One of my favourite works of fiction is the Deptford Trilogy by the late Canadian author, Robertson Davies. A master story-teller if ever there was one.
In it, one young boy’s instinctive reaction sets the fantastical ball of the story rolling. But it’s when another boy runs away and joins a travelling circus that the dance of their fates begins.
We all recognise stereotypes of circus and fairground: tricksters and con-men, squalor and crime. Deceptions, grotesques and life on the road.
Stereotypes perhaps drawn of ignorance. Fear of strange, mysterious communities, living life on the edge.
I’ve never been a circus fan, but the illicit appeal of the fairground had me hooked from an early age.
At school in my teens, when we were asked to write about the fair which visited town at seasonal intervals, I began my story with a newspaper, blowing down a road at night, after the fair had gone.
I can still see that image in my head. An image drawn from reality. The rest was a product of my over-active imagination.
Which may explain why I found myself at a lunchtime talk by Norman Wallis, proprietor of Southport’s ‘Pleasureland’. Whose family dalliance with fairgrounds dates from the nineteenth century.
Norman was a good ten minutes into his talk when I arrived and had to enter, mortified, from the front of the hall. In full view of the man himself – and everyone else.
As I climbed the stairs to a seat my heart sank. A silver-headed crowd. Story boards propped against the stage. One man at a lectern. All the makings of a dull – I checked my watch – how long?
I guess a man from a family like Norman’s is almost guaranteed to be a showman and a salesman, whether born, or raised.
And a very good salesman he was.
‘There are more flowers in Pleasureland than on Lord Street,’ he said. ‘We were up at one o’clock this morning watering them.’
More flowers than leafy Lord Street? On which Napoleon III supposedly modelled the boulevards of Paris?
I had to check it out.
Which is why I found myself, one sunny Sunday, pre-loved camera in hand, wandering past the bowling greens en route to the rides.
Were there more blooms in Pleasureland than on Lord Street? I’ve no idea. But there were some jolly big ones….
But why quibble? It doesn’t matter.
Where the uniformed staff are polite and friendly.
And no-one harangues me to ‘roll up,’ ‘try your luck,’ or ‘have a go.’
I don’t feel I have to clutch my purse to my side, don’t feel everyone is out to make a fast buck.
A slow buck, maybe …
‘If I had a pound for every time someone took a picture of that carousel…’ grimaces Norman.
Yes, we all love a picturesque carousel, but I see his point. When did you last ride one?
Well, look at the pictures and tell me – could you resist?
I’m sure he’ll meet resistance. Isn’t there always, to grand plans? But I have a feeling he’ll get his way.
This is the man who, as a little boy, ran away from school three times. (The opposite, when you think about it, of running away to the circus.)
His opportunity to acquire this showground came in 2011 when another man with vision died. That man’s main business was (whisper it) in Blackpool. The gaudy relative up the coast.
But that man’s business heirs didn’t want rivalry from the upstart down the coast.
When Norman took over it had been trashed. Looked like a battleground.
‘I thought electric cables grew out of the ground,’ he said, ‘there were so many of them buried everywhere.’
And when it rained those cables flowered sparks.
But he persevered. Despite the vandalism and arson attacks.
And after seeing the images I think there should be a Wallis’s ride called ‘the phoenix.’ Because a truly fun fair (sorry, again, Norman) has risen from those ashes. Not the biggest, not the most extensive, but fun.
He wants – naturally – to attract more people. Make Southport (via Pleasureland, of course) a major destination.
He’s talking dinosaurs, animatronics, augmented reality. He’s talking indoors and outdoors, grown-ups and children.
Distractions compelling enough to prise us away from our screens.
And if anything can do it surely an exhilarating fairground ride can?
As the man says, ‘you can’t feel the wind in your hair on the internet.’
But Blackpool’s not forgotten. Nor, I suspect, forgiven. Despite the fact Norman’s early career was there, in marketing (what else).
You can see its famous Tower – and the big, big ride – from Southport beach.
From the pier.
From Pleasureland, probably (I didn’t look).
Across the Ribble estuary it lurks and smirks, cocking a snook at Southport.
But the showman’s world is about enticing the crowds with the latest thing.
Bigger, better – both.
So Norman has a plan.
A hair-blasting, big, big ride.
His face cracks into a grin.
His eyes crinkle and twinkle.
‘You’ll be able to see it from Blackpool,’ he chuckles.