06 April, 2006

Fair play

From my kitchen window I can see that some kind of ferris wheel has been set up in the Brent Cross shopping centre car park. It's one of those wheels that doesn't just rotate but pivots through an angle of 90 degrees, starting flat on the ground but ending up spinning almost completely vertically.

It looks, frankly, like a veritable death trap, albeit decked out in very nice illuminated lights. Heaven knows why it's there, in one of the least hospitable, not to say inaccessible, places in the whole of north London. But it's obviously doing some kind of trade, and certainly brightens up what is otherwise one giant grey smear of architecture stretching from between the M1 to the main railway line between London and the Midlands.

I've only ever been on a ferris wheel once in my entire life. It was in my hometown, during the annual funfair which materialised every November and commanded the entire market place, numerous side streets and a great deal of local revenue. I never particularly liked the fair, due to a combination of the way it turned the whole town into one great gaudy theme park, the cost of all the rides, the noise, and the uselessness it proved to be as a practical and rewarding social event.

I remember that when I was younger a huge amount of effort would always go into planning a trip to the fair, effort that was never rewarded when you actually got there and found the place was too crowded for people to stick together and too raucous for any kind of conversation. At primary school we used to go on an official visit to see the "opening" of the fair by the Mayor, at midday on the second Thursday in every November. I say opening, but none of the rides would ever be working, and it being daylight all of the illuminations looked crap. To set the seal on this dismal tradition, we would always have to trudge back to school in a crocodile past all these mysterious caravans and camper vans with eerie looking people inside. Of course nowadays these folk would most likely be chased out of town for being putative asylum seekers. Back then they were simply "the people who ran the fair", and who to me seemed to live the perfect life, travelling from place to place in their portable worlds and not having to walk in crocodiles anywhere.

One year when I was a bit older I decided I should make more of an effort to appreciate this annual jamboree and actually go on a few of the rides. And this was when I made my one and only foray onto a ferris wheel. From the ground it didn't look like it went very high. From the top I couldn't see the ground I was so high up. The ascent wasn't too bad; you're being pulled up, after all, with your back feeling the force of gravity and your eyes focused largely on the ground. The descent, however, was appalling. That feeling of being pushed downwards, with your stomach lurching as if trying to escape up out of your throat, and your brain trying to process the fact you're falling but sitting still...it was a nightmare. Everyone else was shouting and screaming, but doing it out of pleasure, not pain. And every time I thought it was over, up the thing would go again and another rotation would begin.

Regardless of social etiquette, paying no heed to whatever anybody else said or did, I stomped off and walked all the way back home, pissed off at having to undergo such an ordeal but equally pissed off at the way others seemed to be having a great time while I was not. Another of life's tests failed.

The self-same fair still visits my hometown every November, the prices of the rides assuredly ten times what they were when I used to go, while the rides themselves are probably ten times more safe and secure. But the one element I always appreciated, come what may, was always free of charge and will always remain that way: the morning after the last night of the fair, the town deserted, the streets all washed clean, the air still tinged with the smell of toffee apple, the sky bleached a brilliant white from the pop of a million light bulbs.


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