Yesterday, we visited Carters Steam Fair at Victoria Park in ‘ackney. The Olympic construction has closed all the short cuts to the lungs of the East End, which is a bind if you don’t want to travel by car, scooter or – God help us – bus. Until 2012, getting there means cycling along the Eastway, a scratty stretch of rampant Buddleija davidii, ejected coke cans and car batteries. It’s the very definition of one of Iain Sinclair’s Edgelands.
‘Vicky’ park (as it’s always know to Hackneyites like Mrs TIW) is the perfect setting for John Carter’s Famous Royal Berkshire Steam Fair, an utterly glorious collection of original fairground rides and sideshows that’s been touring the southeast for 30-odd years. There’s waltzers, dodgems, swingboats, chair-o-planes, cork-firing rifles and hook-a-duck. There are those things where you hit a button with a huge mallet in a vain attempt to ring a bell. There’s a penny arcade overseen by a superannuated rocker with a quiff and a comb in his back pocket. The deliciously bling Gallopers ride has been used every season since 1895, still powered by a steam engine that also runs a tootling ‘calliope’ organ. All the rides are tugged about the country by vintage trucks, and the staff live in original showmens’ caravans, all in immaculate condition. It’s magical, especially at night – i’ve never seen so many smiling Londoners.
Along with the fair was Ken Fox’s Wall Of Death, one of only – it is thought – two left in the country. Compared to Carter’s venerable attractions, this wall is practically new – it was built in 1995 at a Liverpool shipyard. In a Britain slowly suffocating with ‘elf ‘n’ safety legislation, to be able to watch 3 riders on 1920s Indian bikes racing each other round the inside of a huge, creaking wooden barrel is something else. No helmets, natch, and often no hands as they roared around only 8 or so inches from the lip of the wall. At the end of the show an obvious question was answered without being asked – no insurance company will touch them, so the riders depend on donations from their audience, who shower the daredevils with pound coins and the odd fluttering tenner. Money very well spent.