What are you selling?
My local event really, only a leisurely half hour’s drive from my yard, the Malpas Yesteryear Rally is a classic British back end fair. With the sun out of the evening sky and smoke curling up from the various showmens’, bodgers’ and shepherds’ hut chimneys as ancient woodburners are fired up. Elsewhere on the field trusty transits spew khaki tarpaulins, poles and bearded men of the road who set up their encampents by the sparse illumination of rusty paraffin lamps.
I am as one with these people. An outsider observing at a distance all their wonderful ingenuity and eccentricity but also one of them. I share their simplicity and ease of living, en plein aire, coping equally and stoically with drought or storm and doing the thing they love. As I write, I have in my view a caravan awning full of oxo tins, four classic aircraft cockpits cunningly coaxed onto trailers, a curious collection of ancient garden equipment and a guy whose raison d’etre I cannot as yet fathom, but whose cleverly constructed abode has at least two free-standing woodburners, several hand made tressle tables and above which flies the de rigueur flag of St George. No doubt tomorrow I will discover this man’s burning passion perhaps for welsh lovespoons (unlikely I guess, given the flag) or model fairgrounds.
And that’s just in my view. Elsewhere there are sundry stalls and sideshows, a steam fairground with some really ancient classic rides, a superb museum of vintage caravans, several horse drawn, and gatherings of steam, army and commercial vehicles. Standing engines, miniature steam engines, marquees of local foods, crafts and beer tents. The whole effect is truly one of yesteryear, yet with something added from the twenty-first century - an understanding of the importance of heritage, of conservation and respect for the best of the past.
But there is, above it all, a sense of a nomadic community, settling together for a few days to celebrate their humanity in all its vibrant colour, creativity and common purpose. And very British in its eccentricity; people’s willingness to help and support each other, to respect each other’s business and of course to have a strong opinion on anything and be ready to voice it.
An old guy came up to me when the stage was all set up. ‘What are you selling?’ he asked. As often the right reply failed to emerge from the grey matter. ‘Entertainment.’ I said a trifle lamely. I could or should have said ‘Dreams, fantasy, happiness in a half hour celebration of our common humanity.’
A little later someone else came over to chat. She asked if I recognised her. I apologised. I meet so many people. She said I taught her son literacy using circus fifteen or so years ago. I remembered an education project back in my murky past, where I taught children who had learning difficulties by encouraging them to learn juggling, unicycling and trapeze. ‘He was having difficulty with reading at the time,’ she went on, ‘He’s 21 now. He starts at university tomorrow… so that’s another of your success stories!’
So this is me. The shaman, the storyteller, the troubadour and teacher whose role is to entertain and amuse, to educate and divert at these tribal gatherings. Maintaining the age-old tradition of the travelling showmen, actors, jugglers, tumblers, clowns and magicians who have always been there and I trust always will. From Stonehenge to Woodstock and on to Malpas Yesteryear Rally, the show must go on.
All the best from a road near you,