of all ages to be bundled into the one classroom and spend the day drawing pictures.
Now, however, thanks to work by education liaison officers from the Scottish Showmen’s Guild, children enrol at a base school near where they winter. During off-season they attend school as normal, but while on the road they travel with special work packs and are assessed regularly by teachers at the base school.
The pervasive idea that parents care nothing for their children’s education, preferring them to work in the business, is nonsense according to Leslie Broughton, 44, a show-woman from Glasgow whose own teenagers are schooled by teachers sent out to the fairground by individual local authorities.
“I’ve fought for their education all the way,” she says. “A lot of the schools think, ‘They’re here for a week, so it doesn’t matter. They’re all stupid anyway’. That’s a lot of people’s attitude towards our kids. But I want them to get an education. This business might not always go on, so you want them to know something else as well.”
It’s hard to say what the future does hold for the travelling fairs. Part of their appeal is their transience, the way they vanish, leaving behind little more than flattened grass and the lingering perfume of candyfloss and diesel.
But it would be a tremendous loss to our society if this fascinating, misunderstood and still rather mysterious culture did disappear for good. Like the swallows, like sudden lightning, Scotland’s summer would be a sadder season without the shows.
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 29 May, 2011