Many different types of events are staged in England’s public spaces, but few can match the history or the mystery of the fair. These events date back to the 13th century and although there have been notable shifts in their main purpose – e.g. from trading to pleasure in the 18th Century – this heady mix of stimulation and consumption remains the nation’s quintessential event. The traditional season runs from St. Valentine’s Day to November, but a recent proliferation of winter editions means there are now fairs all year round. When staged on green spaces, winter fairs damage turf and cause other environmental impacts, but in this article I focus on the ways they transform space and their associated social effects.
There is a danger of defaulting to stereotypical interpretations of fairs, but it is easy to see why Trowell regards them as ‘magical and unchartered realms of illusion, deception, thrill and adventure’. They are often represented as transgressive or liminal sites and part of their magic is the way they transform public spaces. The striking aesthetics of temporary structures are key to this, but so are the immersive atmospheres and dramatic soundscapes. The fair disrupts the everyday functions and rhythms of open spaces, but also spatial perceptions. In Benjamin Myers’ novel Pig Iron, the lead character gives his perceptive take: “It’s strange how all the fairground rides can change a space – how they can make an ordinary field seem ten times its actual size when you’re in amongst it all”.
Stephen Walker’s work focuses on the way fairgrounds are separated from their surroundings by the creation of a surface or frontage – the ‘fair line’ of rides and attractions. He emphasises that the fairground assemblage does not simply fill a void, it circumscribes and creates space. Alongside the fair line or frontage, the crowd and the atmosphere are key elements. According to Walker, an illusion is created to give the impression that the fairground exists to give people a good time. This obscures their real objectives – allowing communities of showpeople to make a living and to uphold their traditions.
Despite the ongoing restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis, fairs have been staged in London’s parks and open spaces during the summer of 2020. I spent some time observing the one erected on Blackheath in South East London to mark the August bank holiday weekend. This is a particularly interesting example as fairs have been staged here since 1683. Historical links mean the organisers claim the event has been ‘established for 300 years’. My experiences at the Blackheath Fun Fair chimed with Walker’s and Trowell’s analysis above, but they also highlighted other issues relevant to the Festpace project.
One interesting feature of the Blackheath event was the fence that surrounded it, with entry controlled through two specific access points and an admission fee (£2). Signs indicated this enclosure was required by the local authority to ensure the safety of the public. However, it meant that the fair – like other commercial events staged on Blackheath – commoditised and monetised public space. This enclosure, and the heavy presence of motorised vehicles, means there are parallels between the Blackheath Fun Fair and the previous event staged here – a drive-in cinema.
The idea of fencing off public space and controlling access to ensure the safety and security of visitors is a common feature of many events staged in London’s green spaces. Fences are used for paid admission events, but also free ones. In 2018 a row erupted when the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park was fenced for the first time. Lambeth Council claimed this was a way to manage security threats, including terror attacks, although this interpretation was disputed by local residents who felt the fence was a precursor to imposing entry fees.
Fencing off and enclosing public space is highly controversial because it excludes those left outside, but fences can be interpreted in a different way – as installations that protect those residing within. A fairground is not simply an attraction but a temporary encampment and the fences help to protect the equipment, vehicles, possessions and safety of showpeople.
Councils regularly evict travellers’ camps from their parks and open spaces, but fairgrounds provide rare examples where a mobile community is actively encouraged to take up temporary residence. The contradictions and complexities associated with sanctioning encampments in public space were brought to the fore in Brockwell Park earlier this summer when an (unlicensed) Extinction Rebellion camp was set up at the same time as a (permitted) fairground.
Celebrating and welcoming a travelling community is not the only inclusive characteristic of fairgrounds. My observations and experiences at the Blackheath Fun Fair suggest that this is one of the few events staged here that attracts a genuinely diverse crowd, including people from a range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. People of all ages were also present and the visible co-presence of a diverse range of people suggests the magic of the fairground might also include their role in democratising public space. Or perhaps this too is part of the illusion?