St Giles’ Fair, 1965: Jan Morris

Jan (then James) Morris, Oxford (1965):

The annual junket called St Giles’ Fair… is an inexorable sort of festivity — in September 1914* they tried to cancel it, but the Home Secretary himself admitted that he was powerless to do so. The whole wide street of St Giles is closed for it. For these two days of the year the University Parks and Christ Church meadows, the two main open spaces of the city, are closed to the public. Traffic is diverted, business is disrupted, the night is gaudy with neon, and all among the plane trees there proliferate the side shows, caravans and pulsing generators of the showmen.

It is the most boisterous of Oxford traditions, the profits of which go partly to the city and partly to the college of St John’s, the local landowner; and it brings together in an atmosphere of unnatural intensity every type and kind of Oxford citizen. The academics go with their burbling children, eating iced lollipops and arguing the toss with indulgent showmen in piping cultured accents. The factory families go, trailing balloons and sweet papers, and hugging flowery vases they have won at shooting galleries. The farmers go, stumping stoically through the hubbub with kind wives in blue hats. The aldermen go — in 1950 Alderman Smewin officially complained to the City Council that there had been only one set of Galloping Horses to ride on. The parish clergy go, from a sense of boyish duty, and the weedy louts go, to stand around in bow-legged moronic cliques, licking candy floss, and the shop-girls go, to let their skirts fly on the Big Dipper. Every degree is represented there, from the exquisite patrician to the grubbiest slut in carpet slippers: and flushed from their normal habitats like this, thrown together between the Bingo stalls and the Man-Eating Rat, they always seem to me larger, finer or more awful than life. George’s Café feels genially blended: but St Giles’s Fair is like a city with its masks torn off, seen with a flushed clarity, and it makes you wonder how such contrasts can ever be reconciled. It is sure to end, you feel, like all the worst dreams, in a scream, a cold sweat or a blackout.

Oxford, however, is old, and experienced at the game. By Wednesday morning all those stalls and roundabouts have miraculously disappeared, and the scholars, the charge-hands, the oafs and the parsons are restored to their blurred and unalarming selves.

* For pictures of St Giles's Fair in 1914, see the following articles in the Oxford Journal Illustrated of 9 September 1914:

  • p. 1: “The Fair and the War”: Images of patriotic diplays at St Giles' Fair, including Mr Taylor's show, flying the flag
  • p. 6: “The building of St Giles' Fair”, with images of the erection of various sideshows and roundabout
  • p. 7: “Crowds at the Fair”, including a picture of a female dancer who was part of Charles Thurston's sideshow.

In 1915, however, the Fair was abandoned because of the war, and the newspaper of 8 September 1915 posted a picture of a deserted St Giles'. By September 1916 there was no thought any more of the Fair, and the paper was full of photographs of heroes of the war who had recently been killed.

St Giles’ home

Stephanie Jenkins

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