St. Giles’ Fair
St Giles’ fair is held in the centre of the city of Oxford in September each year; compensating all for the start of the academic year. The fair dates back to 1625 when it was a festival to celebrate the feast of the parish’s patron saint. In the 18th century it changed to a toy fair, becoming a general children’s fair in the early 19th century. The origins of today’s funfair can be traced to the mid and late Victorian era when the advances in mechanical engineering produced the forerunners of today’s rides and when improved means of transport brought large numbers of people into the city from the countryside to marvel at the festivities.
Something remains of that marvel. Overnight, part of the busy centre of the city is transformed, retreating into that pre-motor era. All traffic is diverted from the streets leading to and through the fair site, enabling you to walk safely along the centre of the broad road. Enormous rides go sky-high, feet from the gabled windows of Oxford Colleges, brazenly blocking the view of the grand buildings of the ancient University. Once the stage is set, the public flock in, all generations, from all walks of life and from all parts of the city and the surrounding villages.
The mundane grubbiness of the fair can be seen beneath its candy floss and bright lights. For all that, its spell is still strong and I strive to imbue my images with a sense of heightened reality that captures the nervous excitement I experienced when I first went to the fair as a child. I note that there seem to be few people who go to the fair on their own, and do not wonder at this, knowing that you go to the fair always in company, small hand in parental hand, or arm in arm, moving through the jostling crowds of other people, distracted by the spectacle, the kaleidoscope of noise and movement and colour, aware of the throbbing beat of the music from the rides and the ever present undercurrent of jeopardy.
I photograph people watching the rides, consuming enjoyable unwholesome food, and bearing away in triumph the useless yet desirable prizes they have won. I was told that it was another, even more ancient fair – Saint Audrey’s fair at Ely – which gave us the word ‘tawdry’ meaning showy but cheap and of poor quality, and this influences my images in this collection.