ST GILES’, OXFORD

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St Giles’ Fair, 1926: Kenneth Grahame


This extract is from “Lord” George Sanger, Seventy Years a Showman (first published in 1926 by E. P. Dutton, and reprinted by Read Books in 2007):

Perhaps the greatest change that has taken place in show-life in our generation is the disappearance of freaks and monstrosities; and this, it will surely be agreed by all, is a change entirely for good. Of old, freaks were the mainstay of every show. The first fair of importance that I ever attended – I was ten years old at the time – was that of St. Giles’s, at Oxford, and I seem to recollect that giants, dwarfs, fat ladies, tattooed ladies, mermaids, six-legged calves, and distorted nature of every variety formed the backbone of the show. These have now passed away, and the public taste no longer demands to be disgusted.…

The travelling freak-van of old had its contents concealed behind a painted canvas, covering the whole front and depicting the object within under conditions: and in surroundings hardly quite realizable, one was tempted to think, within the limitations of a caravan. There mermaids combed their hair on rocks, or swam lazily about in warm tropic seas; there boa constrictors wound themselves round the bodies of paralysed Indian maidens, in the depth of Amazonian jungles. Were it a giant who lurked within, a troop of Lifeguardsmen, helmeted and plumed, rode far below his outstretched arm; while elsewhere the mighty African lion strewed the sand with the dismembered fragments of a hundred savages. All this I absorbed somewhat disconsolately, at my first St. Giles’s Fair, wandering sadly down the row of painted booths; for my private means would not allow of a closer acquaintance with the interiors, and so I was obliged in imagination to swim in golden lagoons and wander through parrot-haunted jungles which I was not fated to reach in the flesh. Perhaps after all I had the best of the bargain; for even I could not help noticing, after a while, that the audiences remained within for a remarkably short time, considering all the glories that awaited them there, and that when they came out there was on all their faces what the Brer Rabbit book calls ‘a spell ob de dry grins,’ showing that they had been well ‘spoofed’ and knew it. And in fact the whole thing was unabashed ‘spoofery’ – clumsy fakes, dried fish, abortions in bottles, mangy and sickly animals cooped in packing-cases, and so on.

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Stephanie Jenkins

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