Not long after the August Bank Holiday, when the last lingering sunshine slinks away and the chilly morning air smells of back to school, my adopted home of Oxford grinds to a halt. The great milling throngs of tourists who clog the streets like knot-weed have for the most part gone; the students are not yet back in their college play-pens. For two brief days Oxford town breathes out, sharpens its elbows and reasserts itself with a shonky swagger. St Giles, the broad and busy thoroughfare that leads to Woodstock and Banbury in the North, is shut off and becomes home to a fair: St Giles fair, one of the most famous in Britain.
The fair itself is a miracle of planning. Somehow, amidst the signs and traffic islands and public toilets and trees the rides are jockeyed in, levered into place, chocked up on wood-blocks. Each unfurls from its truck like a flower, garishly airbrushed in Athena pinks and blues, pushing hydraulics and taste to the limit. Alongside the traditional favourites – carousels, dodgems, a waltzer and a helter-skelter – there are more modern hair-raisers. Storm whirls crates of people around on a sixty foot propeller. Mega Drop winches people eighty foot up a metal scaffold and then plummets them to within feet of the pavement. Rock Rage is a giant’s claw that pendulums people nearly to the top storey of a Georgian terrace, spinning them with more degrees of freedom than a charmed atomic particle.
The gaps between the rides are crammed with burger bars, hooplas, shies, shooting parlours and a genuine gypsy fortune teller.
Excitable teenage girls flit by self-consciously, arm in arm, chewing Wrigleys and puffing Marlboros. Anxious North Oxford parents chaperone their children past sweet stalls, inappropriate rides, and Barton boys, all bling and baseball caps and bow-legged cool. Bored security guards in outsized fluorescent jackets amble about while coppers in shirt-sleeves wear candyfloss smiles. Just beneath the grinding rattle of the generators you can make out the ever-present thrum of danger.
At night the tempo becomes even more frenetic. A jostling whirl of people are out for thrills. Every ride blasts out thumping eighties disco, as if Stock, Aitken and Waterman were the final word in pop. The showmen, calling you to part with your cash for three minutes dalliance with gravity, skip about in an edgy two-step shuffle, oblivious to the perils of the grinding machinery just feet behind them.
It’s a bustling, throbbing, cacophonous bedlam, two glorious days and nights where the world is turned momentarily upside down and Oxford comes out to play. I love the noise and the smells and the crowds and the excitment. I love the inconvenience of it. I love that somewhere a Health and Safety Officer's blood pressure is going through the roof. I love that it's unstoppable.
And come 6 am on the Wednesday morning it’s all gone, vanished as quickly as it came. Only the jolly Green Man grotesque, peering down from St John’s College with a tipsy grin, gives you the slightest hint that anything out of the ordinary happened at all.