Nottingham Goose FairCategory: Customs + Festivals
The following extract is taken from Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It describes Arthur’s visit to the traditional Nottingham Goose Fair to which he goes with Brenda and Winnie.
Brenda on his right arm and Winnie on his left they walked towards the fire-lake of the fair, dressed in their best despite the maxim saying: Wear old things on such nights so that fish, chips, candy-floss, brandy-snap, and winkle stains would not matter.
The fair lights were a sheet of pale coruscating orange obliterating the darkness. Crowds were thick along the pavement, moving in uneven intermingling streams to and from the tents and roundabouts. Children clutched Donald Duck balloons, women and girls wore paper sailor hats saying: “Kiss me quick” or “You’ve had it” others hugged train-sets and china dogs won at hoop-la and darts. The pungent air smoked brandy-snap and vinegar. They heard the thumping pistons of red-painted engines that gave power to Caterpillars and Noah’s Arks, and distant screams came down at them from the tower of Helter Skelter and the topmost arc of the Big Wheel, noise and lights a magnetized swamp sucking people into it for miles around.
Winnie held his coat-tail so that she would not be lost, screaming: “Where shall we go first?” “Just foller me,” he bellowed. [...]
Music was sweet from the Bobby Horses, a circular up-and-down movement shaking along to captivating organ music. “Thehorses,” Winnie yelled.“I want a bob on the horses.”
“They’re stopping,” Brenda said, “Let’s get on quick” — she lifted her skirt and Arthur pushed her from behind, pulling Winnie after him who, when on a horse, sat clutching her paper hat.
“An old-age-pensioners roundabout,” Arthur shouted. “Wait till we’re on the rocket.” When the horses rose they saw over the heads of the crowd, a mixing ground of grownups and children.
On a slow advance towards the centre they mounted the Caterpillar, and when the hoods covered them in darkness Arthur kissed first Brenda and then Winnie so that when the canvas slid back and let the stars look in at them, both were laughing loudly and blushing from Arthur’s passionate caresses, struggling away from his righteous and powerful arms.
“Try our luck,” Winnie said, “Let’s roll pennies and win a quid.” Winnie let them fall from the wooden slot over numbered squares in rapid fire and lost five bob in as many minutes, while Brenda aimed well but did no better. Arthur rolled them down slowly yet without aim and won simply because he kept shouting loudly that he was born lucky. Brenda’s judgement prevailed and they came away two shillings on the right side, buying brandy-snap and starting a slow crawl of the sideshows sucking a brown tasty stick.
They were turned out of the zoo when Arthur tried to throw Winnie to a pair of half-dead pythons coiled up in sleep. “You’d mek a good meal,” he said as she struggled in his arms. “They look as though they ain’t bin fed since Christmas, the poor boggers.”
The keeper chased them down the steps waving a whip over their heads. At a darts stall Brenda won an ornamental plate. “That’s what comes of having done so much practice at the club last year,” Winnie said knowingly. “You should be able to win summat as well, Arthur.”
“I’ll throw you to the lions next if you aren’t careful, yo’ see’f I wain’t.”
Sanity was out of reach: they were caught up in balloons of light and pleasure that would not let them go. The four-acre fair became a whole world, with tents and caravans, stalls and roundabouts, booths and towers, swingboats and engines and big wheels, and a crowd that had lost all idea of time and place locked in the belly of its infernal noise.
Winnie clamoured for the Ghost Train, and Arthur felt like a father with two children, fulfilling a promise made at the anti-climax of Christmas. They waited for an empty carriage and, once pushed into the ghost-ride, were assailed by black darkness and horrible screams from Hell, that Arthur decided came from the train in front. He stood up to fight the mock-death whose horrors had been written in large letters across the fagade outside.
“Sit down-,” Brenda warned him.
“Or a bogey-man will get you,” Winnie said, the most frightened though she had suggested the ride. Nothing more than darkness and phantoms conjured up from your own mind were supposed to make you afraid in the first stage, and Arthur, unattacked, swore black-and-blue that it was too dark to see anything, shouting that he wanted his money back. Girls in the train before them began laughing at his complaint, shaken from the legitimate sense of terror for which they had paid a shilling. He stepped out and ran a few yards in front, until he came level with them, determined that they should not be disappointed in the Ghost Train. His hands roamed, and they cried out in fear. The noise of a horse about to stampede whinnied through the dark tunnel, the death-rattle of a crushed man croaked around them, and finally he gave a wild scream as if suddenly put out of his misery by a rifle bullet. He left their train and, when ha gauged that Brenda and Winnie had drawn level with him, climbed in.
