SHOULD you ever wish to behold the simulacrum of a Blade Runner-style dystopia visit the Irn-Bru carnival in Glasgow.
It’s like an Orwellian future-zone down there. Police helicopters buzz in skies rain-lashed and pitch-black by 4pm. Strobing psychedelic advertisements for Irn-Bru are beamed on to the aluminium flank of the Armadillo, a venue that disgorges hundreds of kids high on E numbers and innuendo after exposure to The Krankies in pantomime.
The under-construction Hydro venue looms like a giant toppled satellite dish. Meanwhile, the queue to enter the SECC sees a changing of the guard. The afternoon shift of young parents is yielding to the evening crew of Buckfast connoisseurs. It’s all well-policed by bulky men who talk into their sleeves but there’s no denying that a certain gaminess scents the air. You half-expect Rutger Hauer to stroll by, mumbling about attack ships off the shoulder of Orion.
All that said, something much earlier, more ancient, something immemorial is stirred by the carnival. The writer Peter Ackroyd said once that penning his huge tracts of historical scholarship carried a very particular drawback: loss of the ability to see life in the present tense. The streets, he said, became filled with processions of skeletons. Something similar happens at the carnival. Soon, you’re seeing not the individual modern person but their archetype, the version who was doing much the same in the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare: the timid teenage girl and her swaggering, hopeless swains; the forbearing matrons; the child levitating with joy at the prospect of a proper fright.
All this, of course, is what the word carnival connotes etymologically: farewell to the flesh; carne-val. Carnival was the festival designed to use up surplus foodstuffs, prior to the fasting of Lent; so, a sort of Nigella casserole on a grander scale. At carnival, we’re meant to see the person within, the skull beneath the skin. Or, to put it another way, as does Ross McDade, a teenager from Dennistoun queuing for an attraction named Midnight Express: “I come to the carnival to go daft,” he admits. “A few years back it used to be really expensive but now you can get on most things for a quid, so we go to some poncy pub in town, have a few pints then come here and shout on the rides. Twenty-five quid all-in. It’s decent value.”
That’s the carne-val theory at least, though belief in such Cartesian dualism is not so easy to summon on a rainy Thursday in Glasgow. In this context, an invitation to view the skull beneath anything is best declined. Now, the Notting Hill Carnival – that’s a carnival. Rio, Sydney, Venice: each has a realcarnival. Even the Edinburgh Festival carnival each August is more properly a carnival; its revellers have been known to wear feathers and feathers are carnival code for transformation. Added to which, properly speaking, carnivals occur in February.
No, what Glasgow has is a fun fair, on an industrial scale, the largest indoor event of its kind in Europe. The appellation carnival is a remnant from the days of its inception in 1920, when the city’s festive blow-out took place in the Kelvin Hall in the west end of the city. Glaswegians speak of those carnivals still with nostalgic reverence, with the kind of retrospective ecstasy that is the true Glaswegian’s birthright. The Kelvin Hall carnival was the stuff of Oscar Marzaroli photographs and Joan Eardley paintings; a freeze-frame of a thousand tow-haired boys in Captain Scarlet caps brandishing Man From U.N.C.L.E guns.
In a consanguineous spirit, I’ve brought along a modern equivalent, the son and heir, Joe, aged seven. Kids today don’t seem to possess the adventurous spirit we had; perhaps stimulation is not something they lack. Joe enjoys the tsunami of noise and light but he doesn’t fancy going on much. I gave up myself in the late 1990s following a bad experience on an outdoor SECC ride, a big wheel/divebombing behemoth that stalled on re-entry. Joe has inherited my squeamishness: “Father,” he says, biting into his toffee apple. “I do see the appeal in such kinetic exertions but, really, I’d much prefer trying for an Angry Bird with the grabby thing.”
Back in happier times, the Kelvin Hall carnival had a circus attached, which only deepened its ambience of otherness. I remember in 1974 the late Radio Clyde presenter Mr Abie took a seat next to us and it felt like being in Las Vegas, such was the dizzying, high-beam transcendence of the entire experience. At the entrance stood a bizarre robot schoolteacher contraption capable, it was claimed, of answering in a Dalek voice any question put to it: so long, it transpired, as the question was resolved by the answer: “My data banks have delivered a negative.”
