Back in the mists of time when I was a Lad and an aspirant Lout I used to attend a local annual shindig in my then Home Town.
Lichfield was my home town. Not the town of my birth because that is somewhere nebulous and unromantic, nor the town of my residence which is permanent and very far away – but the town of my formative years, mid primary to very late high-school. Important years that make or break you. Where the transition from coddled childhood transmogrifies into angst ridden teenage-hood and blooms into early adult-hood. Or at least should have done.
My Home Town, Lichfield – like an aspirant Lout but with deep seated and ancient memories blossomed once a year and put on a spectacle of bewildering hedonism. To my young eyes suddenly everything went just a little bit pear shaped.
The Town, nay – the City (for that in truth is what it is) burst into an excess of Pomp, Circumstance and Riot. The Bower!
To the pre-adolescent the Pomp was at times just plain daft – portly men prancing around in violently coloured robes of designs that were already looking a tad passé two and a half centuries ago. They also wore heavy neck jewellery and carried broad-swords that would have been useful in a normal medieval confrontation had they not been hampered by the inexplicable need to carry a school bell in the other hand. More Pomp was provided by a Procession that, from memory, comprised marching folk in a variety of uniforms; military, para-military, nurses, girl guides and boy scouts. At one time or another I was part of the boy scout section – which in essence was only distinguishable from the other uniformed branches of society by the types of flags and standards we had to carry and the number and designs of badges sewn onto our uniforms.
The excitement of the procession was however the floats; flat-bed diesel belching lorries and farm trailers dressed up and decorated; inhabited by people in fancy dress frozen in wobbly, slightly self conscious tableaux depicting various historical events or celebrating societies doing good works. The principal float was of course the Bower Queen and attendant Princes and Princesses encased in a pink and flowery raffia paper bower (ah – perhaps that is where the name comes from!). But I don’t remember a Bower King . . .
The Circumstance was all about the sudden sprouting of strange and alien stinking greasy diesel demonic engines that after a mere day or two of spawning became twisting, turning, whizzing infernally coloured machines emanating loud discordant satanic music.
They were Hideous and smelt like Death. It was Anarchic and reeked of a freedom far beyond normal life. It was Tremendous, it was the Fair and it was Magic!
The Fair was, from memory, situated in two parts of town. The Big Wheel was located at the top of a hill to the North of the town centre. A commanding position for hot-dog, alcohol and candyfloss stomachs to fuel late-night projectile vomiting on to the crowds below.
The other site for the Fair, a vast car-park expanse, contained – in contrast to the stately vertical Big Wheel - crazy horizontal whirligig monsters that spun like demented gigantic chemistry models demonstrating the relationship between atoms and neutrons in some demonic molecule that no sane teacher (and we had no sane teachers) could ever conjure up. Here you could at least escape the atomised regurgitated beer spray by sheltering in the stalls where you could win a Cuddly Teddy for your current aloof, leggy girlfriend by trying to shoot playing cards with doctored air-rifles or slinging wooden rings over carefully crafted pedestals that defied a “clean ring”.
Empty handed and tiring of these gentler pursuits you could retire to the frenetic and oh-so macho delights of the Dodgems. Dante’s Inferno springs to memory as seated in not-so womb-like vehicles (decorated with the ubiquitous odour of second hand candy-floss) you were flung around in swirling glissando’s under the crackling electric fire from the pylon contacts sliding across a highly charged electrical grid just a little above head-height – all to the sound of Satan’s Wurlitzer Waltz. I never understood if these were actually dodgems or bumpers. The latent performing artist in me wanted them to be dodgems weaving around artlessly in balletic splendour like negative attractors. But the current testosterone fuelled sportsman had them as bumpers, vicious in head-on encounters, and I think I now suffer from the vestiges of early onset whiplash, testament to many fender-benders.
Manly youths in greasy jeans and newly laundered grubby T shirts, with tattooed forearms and biceps leapt expertly (and now I think about it with balletic grace) from car to car and wooed all the chicks with rough Irish accents and I was too scared, far too scared to remonstrate because I knew, just knew that I was small and ineffectual, and not quite ready to have the shit beaten out of me!
Which brings me on to the Riot bit . . . although perhaps “Riot” is a bit strong. Remember though if you will, that period around adolescence, both sides of that awful, indefinable period where anything new, odd, out of the ordinary, faintly dodgy – was just, bloody, amazing. Remember – at its most mundane – the indescribable delight when that pompous English teacher put his daft foot in the waste paper bin and couldn't extricate it but absurdly took offence at his predicament?
Remember the mass slippering by demented sports teachers incapable of any other form of crowd control . . .
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Remember the Bower – that time when the city burst into an excess of Pomp and Circumstance, which to the formative mind was anarchic and there was a very real feeling of danger in the air. Remember also that I talk of a time of the “Greaser” – a dark and dangerous creature belonging to a band of violent miscreants who wore leathers and rode motorbikes, and beat you up with cycle chains. The time of the Skin-heads who wore Doc Martins and clothes with fashion labels and had girl friends that were even more violent than Greaser girl-friends. The time when “Clockwork Orange” had become a popular clarion call to youthful freedom and anarchy and a fashion vehicle for local Psycho’s to parade their own form of temporary urban terror.
I remember the Bower then through the acute teenage lens of excitement tinged with that unique frisson of teen, pre-teen not quite battle-hardened anxiety that happens when a town throws off its staid mantle for a bank-holiday weekend, lifts its skirts, and does just a little bit of a very English jig.