All the fun of the fair: Behind the scenes with the UK's travelling showmen

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Life for travelling showmen is increasingly hard – but they wouldn't have it any other way, as Nione Meakin discovers.

In his cabin, Mark Thurston eyes the punters milling around King's Lynn Mart. The Norfolk fair – held every February since Tudor times – marks the opening of the travelling season, and like everyone else, Thurston is anxious to get off to a good start. For him, and thousands of other UK showmen, the next eight months will be spent on the road, living out of a touring caravan and setting up shop in around 30 fairs where his family has traditionally held pitches. His journey is as familiar as the friends, relatives and colleagues he will see along the way, also following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.

One hundred years ago, the Mart would have been packed. Today, trade is slow. Against a backdrop of theme parks and advanced home entertainment, the public is no longer as enamoured with the fun fair as it once was. But for the showmen, there is no question of giving up. Most have never known another way of life, nor have any wish to. Brought up on the fairs, Thurston's family stopped travelling when he was 12. "Mum's not from this background and it was very hard for her to get used to," he says. "I think that's what broke them down in the end. Dad wanted to carry on travelling and she didn't."

The family moved to a house in Cambridgeshire, Thurston went to school, and his parents later divorced. But despite trying his hand as a mechanic and scrap dealer, he yearned to return to the fairground. "I don't like being in the same place all the time," he says. So, aged 21, he bought the Scream Machine – a top-of-the-range ride that spins its shrieking cargo around and upside down at increasing speeds. That was four years ago, and he hasn't looked back. In a few months, he'll marry his fiancée Sherelle Gilbey, who travels with her sweet kiosk. "It's a stressful job, but I like it," he says. "This is the only thing I've ever really enjoyed. I'm a showman. It's in my blood."

Showmen are not considered an ethnic group as Romany gypsies or Irish Travellers are. They identify most frequently as itinerant businessmen and women. But all agree that it's a tradition steeped in history and family ties. Dorinda Holland, from Loughborough, whose dodgems stand at the centre of the Mart, is a classic example. A tough, glamorous blonde in immaculate make-up and high-heeled boots, Holland explains over the blare of the pop music how she inherited her first set of dodgems from her father, along with her pitches. The fairs and events she attends are the same as those her parents worked at, and she proudly shows off photos of her mother, 60 years ago, and grandmother, 85 years ago, standing in the very same spot on this same day.

And yet, like Mark Thurston, Holland had the opportunity to leave the business. Her mother – a firm believer in education – made the unusual move of sending her to boarding school, wanting her daughter to "see what was out there" before she decided what path to take. Holland did the same for her own two sons, Austin and Mitchell. But, no, she says with a rueful smile: like their mother, both boys chose to return to the fair. She struggles to explain why she did, shrugging: "I couldn't leave this life. It just means everything to me".

It hasn't been an easy journey. In 1991, when Austin was five, Holland got divorced. Saddled with business debt from buying extra rides and revamping existing ones, she was faced with the choice of selling up or trying to make a go of things on her own.

At that stage, she didn't even know how to drive a lorry; all the outside jobs were the preserve of her husband. "I did the paperwork. I was a secretary and a housewife. But I didn't want to be the one to let the heritage down. My heart told me I had to do this," she says. It turned out to be one of the hardest periods of her life. "You're just worried to death you'll do something wrong. I'd be panicking every night in case the generator broke down or something didn't work on the ride and I didn't know how to fix it. You're smiling at the customers but inside you're terrified."

Now her son, 27-year-old Austin, has taken over the bulk of the business. Although he likes the social life, his mother doesn't envy him. "You don't make a lot of money now," she says. "It used to be better because expenses weren't so high, but just the price of diesel is killing us at the moment. You certainly don't get rich doing this – you couldn't."

It's an opinion seconded by David Wallis, the newly elected president of the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain. "Be daft, be crazy!" he laughs, when asked what it takes to become a success in this industry. The 69-year-old Liverpudlian, who cuts a striking figure in his Crombie coat and trilby, is certainly no stranger to the job. A fifth generation showman, he's taken fairs all over the world, to places including Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Iceland, Norway, South Africa and Dubai. Closer to home, his company, Carousel Fun, has provided rides for big-name clients like Manchester City Council, Sky TV and Dell computers. He knows all too well that success in this business comes at a price. "It's very hard work," he says. "I don't know any rich showmen. I mean, I drive a big Mercedes… but it's an old one." He says a showman might take £1,000 in a good week, but that must cover ground rent, travel expenses, taxes, living costs and, usually, the wages of his wife and children. When the weather is bad or the fair is up against a competing event, he might make much less.