The whole experience was ratty and rackety, a roomful of waltzers and dodgems and spinning tea-cups, each competing to go slower than the neighbouring ride. It was rendered exciting only by existing in contrast to our three-channel, Sanyo music centre, burst Spacehopper everyday existence.
Loitering close to the Frisbee – a ride with the looks of the mother ship in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and the purpose, it seems, of shaking one’s kidney free of its mesenteric attachments – is grandfather George Paterson, a postman from Kirkintilloch, someone who appears of an age to recall the Kelvin Hall. “Looking back, I suppose it was a bit bizarre, to be hurtling around in a room that smelled so strongly of animals,” he says. “The circus was in the hall next door but animals were just in the atmosphere. And it took us a while to work it out – we were just wee boys from Springburn, how were we meant to know how elephants smelled?”
His wife Carol had other concerns. “There was a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she recalls, warming her hands over the memory. “I think the Stakis family ran it. We’d never seen anything like it. We’d pay to get into the carnival then spend the day in KFC. It was better than any dodgem.”
Memories of this sort echo like the strains of a ghostly Wurlitzer when confronted with the modern carnival. It’s the difference between a bubble car and an articulated lorry. These days, the tone is energised, industrial, super-charged, fuel-injected. The vast halls of the SECC recede into the distance, enclosing endless kinds of hysterical technology, all of it designed to transport customers a tiny distance as rapidly as possible.
Above the cataract of noise and nightclub thump occasionally rises a huge chorus of unexplained, far-distant screaming; to hear it makes you feel like the janitor at Abu Ghraib. Middle-aged men trudge around glumly carrying huge stuffed lions and Brobdingnagian footballs. Scattered between the titanic machines, like pensioners at a cage fight, an older tradition survives still, the games of skill and strength: the hook-a-duck stalls, the coconut shies. Traditionally, these attractions were the province of hucksters and shysters, with hoops of a diameter smaller than the basketball and air rifles with misaligned sights. Perhaps they are still; certainly my quest to land a hoop round a Rolex Oyster on a plinth failed to end well. At the Kelvin Hall, goldfish had been the prize; goldfish were considered exotic then. They are no longer, plus the animal welfare people object. Now, of course, the rewards tend to be stuffed toys, herds and savannahs of the things.
Secreted away in a corner, meanwhile, is a booth containing a palm reader. She is surprisingly busy; a queue of five or six older ladies replenishes itself throughout the day. “It’s remarkable, Father, isn’t it,” notes Joe, “that such vestiges of the village green and the market square persist into the modern day. It’s almost as though these events possess a latent consciousness, a character that is eternal, no matter how advanced the necessary machinery?”
That character, of course, is Romany at heart and definitely nomadic; the vast majority of ride and stall holders here will split off soon to pursue itineraries determined by ancient calendars of local celebration: a Shrove Tuesday knees-up in Devon or an Easter fete in Humberside; possibly something on the Continent. This industry is negotiated by a trade paper, World’s Fair, the Exchange and Mart of steeplechase machines and dodgem operatives. It’s precisely the kind of publication you find supplying comedy headlines on Have I Got News For You.
On the way out, we encounter three late-teenage girls in the Let’s Eat canteen. Carnival food is refreshingly unchanged, in as much as it barely qualifies as food at all, functioning more as a kind of abandonment to pagan tenets of self-abasement: the hot dog is battered, with chips, and the box should point out you stand a good chance of dying mid-consumption. Lauren, Kirsty and Melody have travelled in from Blantyre on a recce mission, to establish the lay of the land, and possibly also the land of the lay, ahead of a full-scale visit on Saturday. “I told Lauren it was a waste of time,” says Melody. “You can’t hear what anyone’s saying and the place is full of parents. You never meet cool guys at the carnival.” Joe and I slink off, crestfallen.
Meanwhile, Richard of Port Glasgow is entering. He carries a toy red pepper that is five-foot high, won on some lob-and-pray stall. He looks impossibly comic, struggling to control his giant recalcitrant angiosperm. Like most of us, he realised long ago the carnival, by accident and design, is no place for preserving dignity: “That’s not the worst of it,” he sighs. “I don’t have a seat belt for the thing.”