The olfactory system is a powerful thing. Just a whiff of a scent–or so legend has it–and you’ll be transported to another time, another place: a memory trapped in your mind, suddenly released like a genie from a bottle.
Smells are evocative. Unlike sights or even sounds, they bind us closely, their meanings common to each of us. Burnt toast smells differently to burnt hair. Remember the scents; pop their corks. Wherever the smells take you, whatever you think of as you read, I’m thinking of the smells as well.
Add bonfire smoke into the mix–another burning smell, distinct from the others. What about the smell of burning tyres, or the warm, mellow scent of molten wax and candle flames?
These scents are set, not open to interpretation, not analogue in the way a sound might be. If I asked you to remember the sound of a door slamming, though you’d know what I was talking about the sound you’d hear might be completely different to the one I was thinking of. The same could be said of a sunset, or a hug; you’d get the gist of it, but your memories colour the sound you hear, the feeling you feel.
Tiny fragments of the item itself, landing upon your olfactory receptors: the smell you smell, is the same the world over.
So when I tell you to remember the scent of a fairground and you breathe deep there’s a whoosh at the back of your head and a great wave of nostalgia sweeps over you. Maybe sounds accompany the smells–eighties hair rock blaring over tinny Tannoys, stuttering generator motors, siren screams and people screams mingling with calliope music–and maybe there are lights, so many lights moving and dazzling in jackpot patterns . . .
. . . but it’s the smells you’ll remember, and cherish the most.
Because where else would you find such a cacophony of smells? Where else would your nose wrinkle and your nostrils flare, blocking out carny sweat and petrol fumes but drinking deep every other smell that hangs thickly in the air? Breathe and remember: candy floss, fried onions, sugar donuts, burger grease. Remember hot dogs, ketchup and mustard–the condiments watered with vinegar, lending an extra sharp tang and a flavour found only at the fairground.
A thousand people, a thousand rides–the fair reflects in a mirror of night time that magnifies and distorts. Plush cartoon characters hang from game stalls of skill and chance, but they too are distorted and leer from their nooses in familiar yet unfamiliar ways. Better hold onto dad’s hand, kid, and hold on tightly; a fairground like this might whirl you away.
Fairs were my thing. Hardly visited, rarely seen, fragments of them showed up infrequently at fetes and parades, staying for days then vanishing. leaving behind scorched and oily marks in the grass. The odd ferris wheel or waltzer alone wasn’t cause for excitement; I only smiled when the proper funfair came to town.
Circuses were a different matter. I grew up with tales of circus excitement full of kids running to and from them, escaping their home lives, cartwheeling in either direction. Enid Blyton’s stories were peppered with hot-tempered circus folk who were generally viewed with suspicion. The only time I ever went to the circus, my family left early. The clowns arrived in a back-firing, falling apart car and between their clothes, their makeup and their loud, loud sounds they scared the crap out of me. I bawled from the ring to the car and all the way home and we never went back.
But there were no clowns at the fair: only skinny, hard-faced men with rings in their ears and fag-ends dangling from their mouths. So weary of fairground life they lolloped across moving rides with practised ease, stepping on and off dodgems as if it wasn’t worth noting–just another day at the funfair. One sat at the kiosk, minding the money and talking like a DJ over The Locomotion; the speakers were so bad and the volume so loud both his voice and Kylie’s singing were incomprehensible.
Sparks arc in the rafters. The shock snap smell of ozone hits your nose.
Fair rides are dangerous. Fly by night organisations, stalls and trailers disappearing by dawn, if the rides are certified safe they give a great impression otherwise. Ferris wheel carts rock precarious at their apex. There are no belts, no buckles, no lap bars to keep you from flying.
A waltzer presented my folks with one of those parental nightmares they tell you about when you’re an adult, as if to show how much they cared for you once upon a dream. So many times I’ve been told about the waltzer ride the four of us took, how it kept spinning faster, how centrifugal force threw us back and forth in such a way that my sister, still baby-small, started slipping from the car. Arms and legs spread my dad acted as a human safety harness for us while my mum held her daughter tight, nevertheless feeling her slip inexorably from her grip.
Smoke from the generator. Oil slicking the path of the cart. Mum’s perfume. Dad’s aftershave.