“Who just got in our train, Alf?” asked a female voice that he could not recognize. He stood still, hardly breathing.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “Did anybody get in?” Arthur heard him patting her thigh, trying to comfort her. “Don’t worry, Lil, duck.”
“But somebody got in, I tell you,” she whimpered. “Look, he’s standing there.”
The man stretched out his . hand. It touched Arthur’s leg, and drew back as if he had been a piece of live wire. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Boris Karloff,” Arthur said in a sombre voice.
The woman cried plaintively. “I told you we shouldn’t have come in here. It was your idea, with your dirty tricks.” “It’s nothing,” the man said, a little less comforting. “He’s only one of the mechanics. But it’s going a bit too far, if you ask me, spoiling our ride like this.”
“I want a drink o’ blood,” Arthur said. “Only a cupful, for supper.”
“Tell him to get out,” the woman moaned. “Tell him to ride in somebody else’s train.”
“Brenda!” Arthur roared. “Winnie! Where are you?” Then he laughed. He wasn’t going to walk back, so might as well finish his ride in this train. They came to a turning, and the luminous bones of a hanging skeleton dangled before them, a sight that filled the tunnel with echoing screams.
“Tell him to get oyt,” the woman kept saying. “You don’t know who he might be,” she chafed.
“I’m Jack the Ripper,” Arthur said, “but I’m not ripping tonight.”
“Oh what horrible things he’s saying,” she wept.
“Now then, Lil, keep calm,” Alf said. “You’ll be all right. We’re only in the Ghost Train. We’ll be out soon.”
“I’m frightened,” she whined. “He’s got such a terrible laugh. He might have come out of an asylum for all we know.” Arthur stood up taller as the train drew close to the skeleton. “Look, missis, I’ll do you a favour: if you let me ride in your train, I’ll smack it on the snout.”
“Get out,”she cried, hiding her face. “I don’t want to see it.” “Now, now,” the man said. “Don’t cry. I’ll see the management about this.”
Arthur hit the skeleton, a huge piece of cloth, caught it with his hands and was trapped in it. He struggled to free himself, but it fell from diverse hooks and hung on as if it were alive, folding over him and fighting back. He was: buried, he was six feet under in a sack-cloth coffin with, train-wheels jolting his feet, aware of the woman’s screaming, feeling her boy-friend trying to thump him, hearing people running from train to train when he shouted through a hole in the cloth: “Fire! Fire! Run for your lives!” — with all the power of his lungs. He battled with the darkness, breaking his laughter to call on Winnie and Brenda, kicking and pummelling until his arms emerged from the heavy black cover, glistening skeleton-bones looking like tiger-streaks over his back, head, and shoulders.
“I’ve won!” he screamed out to everyone. “I beat that bloody skeleton!”
The train burst into the open air, into flashing lights and music, swirling roundabouts and the thud-thud-thud of engines — and a spanner-brandishing mechanic rushing towards him through the uproar.
Arthur gathered the cloth quickly and hurled it over the man and, while he was struggling and cursing to break; free, took Winnie and Brenda by the wrists and dragged them towards the high-speed circling magnet of the next roundabout I…]
Each with an ice-cream cornet they stepped on to the Cake Walk, shuffling, jogging, laughing along the shaking rattle of moving machinery, Brenda in front, Winnie behind holding her waist, and Arthur last of all holding whatever his hand found. From the Cake Walk he suggested the Helter Skelter, a tall wooden tower with an outside flyway, smooth enough for a swift ride down, sufficiently boxed-in to stop people speeding like birds over tents and stall tops and breaking their necks. Collecting mats they entered the tower, feeling a way up narrow wooden stairs, hearing the dull sliding of passengers descending on the outside.
They emerged from a doorless opening at the top, and Arthur sent Winnie down first. “Don’t push,” she screamed. “I don’t want to go too fast” — and disappeared from view, followed by Brenda. Arthur sat on his mat, waiting for the next person to come up and give him a flying push. He looked over the lights and tent tops and people bellowing out a rough voice to the sky, at the three-day-ritual bout of forty thousand voices. He felt like a king up there with so much power spreading on all sides below him, and until two hands stabbed into his back and pushed him into oblivion he was wondering how many columns of soldiers could be gathered from these crowds for use in a rebellion.
He sped along the smooth curving chuteway, round and slowly down, drawing nearer every second to an ocean of which he would soon form another drop of water. [...] He turned the last bend at the height of his speed, emptied of thought, supremely purified, until he hit the pile of mats at the bottom.
Winnie and Brenda stood in front of the crowd.
(Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe)