Tuesday, November 04, 2003

"Pull bar to raise" 

When I was a kid we didn’t have a car. If we wanted a family day out, it usually meant an expedition involving dawn starts; multiple buses, tubes, trains; all accompanied by whatever paraphernalia was necessary for our enjoyment. There’s a long-held British tradition of bank holidays spent by the seaside, and who were we to argue with tradition? Living in north London, our nearest "seaside" was Southend – which is actually on the Thames estuary, and has the full name of Southend-on-Sea just to convince you it really is seaside. It had all the authentic seaside sights, sounds and smells; a visit was a real treat to a suburban born-and-bred youngster.

There was a promenade to walk along, backed by neatly tended flowerbeds and with seats facing seawards every so often - although these were usually placed in shelters to protect you from the English seaside weather. Coloured lights hung between the lamp-posts along the sea front; booths sold ice cream and candy floss; shops sold all manner of novelties and seaside accoutrements that would look ridiculous anywhere else but seemed perfectly acceptable in that environment. And the main attraction - the mile-long pier, complete with electric railway, theatre, entertainers, deck chairs, hopeful fishermen. This was the full-on seaside experience, for a day, and all within reach of London.

And of course there were funfairs. Rides and stalls of all kinds – dodgems, ghost trains, helter-skelters, rifle ranges, a hall of mirrors, the crooked house… All finished in brightly coloured paintwork that, by its cracks and heavy layers, betrayed the years of use, abuse and repeated facelifts. You could buy a strip of tickets for a few shillings and each ride would cost a certain number of tickets – I suppose this avoided the need for the operators to have to handle cash.

At the end of one trip I was walking round the fair with my parents, clutching my last two tickets and wondering what to use them on. I hadn’t enough for the big rides and although the try-your-luck kind of stalls only charged one ticket they weren’t really any fun and I was smart enough to realise that it was the stallkeepers who were the real winners on those. Then I spotted a ride I’d never bothered with before. At first sight there was nothing special about it – a helicopter roundabout ride, about a dozen 2-seater cabins that flew round swooping up and down as they circled. Many of other rides looked more exciting, but they cost more than my 2 tickets. But it was getting late, the ride was quiet - I’d certainly get a cabin to myself - and with dusk falling, the idea of flying through darkness watching the lights over the sea felt like a good way to end the day.

I got in, sat down, and handed over my tickets. There was a bar in front that you could pull forward over your knees, but there didn’t seem much chance of falling out so I left it where it was. The ride began; on the opposite side of the roundabout a couple of girls a few years older than I, the only other occupants of the ride, immediately soared skywards, whooping and laughing; my cabin stayed rooted to terra firma. It would be my turn next, when my helicopter reached that part of the circle. But no, a full circuit with no flying. Next time round perhaps? The girls were laughing and screaming, up and down, obviously having a fabulous time. So why wasn’t I flying as well? Maybe the man in the middle controlled who went up and down. That must be it. He was certainly paying those girls a lot of attention; he never looked my way. He’d probably forgotten I was here.

Round again; I could just see the pier lights sparkling in the sea if I craned my neck; the view from the top, over the edge of the fairground and out to sea must have been magical. Not that those girls looked remotely interested in it; they were having far too much fun to notice. And my helicopter continued resolutely in its ground level circuits, whilst I grew ever more disappointed. My hoped for grand finale to the day a lost dream; my last tickets wasted all because of those two girls and their silly laughter distracting the man who controlled the ride.

The helicopters slowed; the girls glided gently back to ground level to join me once more in my flat, two-dimensional world. Dejected, I got out and only then noticed the scratched, almost illegible instruction notice behind that bar.

“Pull bar to raise”

I had been in control all the time, but I didn’t know it.

And it’s taken 40 years to remember that.

Pull bar to raise.

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