‘Who wants to barf?’ A couple of dozen thrill-seekers, encased behind an ominous-looking grille, gamely raise their hands in response to the MC’s taunting question, and the ride – one of those terrifying lurching contraptions designed to toss you around like an old pair of jeans in a tumble dryer – suddenly comes to life, whipping its human cargo screaming into the air.
You can hear the low rumble of Goose Fair as you walk towards it from Nottingham city centre and cross Forest Road, home to my alma mater, Nottingham High School, and the city’s red-light district. (My mother told me a joke when I first came to school here: One day Thor is walking along Forest Road when he bumps into a young woman in torn stockings with a big smile on her face. ‘I am Thor, god of thunder!’ the Norse deity booms. ‘Well, I’m thor too but I’m thatithfied,’ lisps back the young woman. Eleven years of age and not exactly worldly, I had no idea at the time why it was supposed to be funny. Mother, what were you thinking?) The fair’s current home, the Forest Recreation Ground, lies about fifteen miles south of Edwinstowe and the Major Oak, but it too used to be part of Sherwood Forest. In the nineteenth century, as urbanisation gripped, this particular stretch was known as the ‘Wastes’, and there was a grandstand to accommodate spectators who gathered to watch horse racing and the other entertainments held here. Today, for the fifty-one-and-a-half weeks a year when the fair isn’t in town, the Rec is used for sports and as a car park for Park-and-Riders.
The origins of Goose Fair’s name are lost in the mists of time. The annual gathering, for a long period the largest in Europe, was first held around 1284. Geese obviously played a part – it’s been suggested that they were brought over from Lincolnshire and even Norfolk in their thousands, their feet coated with tar and sand to help them survive the journey, to be sold in Nottingham at the onset of autumn. The fair may have begun with fowl – it’s always been held at the beginning of October around Michaelmas, when geese are a traditional treat – but by the eighteenth century it was most renowned for its cheese. There was even a cheese riot in Nottingham in the 1760s, with discontented locals bowling the overpriced produce, conveniently supplied in wheel-like units, down the hills leading out of the Market Place, where the fair was held until 1928. The mayor, protesting against the rioters, is said to have been knocked off his feet by one of the cheesy missiles and to have landed, with severe consequences for his dignity, in the mud of Wheeler Gate.
There’s not much in the way of cheese or geese on view nowadays – apart, that is, from the large plastic goose that sits proudly on the Gregory Boulevard roundabout for the fair’s duration every year. The character of the gathering definitively changed with the advent of the railways. Improved transportation made the year-round supply of food more dependable and reduced the need to stock up on provisions before the coming of winter. As such, Goose Fair began to be viewed simply as an opportunity to have a good time – not that all that cheese rolling hadn’t been entertainment of a sort – and there was a sudden invasion of five-footed sheep and men on stilts, not to mention a big hand-turned roundabout, Twigdon’s Riding Machine. Madame Tussaud was so impressed by the fair’s drawing power that she was twice tempted to bring her collection of life-size wax figures, in 1819 and 1829.
Since then, of course, it’s all got a big more high-tech. Some of the food – hog roast, hot peas, candyfloss – has its roots in tradition, but flashing lights, blaring music (‘We will – we will – ROCK YOU!’) and sulphurous smoke bathe proceedings in a deep sensory smog of modernity. A rodent-themed rollercoaster shakes punters up and down, then, for good measure, whirls them round and round as well, to make doubly sure they achieve that freshly eviscerated/post-sickbag look just in time for their free souvenir exit portrait. Over at another ride two lone teenage girls are being strapped into their seats, ready for lift-off. A crowd of onlookers has gathered to watch the torture as a voice on the seemingly never-ending warm-up tape intones, in exaggeratedly precise Euro-English: ‘Are you ready? Are you R-R-READY?!?’ A safety cage descends over the youngsters, one of whom is busy flicking her middle finger at a laughing woman – her mother? Her sister? – who stands filming them on her phone; her mate meanwhile is making hot eyes at the ride attendant. ‘In the interests of safety,’ the voice on the tape continues, growing shriller for the killer punchline, ‘… HOLD ON TO YOUR PANTS!!’ And then the music starts – the inevitable ‘O Fortuna’ from Nazi favourite Carmina Burana, heard everywhere these days from Old Spice ads to The X Factor pre-title sequence – and the girls are whipped up into the stratosphere. The crowd cheers as a garland of vomit loops its way back down to earth and the cage continues its vertiginous ascent.