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Belmont Club

Pied Piper

October 25th, 2011 - 10:03 pm

“Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show”

Into the second decade after World War 2 it was still common for itinerant bands to go oompah-pahing around Manila and I nearly ran away from home for the first and only time in my life. The front gate had been left ajar and the sight of a brass band passing in the street was a scene too compelling for a boy of 5 to resist. I was out the gate and nearly two blocks away before my mother finally caught up and led me home.

But the fascination of following the traveling show persisted. Later in life I was tempted but never quite foolish enough to apply for employment in one of the many tawdry carnivals that crisscrossed the country, arriving in time to coincide with the scheduled Fiestas of the different towns throughout Luzon.  But the appeal is seemingly universal.  According to Wikipedia, the traveling carnival was a popular form of rural entertainment in early 20th century America, and indeed throughout the world.

Through most of the history of the 19th century, rural North America enjoyed the entertainment of traveling shows. These shows could include a circus, vaudeville show, burlesque show or a magic lantern show. It is believed that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the catalyst that brought about the modern traveling carnival. At the Chicago World’s Fair was an avenue at the edge of the grounds called the Midway Plaisance. This avenue of the fair had games of chance, freak shows, wild west shows (including Buffalo Bill whose show was set up near the fairground) and burlesque shows. It also featured the first Ferris wheel constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Following the Chicago World’s Fair, the term “midway” was adopted from the Midway Plaisance to denote the area at county and state fairs where sideshow entertainment was located.

Such entertainments were apparently popular even in Scotland, which seemed hard to imagine at first. Since it is the convention that movie Romans (or indeed any grand historical personalities playing in any period drama set more than 200 years ago) are played by actors speaking an upper class English accent, the traveling show appeared at first to be too low for so stately a country as imaginary Britain. Can you imagine Rex Harrison or David Niven attempting to win a Kewpie doll at a fair willingly?  Or buying tickets to a ferris wheel? But the misgivings were all imaginary it turns out, since most Britons don’t even speak with an upper class accent. And when the Scottish traveling show became conceivable this tantalizing excerpt from the biography of fiddler James Scott Skinner soared in the imagination.

Skinner was born in Banchory, near Aberdeen. His father was a dancing master on Deeside. James was only eighteen months old when his father died. When James was seven, his elder brother, Sandy, gave him lessons in violin and cello. Soon the pair of them were playing at local dances. In 1852 he attended Connell’s School in Princes Street, Aberdeen.

Three years later he left to join “Dr Mark’s Little Men”, a travelling orchestra. This involved spending six years intensive training at their headquarters in Manchester. It also involved touring round the UK. … In 1862 he won a sword-dance competition in Ireland. The following year he won a strathspey and reel competition in Inverness. …

For twelve years he continued as a dancing master and violinist. He gave virtuoso concerts, with his adopted daughter joining him as a pianist. In 1881 his wife became seriously ill and died a couple of years later. For the ten years he spent little time in any one place.

Here was a man who earned his crust by playing the fiddle in one town after another. Skinner’s music first came to me on a CD given as a Christmas present one year. One tune, Bovaglie’s Plaid, closed the circle of memory in an odd way: for it was easy to imagine how in a dozen little towns in Scotland, five year old boys on hearing it must have been tempted to follow Dr Mark and his Little Men.  JM Barrie  caught a glimpse of where: that place children are so eager to revisit, as if it were a place familiar, whose outlines are not yet lost to memory. He called it Neverland in his book Peter Pan. But it was never a physical place, just a setting for the great adventure that seemed just outside the door for every child. It was scary and yet there was nothing to fear.

“I can’t help you, Wendy. Hook wounded me. I can neither fly nor swim.”

“Do you mean we shall both be drowned?”

“Let us draw lots,” Wendy said bravely.

“And you a lady; never.” Already he had tied the tail of the kite round her. She clung to him; she refused to go without him; but with a “Good-bye, Wendy,” he pushed her from the rock; and in a few minutes she was borne out of his sight. Peter was alone on the lagoon.

Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

CS Lewis had a memory of this strange place and he explained it thus to Big People, who were sometimes puzzled at what they remembered.

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence … Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself … for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Perhaps that is the mysterious attraction of the traveling show; the promise that it will take you somewhere that you have just left; back to some garden barred by a locked door whose key you can’t find. The brass band would almost certainly not have taken me there, though come to think of it, you can never be sure. But now that gate is far away and closed.  And here is Bovaglie’s Plaid as it may have been heard in small towns long ago.

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