The Darkling Fair

20141209_171837The Christmas Fairground is up in Leicester. It’s getting dark early now, and the lights have glittered in this city since Diwali. But the fairground: it’s an oddity. A couple of rides – teacups, an air-flyer. A few stands selling gluwein and bratwurst and candyfloss. Nothing much more. It’s located near the centre, just down the main street leading off from the Clocktower, so it seems busy all the time, even when it is not.

Fairgrounds are sites which have always fascinated me. In their traditional form, they are one of Foucault’s heterotopia: utterly temporal and fleeting. They are sites where, historically, marginal people and things have existed, which move, and where those who enter them as a distraction from their normal lives come to inhabit a carnivalesque, Baktinian world, where the rules (physical, aesthetic and behavioural) of the everyday are subverted, denied and even mocked. Leicester’s miniature Christmas fair is especially peculiar, because it both expresses and denies these traditional fairground features.

Though the sites on which traditional fairgrounds are frequently located are usually prominent, such as parks, they are often on the outskirts of any settlement to which they come. When the fairgrounds and circuses come to Leicester, they almost always make camp at either Victoria or Abbey Park, which are beyond the city centre itself, though now surrounded with houses, universities and industry respectively.

Leicester’s Christmas Fairground, however, is right in the centre by the Clocktower. The Clocktower was formerly the site of the Assembly Rooms and Haymarket and, sitting at the junction of five roads, is still one of the most identifiable sites in the city, and a popular meeting spot. The fair runs down towards Humberstone Gate, a busy shopping street and route to the Cultural Quarter and University end of town. Here, the fair has invaded the city itself, disrupting the everyday by protruding into it, rather than providing an escape point to a world outside the mundane. Along with the Christmas Lights it is both a distraction and a reminder that, despite all efforts to promote the contrary, what is normal is not what is “only”, or always “right”, and nor is it necessarily stable for all time.

Fairgrounds, obviously, vary in size dependent on a variety of factors, but those which come to Leicester during the summer cover most of the parks in which they settle. The Christmas Fairground is tiny – as I said, three rides and a couple of stalls. The pragmatic reason, clearly, is one of space – if you want a Fair in the city, you have to accommodate the lack of room, and the need to locate yourself down corridor-like roads. But the fact that it is so tiny has a consequence too for it’s capacity to upset normality. Even at Christmas, the carnivalesque qualities of the fair have to be contained, and one does wonder who, or what, decided Leicester couldn’t cope with a city centre fair on the scale of St. Giles.*

Those who ride on the fair in early evening are now blasted away into the darkness, thrown by engineering and science into a world of wonder – “How fast now!?” “How high!?” Those who eat at the stalls eat those sugary, bratwursty, vaguely German snacks which hark back to our very Victoria-and-Albert idea of Christmas: lebkuchen and gluwein. So the smell, reminiscent of ‘Christmas’ flavoured candles found in gift stores, wafts down the street, and completes the sensory bubble which is the fairground. The olfactory flavour of this fair is very specifically seasonal: under normal circumstances, a fairground smells of sizzling onions, coffee and candyfloss, masking other, less pleasant odours. The particular nature of the Christmas fair’s smell underlines its temporary nature: the sugar, spices and wine a heady combination which only exists at one particular time of year.

So this is a fair which both is and is not a fair: not outside, but inside, not sprawling, but contained, scented half of summer hotdogs, and half of winter warmth. It is a place which mirrors the fairground from which it is derived – which enacts it and contests its fundamental features. It mocks the constraints of our streets, but it is forced to exist within them.

If any place can be said to be a heterotopia – that is, places which are not places, “which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.” – then it is the Leicester Christmas fair.

Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984, 1968

The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, Austin: University of Texas, 1981

Foucault, Michel and Miskowiec, Jay, ‘Of Other Spaces,’ Diacritics, 16(1), 1986, 22-27

*Admittedly, Oxford during the fair is a nightmare to navigate, with the rides and stalls blocking the traffic for two days solid: but this fair seems to me to be a deliberate and powerful evocation of the fleeting, but highly affective, potential of the fair. And Oxford has never really been ‘normal’ anyway, so perhaps it requires a higher dosage of the bizarre.