There is a frenetic energy around the city as the Showman’s Guild prepares the streets for the opening of the annual May Fair. You go to bed one day and the following morning the fair is ready to go, just like that! How do they manage it? Precise planning, organisation and sweat and toil is the answer. Therefore, pinning the Guild’s Chairman (now retired) Adie Danter down for an interview is tricky. It is only after some gentle and persistent nudging that he agrees to meet, but with the proviso: ‘I’ll give you an hour!’ That was good enough for us. So it was, on a blustery morning that we met him as arranged, outside the Shire Hall and he arrives, pin smart in his suit and chain of office and we hurry across the Cathedral Close to the Canon’s house, venue for the interview.
It did feel something of a coup to finally sit down with Abie. We had navigated the sometimes-labyrinthine channels of negotiation for many months but with no joy, though we were only met with friendliness. These were very busy people and they weren’t going to let a nosy production crew in just because we had asked. We had to be patient. The old adage, slowly slowly catchy monkey is a true and a wise one.
Born in the fifties and a child of post-war Britain, Abie has seen enormous changes in his business in his lifetime. Gone are the show girls and the freak shows and in their places come gravity-defining, hair-raising thrill rides. It wasn’t always thus, as he remembers:
‘It didn’t start with the dodgems and waltzers, it was probably more likely travelling magicians and magic people and all sorts of things like that. It was basically a hiring fair, so the local farmers would come here today, or over the next three days rather, and they’d hire the workers to do the various jobs. The entertainment would come from the show men. We would put the entertainment on for everybody.
‘I do remember when the old shows were phasing out, the striptease and the lion shows, these sort of shows, lost their popularity and they changed to different ideas. White knuckle rides came in then. Those old shows were very popular at one time, but things change, people’s outlooks change. It didn’t seem to be flavour of the month anymore. So it’s gone, sad to say.’
But some parts of the fair remain unchanged: the all-time favourite carousel, loved by all, and then there is the Helter Skelter. The smell and touch of the oak matting remains long after the ride has finished. It was the Mayfair’s Helter Skelter that caught the eye of the late Bishop Jon Eastaugh in the 1990s. He was a great friend of the Showman’s Guild (and Abie Morris in particular) and staunch advocate of the Mayfair. In his eye-catching violet cassock, he ascended the spiralling stairs of the Helter Skelter, placed his large frame on the mat, and slid to the bottom. The moment is caught in a classic photo from from the era, capturing the essence of the man and the fair.
While the fair is enjoyed by many and is an irritation to others, it might be worth taking a moment to consider how the members of the Guild view it. In their community, the Hereford Mayfair has a certain standing and kudos, and therefore a pitch at the fair is a highly prized one.
Abie: ‘This is a major fair, a very historic fair, and we get people come from everywhere. There’s lots of other fairs but not so big as Hereford fair. Hereford is a major event.’
‘My son is in the business with me, but a lot of showman families come from various parts of the United Kingdom. We’ve got people coming from London to the fair here in Hereford. It’s a family business, something we’ve always done and the family all get involved in it. It’s very interesting. It’s nice to meet people and go to different places, but it’s very hard work and you’ve got to have a lot of dedication to keep going in it.
‘When they finish here they go back to all over the country to various other places. I’ll go on to Kington, because I’ll do the Mayfairs, as I call them, which is all around Herefordshire, but that’s how it works.
‘Me and my brothers, we’re still travelling the circuit dad was doing because we like to keep the tradition going, keep the business going.
‘I think it’s important because tradition is everything and if we haven’t got tradition of the fair we’ve lost something. Once it goes, disappears out of everyone’s minds and they look for something else – it won’t come back. Tradition is what it is all about, to keep coming. You keep the continuity of the fair coming every year. People know when it’s coming, they expect and know it’s some inconvenience for some people. I think the majority expect and want it. There’s a small minority that think, oh the fair’s going to be outside my front door, a bit of a nuisance. But I think if they walk around the fair and see the pleasure it’s bringing maybe that will overcome it.
‘That special moment is when it all lights up and comes to life and you see the children enjoying the rides and the mums and dads having a wonderful time watching them. And that’s what it’s all about, a magical moment. ‘