The Goose Fair starts on the first Thursday of the first week of October and lasts for three days. We can trace the first recorded mention back to the Nottingham Borough records of 1541 where there is a reference to an allowance of 1 shilling, 10 pence, for 22 stalls. But if we are more flexible with our definition of ‘fair’ we can trace it as far back as 1160 where it began life as a goods trade, enabling locals to stock up with food before winter. The ‘goose’ in the title can be traced back to the 16th century when 20,000 geese with tarred feet were walked down from Lincolnshire to be sold.
The Fair officially starts when the Sheriff of Nottingham, civil dignitaries and the town clerk read a proclamation while the Lord Mayor indulges the Silver Bells ringing-in ceremony, a tradition which dates back to 1634. Once the bells have been rung the Sheriff walks the fair where, tradition has it, he can have the first thing he chooses from any of the stalls. So that means either a big fluffy Snoopy, a mirror with Elvis on it or hundreds of Team GB lions they failed to flog at the Olympics.
The silver bells were commissioned by Tom ‘the Silver King’ Norman, an English counterpart of P.T. Barnum who managed a wide range of freak shows starring such acts as the Elephant Man, the Balloon-Headed Baby, Mary Anne Bevan the World’s Ugliest Woman, John Chambers the Armless Carpenter and Leonine the Lion Faced Lady. Norman lived by the mantra “it’s not the show; it’s the tale that you told”, sentiments which would have been appreciated by Arthur Seaton who would lie until he was blue in the face if it got him what he desired.
As a fellow storyteller, Arthur could see right through the fanciful claims of such showmen but was happy to use this to his advantage, as when he threatened to throw Winnie to some “half-dead pythons” that “look as though they ain’t bin fed since Christmas”. This was probably one of the few menageries to be still travelling in the 1950s, a small affair, nothing like the massive shows of the 19th century for which Goose Fair was famous. Mander’s, Day’s, Bostock and Wombwell’s, these were the giants of the menagerie shows, a zoo on wheels, where you could see anything from lions and wolves to badgers and fancy chickens. The outside parade show alone was worth seeing, as here, before you had handed over a penny, you could listen to a top-notch brass band, marvel at a giant pelican or see a woman snake-handler.
The show-row at Goose Fair had for centuries provided Nottingham folk with the experience of seeing the biggest and the smallest. Whales, stuffed, preserved and very smelly, made regular trips to Nottingham, as did The Monster Horse standing 20 hands high (a Shire horse averages about 16 hands) in the Crown Inn Yard on Long Row, or The Monster Pig, which was 12 feet in length, 8 feet 6 inches in girth and weighed 110 stone. Arthur could still have seen crocodiles, tattooed men, as well as the Giant Rat, which, in 1874, was known as King Koffee’s giant rat, where, according to the advertising, “his teeth were kept in constant practice in tasting the flesh of such as were put to death in accordance with His Majesty’s pleasure.”
But it wasn’t really the oddities that attracted Arthur Seaton, it was the rides with their “thumping pistons”. 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. At the Goose Fair Arthur becomes invigorated and charged up. When he climbs to the top of the Helter Skelter he 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.” It is because of intemperance and the fear of ‘the mob’ that the fair now only runs for a few days instead of a whole week.
The Goose Fair has evolved over the years and with it the entertainment and distractions have changed. It is now politically incorrect to gawp at fat girls, midgets or women with dodgy facial hair. Instead entertainment comes in the form of superfast rides that promise to make you sick for a tenner.
Yet switch on your television set and, perversely, nothing has changed. The Silver King of 2012 is the Commissioning Editor of Embarrassing Bodies, Big Brother and Extraordinary People. The freak show is as powerful now as it ever was.