We emerged unscathed but ever since, even at theme parks with impeccable safety records, my mum has always refused to ride on the waltzers.
Past the Tilt-A-Whirl, over chip papers (vinegar, salt, hot fat and crisping batter) and admiring–and I use the word advisedly–the airbrush art on the sides of the rides. In truth I’m not sure I noticed it back then, before life became so cynical, but it was there: Tina Turner, almost unrecognisable; Five Star in silver shoulder pads; the Space Shuttle; Gibson flying V guitars; women in poodle perms dripping out of legwarmers, leather bodices and ra-ra skirts. Big hair and cheerleader fantasies: this was the eighties.
Cigarette smoke and body odour from a passing carny.
We didn’t call them carnies back then, of course, as we were British and went to funfairs, not carnivals. For reasons I hope are obvious today I find it difficult to think of them as ‘fair folk’ as I might once have done. Narrow-eyed, a steely bunch, I remember them as identikit and interchangeably rat-faced–I’m probably doing them a disservice but then I remember every fun fair amalgamating into just the one: a mammoth maze of marquees and carousels that stretched on forever. Helter-Skelter towers (hessian sacks smelling like doormats) stand like lighthouses, casting candy-striped rays down on shooting ranges and coconut shies. which were never quite the same as they were in the Dandy–there were always fewer coconuts on display and a greater bounty (if you’ll excuse the pun) of prizes.
“It’s a fix,” my dad said, even before he’d hefted his first ball. “They’re all fixes.” Usually he wouldn’t get as far as buying three balls–or darts, to fling at playing cards stuck to the back of the stall–before casting aspersions but every once in a while he’d be cajoled into playing, and every once in a while he’d win. Through whipping ping-pong balls into fish bowls he won my sister a goldfish in a bag, which she took with great delight, probably swinging her arms a little too exuberantly as she carried it about the fair until one of our parents took it from her. At Dundonald Street that evening my grandad found a proper goldfish bowl that Little Jimmy had kept fish in as a child and we relocated the goldfish there, only for it to perish overnight. Even by fairground fish standards, Goldy had a short lifes.
Where did the fair come from, and where did it go once it went? One night, walking toward Central Park swimming pool I saw a fair being set up in the car park. A few coloured bulbs were lighted and last season’s pop hits were already drifting into darkening eve. “Can we go there when my lesson’s over?” I asked my dad. It was just him and me that night, with me on the way to my swimming lesson and him on the way to spectator seating.
“Maybe,” he said. Now, my dad’s not a ‘maybe’ man. ‘Maybe’ has always been his way of saying “I want to say no, but instead I’ll hope you forget about it.” Even at that age I’d worked out when he’d put his foot down and when he could be swayed; defeated, I sloped off to my swimming lesson and tried to put the funfair from my mind.
Imagine my surprise, then, when after the lesson, with my hair still damply clinging to my skull, he didn’t walk back to the car but toward the shimmering gates at the fair’s entrance. Dusk had fallen while I’d been swimming; the sky was so deeply blue it was almost black, and a twinkling of stars struggled to be seen above the garish chaos of the fair beneath.
“Where are you going?” I said, not daring to hope. “The car’s this way.”
“I thought,” he said, in his usual uptight manner, “that you wanted to go to the fair.”
“I did! I do!”
“Come on, then,” he said, and held out his hand.
No rides were ridden that night; no tombola tickets bought, no prizes won–but he did buy two bags of candyfloss that were tied to the stall like balloons, and we munched them on the way back to the car. The candyfloss–spun before our very eyes by a thousand sugary spider-threads–turned dark pink where I bit into it, leaving the fibres fused in the shape of my mouth.
And trapped within this cloud of fluff was a smell, sickly yet exciting: exhaust fumes and hot fat; sacks to slide spirals and acrid electricity arcing overhead; sugar, sweet sugar, and the misty breaths of dozens of thrill-seekers, who wandered the fairground in chill after-dark.
The smells–so many, overlapping like shouted conversation–breathe them all. Breathe deep and remember what it was like to be small and insignificant yet overjoyed, a pinball careening from stall to ride to test your strength, sir, guess your weight, count all the beans in the jar and win a prize.
Breathe and cherish and remember it all.
All the fun of the fair.