A few weeks ago, I experienced my very first St. Giles’ Fair. Surely this must be some kind of secret Oxford induction: in the dead-quiet of early September, when the leaves are on the cusp of changing and a hush has come over even the busiest streets, suddenly the flame of festivity erupts on one of the city’s most charming tree-and-college-lined roads. In my research, I read that, “since the nineteenth century, St. Giles’ Fair has been held on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday after St Giles’ Day (1 September)”—a fittingly circuitous formula for a circus-esque display.
Here’s what John Betjeman wrote about it in 1937 (in An Oxford University Chest):
“It is about the biggest fair in England. The whole of St Giles’ and even Magdalen Street by Elliston and Cavell’s right up to and beyond the War Memorial, at the meeting of the Woodstock and Banbury roads, is thick with freak shows, roundabouts, cake-walks, the whip, and the witching waves. Every sort of fairman finds it worth his while to come to St Giles’. Old roundabouts worked by hand that revolve slow enough to suit the very young or the very old, ageing palmists and sinister, alluring houris excite the wonder and the passions of red-faced ploughmen…. Beyond St Giles’ the University is silent and dark. Even the lights of the multiple stores in the Cornmarket seem feeble…. And in the alleys between the booths you can hear people talking with an Oxfordshire accent, a change from the Oxford one.”
It isn’t so very different today, fundamentally: “Beyond St. Giles’ the University is silent and dark…”.
Historical photos of the fair show ladies under wide parasols, in sweeping black skirts and busty white blouses. The men wear caps at jaunty angles and plus-fours, or suits and bowlers. There are striped tents and little girls with ribbons in their hair. The great stone walls of the University are all but hidden. Elaborate, fairy-tale structures have been erected where once was only an empty avenue.
The caption of one photo, taken in 1895, reads: “A large crowd gathered in St Giles during the annual fair to watch the Fair Days Menagerie. A clown and a pelican are entertaining the crowd waiting to enter.”
When I attend the fair, the outfits are t-shirts, scarves, and denim, and nobody carries a parasol, though they wouldn’t need to anyway: it’s a day as grey as they come. A mist settles on my bicycle as I wheel it through the crowd. There is none of the frivolous accordion music you expect at a fair, only the heavy thump of electronic beats and rock bands (the Man, who works in an office on St. Giles itself, came home that evening looking frazzled and as if he never wanted to go near the place again). The only people on the whirling carousels are white-haired women being photographed by their white-haired husbands, reliving the glory of their childhood one musical spin at a time. Today’s young prefer the faster-paced rides: the roller-coaster outside the doors of a college, the things that spin and shake you into a state of blissful oblivion.
I am reviled by the prospect of such things, though a lifelong attraction to bumper cars is rekindled as soon as I see the shiny floor of the Dodgeum ring. Enormous stuffed animals, arcade games, and the universal sweet smell of the fair (cotton candy mixed revoltingly with fried foods) accost the senses at every turn. I have the sense that I have stepped off my cycle and into a Fellini film. I don’t know quite where to look: at the Haunted House? The giddy teenagers in their tiny straight-leg jeans and pixie haircuts, cigarettes protruding from underage lips? The enormous pink polar bears on display, the food stalls, the patient tweed-clad fathers trying to keep up with their eager, bounding toddlers? I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see a clown and a pelican holding court. Part of me is disgusted, but another part of me can’t help cracking an enormous grin.
When I get home I check the news, as if there might be something new, but there isn’t. There’s doom and gloom and the circus of the presidential election–McCain/Palin (a clown and a pelican?) making gaffes wherever they go, Obama making speeches, pundits and political analysts making predictions, everyone else making noise. The whole world appears to have been swallowed by the same Fellini film that took over St. Giles for two days in September.