Helter Skelter montage, Paul Fillingham
Goose Fair 1: Arthur and Sydney go to the fair
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The Sillitoe Trail focusses on five locations from the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): Old Market Square, The White Horse, Raleigh, the River Trent and Goose Fair.
The fifth featured location on the trail is Goose Fair, where anti-hero Arthur Seaton is caught with too many women; his wife Winnie and two people with whom he was having an affair, her married sister Brenda and Doreen. Goose Fair is an annual event in Nottingham during the first week of October and can be traced back seven centuries.
In the first of four essays, Ann Featherstone, a historian of the Victorian period, who compiled the journals of an unknown diarist from Nottingham called Sydney Race, wonders what would have attracted Arthur Seaton and Sydney Race to Europe’s oldest travelling fair.
Apart from both living in Radford, Arthur Seaton and Sydney Race don’t appear to have much in common. Arthur’s hard, cynical outlook on life, hammered into him by piece work at an unforgiving factory bench and dulled by drunken oblivion is a world away from Sydney’s clerking job at the Gas Company and evenings improving his mind at the Mechanics’ Institute, Sherwood.
Both probably spoke with similar flat vowels – Albert Finney didn’t quite get it right in Karel Reisz’s 1960 film – but it was Sydney, the Nottingham High School boy with middle-class aspirations, hearing Conan Doyle speak at the Mechanics’ and Frank Benson at the Theatre Royal, who might have tried to rub off some of his Nottingham accent’s rough edges.
Arthur, in his early-twenties, having done (and hated) his National Service, was already resigned to the working-class oblivion of a-job-for-life and “the dizzy and undesired brink of hell that older men called marriage” to nineteen-year-old Doreen.
Sydney, who was seventeen in the 1890s when he started writing his Nottingham journals, was bookish and reserved, uncomfortable with girls. His war service, 1914-18, was yet to come.
So sixty years apart, with almost ten years difference in age, one a manual worker, the other an aspirational blue-collar clerk, there is only one thing that really connects Arthur Seaton and Sydney Race: the October Goose Fair.
To Arthur, Goose Fair reflected his own pent up energy and appetite for danger. On the Forest Recreation Ground, at the top of the Helter Skelter, Arthur is set free from the incarceration of factory life and complicated relationships, surveying the lights and roaring crowd “that had lost all idea of time and place locked in the belly of its infernal noise.”
He felt like a king up there “with so much power spreading on all sides below him…wondering how many columns of soldiers could be gathered from these crowds for use in a rebellion.”
For him, Goose Fair is all about the freedom to feel bold and randy, masculine and excited. He likes the fast, dark rides, the chance to impress the woman on each arm.
The only woman Sydney Race appears to have taken to Goose Fair (at least according to his diaries) was his sister. Writing in the 1890s, the fair was still held on the Old Market Square and spilled over into the surrounding streets.
But it still had the power to transform the city centre, to turn the cobbled expanse of the Square into avenues and streets of stalls and rides, and to excite the teenage Sydney by its strange mix of the predictable and the bizarre.
And it was this grotesque mix that he relished and wrote about, and in particular, the strange attraction of the Goose Fair sideshow.
Of course, in the 1950s Arthur could have still seen shows – crocodiles and tattooed men, giant rats and half-dead pythons that “look as though they ain’t bin fed since Christmas” – but it was the rides with their “thumping pistons” which were the attraction, the Caterpillar and Noah’s Arks, the Ghost Train and the Bobby Horses and the noise, lights and stink of diesel that went with them.
Rides at the 1890s Goose Fair were just coming into their own – the gallopers, switchbacks, swing boats, rolley-polleys and sea-on-land roundabouts. Sydney Race described them in his diaries, but he didn’t go on them and wasn’t really interested. The sideshows were his thing.
There was a huge variety he could choose from. His great favourite was Wall’s Ghost Show, which had the most elaborate frontage – it was “a blaze of gold paint”, wrote Sydney – and always stood at the bottom of Market Street.
A theatrical show with music and breathtaking light effects, the appearance of the ghosts was all done by means of mirrors and reflections after the manner of Pepper’s Ghost and Dircks’s Phantasmagoria.
The Mystic Swing, part show and part ride, was another favourite. You walked into what appeared to be an ordinary sitting room with pictures on the walls and sat down on seats on a platform in the middle, which were suspended like a swing from an iron bar. The seats began to swing faster and faster until you felt you were being swung up to the ceiling. Of course it was an illusion. It was the room itself, a box within a box, which was moving, not the seats.
At the Diver’s Exhibition were water-tanks with glass fronts and men in diving suits standing underwater, and at Professor Burnett’s Military Academy the Professor, sword in hand, would stalk up and down the show front encouraging the crowd to pay their pennies to see his exhibition of the ‘manly and noble art of self defence.’ All of his performers were former military men who gave exhibitions of sword-fighting and boxing. Race enjoyed the spectacle of a Dragoon cutting a potato in half, first on a girl’s hand and then on her throat.
In February 1895, Sydney had already seen some of the earliest moving pictures in the shape of Edison’s Kinetoscope in a shop on Long Row. By 1897 there were three cinematograph shows at Goose Fair. The films were very short, a couple of minutes’ duration – scenes from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Procession, an exchange of fire during the Greek-Turkish war with sound effects provided by the showman’s boy firing a pistol. The following year, the range of films on offer was much greater, though to our eyes the subject matter still seems dull: a bull-fight; W G Grace’s Jubilee day at Lord’s showing the two teams walking out; Gladstone’s Funeral Procession and a film taken from a train “dashing through the country.”
Freak shows were also on Race’s list of ‘must-sees’. He enjoyed Count Orloff, the ‘Living Ossified and Transparent Man’, who suffered a range of debilitating and painful conditions which caused muscular atrophy and transparent skin.
But although Sydney was clearly fascinated by Madame Pauline, the miniature strong-woman and weight-lifter, he was not always entirely comfortable with these ‘monstrosity shows.’ Having seen the child-dwarf, the size of a baby a few weeks old but claimed to be around three years of age, he wrote that she “sat in a little chair and was lifted up by her mother for us to see her, but it was a poor exhibition and the child was not ‘all there’.”
Then there was the Armless Lady, who cut paper into patterns using her feet and, said Race, “answered one or two questions of the showman as though she were in great fear of him.”
The Jolly Fat Girl, Race said, was “an enormous piece of flesh of some twenty summers”, wearing an elaborate dress which showed off her plump shoulders and arms. The showman announced that the girl would take a collection and afterwards ‘show her leg’ and the more money she got ‘the more leg she would show.’” Race found this “a sorry exhibition.”
How typical of his time Sydney Race was is difficult to judge. Given the concerns he records about the treatment in the shows of animals as well as humans, he seems to display sensitivity. Yet he clearly enjoyed visiting the shows, described them in detail and looked forward to the excesses of Goose Fair.
Perhaps what he demonstrates are some of the concerns and reservations we all feel about witnessing exploitation, whether it is a show on the fairground or humiliation on television but, at the same time, reveals that curiosity which drives us to look and watch anyway.
Chums, chips and cock-on-a-stick
In the second of four essays, historian Ann Featherstone, looks at the changing menu of the fair.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
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Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2022