Wallis's election marks the beginning of a six-year tenure as President of the Guild, a trade body that's been in existence since 1889, and represents more than 4,700 showmen, usually the heads of families. At the moment, there are rumblings about government proposals to prosecute travellers who do not send their children to school – an idea that does not sit very easily with the new president. "How can family life continue if the mothers and children have to stay behind?" Wallis says despairingly. "It will break up family units and erode our heritage. Showmen work together, laugh together and cry together – our problems are shared together." He is proud to report that all four of his children have followed him into the business.

Despite the world around them becoming increasingly fragmented, family life for the showman still plays a central role. As soon as their children are old enough to push a broom or hand out tokens, they do. Educating them on the road means studies can be fitted around the demands of the business and wives can continue to work alongside their husbands. It puts a whole new emphasis on the idea of a family business.

Women, says Wallis, are the backbone of the industry, working in every area from accounting to driving, as well as fulfilling traditional roles as housekeepers and mothers. At around 5pm, an eagle-eyed punter might notice an exodus from the fair's stalls, as the women push children in old-fashioned prams back to their trailers for tea. By 6pm, they are all back for the evening.

Perry Day, a garrulous 65-year-old who is one of the fairground artists, is bursting with pride when he talks about his boys. He taught his children how to paint, and now his grown-up sons both run successful businesses airbrushing rides with lurid images of gurning clubbers, bikini-clad women and pop stars – what Day calls "the Ibiza-look". "They've progressed so far past me it's unbelievable," he says. "They have work in Australia, Germany, Switzerland, France. You couldn't go to a fair in this country without running into some of their stuff."

He says he didn't put pressure on his sons to follow his line of work. Yet he admits he had a wobble when his eldest announced plans to marry an outsider he'd met while managing an amusement arcade in the Welsh town of Rhyl. Day had initially assumed she was from a fairground background – it's rare for showmen to marry outside the business and if they do, the adjustment often proves difficult. But alarm bells started ringing when he failed to recognise his future daughter-in-law's surname. "You always know families on the fairs and you know to avoid the ones with bad hearts or smelly feet," he says. "When it turned out she wasn't from a showmen family, I wasn't best pleased. Of course, I wouldn't swap her for a million pounds now."

His opinions aren't unusual; marriages rarely happen without prior permission from the bride's father, and divorce is still unusual. As Dorinda Holland puts it: "There's a feeling that you make your bed and you lie in it".

But in the outside world, showmen must constantly evolve to survive. Stalls at the Mart now include Polish translations beneath the English, and Day boasts of speaking "a bit of Romany, a bit of Italian, a bit of Gujarati". A range of languages is essential even for those who don't travel abroad. In a city such as Leicester, which has a large Asian population, or King's Lynn, with its influx of eastern European immigrants, it could mean the difference between a good week and a bad one.

"Showmen can adapt to most things," says Chris Summers, who has travelled from Felixstowe to attend the showmens' traditional Mart lunch at the King's Head Hotel. He now works mainly in haulage, but he wouldn't dream of missing out on the chance to catch up with old friends. He recalls a conversation he once had with a stranger in a bar. "He said he had been a psychologist for 20 years. I said, 'Is that it?'. I told him I was a buyer, seller, painter, welder, driver, advertiser and if he gave me a couple of minutes I could think of 10 more besides. Given time, I could have learnt to do what he did, but unfortunately, he couldn't learn to do what we do."

Despite the innate confidence of showmen like Summers, the business has rarely faced as many challenges as it does now. Times have changed since 1955, when the Queen and the Queen Mother visited the Mart and took tea in the showmen's caravans, an event the older showmen and women are fond of recounting. It's a happy memory from a time when a fair's arrival was greeted with widespread excitement and travellers commanded a certain respect.

Things are different now; showmen never know what reception awaits them. "Some think we're rich… and have everything for nothing, and some just think you're scum of the earth," says Dorinda Holland. The showmen are determined to hold on tightly to the life they've been taught to live by generations of family before them. And yet whether they can survive the 21st century intact may be more than just a question of a strong will.

It's a damp February in King's Lynn. But Perry Day is dreaming of the summer, when he will arrive – as he does every year – at the fair in Long Melford, Suffolk after the Whit Bank Holiday. "The sun will be shining, the flowers will be out and everyone you can see – probably 200 people – you'll know personally," he says.

"You can sit and have a drink in the evening and talk about your grandparents, remembering the old days with people you've known your whole life. Who could ask for better?"

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