DEFYING gravity in the saddle of a vintage motorcycle is akin to a religious experience for the troupe who have defied the Wall of Death’s demise.
EIGHTEEN feet up, his body parallel to the wicked wooden floor, flashing by on a motorcycle of pensionable age, Ken Fox rides the Wall of Death with the insouciance of a man born to it – which he was. The noise in this great bright wooden barrel is extraordinary: the roar of the throttle, the sudden gunshot as the engine backfires. It’s too loud to hear the punters speak, but Fox has learned over the years to lip-read certain phrases, which he is pleased to observe as he blurs past. “F*** me!” they say. “He’s mad!”
The Ken Fox Troupe, in Edinburgh this weekend for the Scottish Motorcycle Show at Ingliston, are the last Wall of Death riders in Britain, survivors of a fairground trade that not all have survived. It is a family affair. Ken is the boss and the daddy. The travelling showman is of indeterminate age and will not give it. Though he is losing his hair and gaining some white in his beard, and though he has his share of scars, he remains lithe and boyish; one suspects frequent rub-downs with motor-oil.
He has been riding the Wall of Death getting on for 40 years, and long ago introduced his sons – Luke, 26, and Alex, 18 – into the act. Alex’s girlfriend, Abby, is a recent addition to the troupe; they became a couple last year after she saw the act in Pickering, and now she rides, beaming with joy, on his handlebars. “It feels,” she says, “like Christmas has come early, like taking off in a plane.”
Ken’s wife, Julie, is also part of the troupe. A former dental assistant, she saw Ken ride one day, 28 years ago, and that was that – her days of drills and molars were over. They married in a registry office and had a blessing inside the Wall of Death – which they consider to have been their proper wedding as it is, for the Fox troupe, a sacred space. These days Julie drives one of the lorries that transport the wall, works in the paybox, and makes the tea. But what is it like to see her husband and sons put their lives at risk night after night? How does she feel when they are up there on the wall?
“I feel proud,” she smiles. “Especially when all three of them are on the wall together and the crowd are mesmerised and everyone’s cheering. I think, ‘Oh, that’s my boys up there.’ They started learning when they were about 11, and I was very nervous. My heart was pounding. But the way they’ve been brought up, they’ve loved motorbikes since they were toddlers.”
How, though, does she cope with the inevitable accidents? “Most of the time I’m outside selling tickets, and you can hear the bikes going round; all of a sudden there’s a crash then deadly silence, and you think, ‘Ohhh, God.’ It’s a horrible feeling. But if they haven’t hurt themselves badly they always try and get back on and continue the act, and the crowd cheers like mad.” She laughs. “I go in after to mop up the blood.”
Ken Fox’s Wall of Death is 18 feet high and has a circumference of 88 feet. It weighs 20 tons and is made from knot-free Oregon pine. The wall is painted blue and red outside. The floor is red and yellow. The waterproof roof is yellow and blue. There is something of the medieval war tent about it, a touch of Agincourt. The words Wall Of Death, picked out in cheerful yellow bulbs, blink high above the paybox.
The crowds look down from above and are fragranced by a rising incense of engine fumes. The point is to thrill the audience, not to scare them. The riders begin by circling the floor, then up on to a ramp, and finally they are riding perpendicular to the wall, arms outstretched, rising and dipping, sometimes high enough to leave tyre marks at the very top, prompting squeals from the crowd. For superstitious reasons, they only ever travel in an anti-clockwise direction. They get so close you could reach out and touch them, make some sort of brief physical connection with that speeding miracle of guts and grace and centrifugal force.
“We look like ballerinas on the wall,” says Ken. “But it takes a lot of effort, a lot of mental and physical concentration. You can feel the G-force. We’re pulling about three Gs. On a hot day you can feel very faint and start to black out.”
They don’t wear helmets or safety gear, as – apparently – this would make it harder to steer and to see. But the third reason is pure showbiz. “The men want to look heroic and the women want to look gorgeous.”
And just how fast are they going? “A mile a minute and a thrill a second.” He laughs. “It’s about 45 miles per hour.”
The first Wall of Death is thought to have come to Britain from South Africa in 1928. Soon after, a company called Silodromes began building walls and hiring them – and trained riders – out to showmen. There were more than 50 walls in Britain during the 1930s, the peak era, but after the war they began, gradually, to lose popularity. There were, as you might expect, some tremendous characters among the riders; forces of nature like Tornado Smith, Cyclone Jack, Hurricane Pete, and not forgetting Armless Alf – who somehow managed to work as a Wall of Death rider, and during the off season a mechanic, despite having been born without upper limbs. Old photographs of fairgrounds show walls sited next to rifle ranges and freak shows (“See inside! The Lady With A Pig’s Face!”) and emblazoned with the skulls and crossbones which the Fox Troupe still favour today. The old riders are all of a type – tough and strong and Brylcreemed within an inch of their lives; they favour leather jackets and jodhpurs; one man has a bear balanced on his handlebars.
Ken Fox, out of respect for the history of his profession, has painted on the front of the wall a list of riders who are no longer living. It is something of a rogues’ gallery and he points to each name with glee. “He was a gangster. He was a ladykiller. He was always drunk. Harry Holland, he got bit by a tiger, or was it a lion? She broke her neck. She murdered her boyfriend. Tornado Smith was tight-fisted; he used to take a knife into the gents so he didn’t have to spend the penny; and he once paid a £20 fine with a wheelbarrow full of farthings.”
“I think,” says Luke, “the Wall of Death sends people slightly nuts.”
The bike Luke rides dates from 1921 and used to belong to Tornado Smith. The Fox troupe bikes are beautiful machines, Indian Scouts, red and gleaming, with leather saddles from which tassles fly as they speed along. Despite their age, they are in great nick, and when they crash are easily fixed with a crowbar and sledgehammer.
Safety is a priority, but falls are inevitable. Ken, for his part, has come off the bike around 20 times. “I’ve broke me wrist, taken chunks out me eyes, me shoulders, bruised me arse, damaged me ego, broke women’s hearts. But I’ve always bounced well, always been a good bouncer. My grandad, he had 72 stitches putting his face back on. He was the first man to put a go-kart on the wall. He got the go-kart on the Monday, put it in the show on Tuesday, and it put him in the hospital on the Wednesday.”
Fox is the third-generation of his family to ride the Wall of Death. He was taught by his father and uncle. How his grandfather, Walter, learned to ride is lost in the mists of time. It is thought that he had started in 1931, but by the time Ken was a boy collecting tickets from the punters, Walter had quit riding and taken to spieling, pulling the crowds with his patter, his skin brown and leathery from years of Skegness sun. These days, the Fox family are based in Ely, Cambridgeshire, where they have their winter quarters and their yard, but they are on the road for ten months of the year, performing on approximately 120 days. Fairgrounds are no longer the main part of their business; they prefer to appear at music festivals, including Glastonbury and T in the Park.
Trying to work it out is probably a fool’s errand, but it would seem that Ken Fox travels about 4,500 miles each year inside the Wall of Death, which comes in at about 180,000 miles during his working life so far. That’s seven times around the earth, and looking at it like that seems fitting somehow. There’s something eternal about the wall, about the endless roaring circles, about all that history and mystery and anecdote crammed within this wooden orb.
“Let me take you inside,” says Ken, keen to finally explain his passion. He leads the way through a door in the side, and suddenly there we are, standing in the centre, looking up at the wall, our voices echoing slightly as we speak.
“You hear that?” he asks. “It’s like going into a church. The Wall of Death, for us, is almost religious. This is a special place, a special life, and I’m going to carry on doing it as long as I am able.”