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A haze of freedom

Roes van vrijheid, Kermis in Nederland

G. Jansen

Boom uitgevers Amsterdam

ISBN: 9789060096994

Apart from its extensive historical introduction, Jansen’s book owes its importance mainly to the stories of the fairground people themselves. That fairground people are fast talkers and passionate storytellers from a business point of view is something we know from our own experience when they manage to talk us into their tents, but that they would ever again so candidly confide their misery, fun and the stories handed down from generation to generation to a ‘citizen’ for a standard work on the Dutch fair is special and makes Een roes van vrijheid a unique book in this field. Oral history at its best. The generous and avaricious fairgoers, competition and solidarity, poverty and pickpocketing, tractor life and wintering, it all comes up in the interviews Jansen conducted for his study. And, of course, the fair of yesteryear, with memories going back mainly to the pre-war era. Because even for the fairground, the 1920s and 1930s were roaring and swinging. It is then that you think: if only I had been there. Especially when it comes to so-called viewing, which has been supplanted by television and the cinema originally started at the fairgrounds. The best memories of this are told by Cherry Selbach, a fairgoer at heart born ‘under the merry-go-round’. His parents had a flea theatre, he himself roamed the fairs with boxing tents and Doctor Robot Volta, the mechanical-electric man in whose hands lamps ignited just like that. The flea theatre has totally disappeared in the Netherlands, and one can blame the modern media as much as one wants, but the extinction of this variety show is not primarily on their conscience. Selbach tastefully recounts the main plot: “It’s not a viable option anymore, you don’t get fleas. Well, it’s still there, but the people who have them don’t want to know. We used to go into a slum and we would make an excuse with a child and give them some sweets. And then if we saw that she had one of those flea marks on her neck, we’d ask where she lived and that’s where we’d ring the bell. You had to do that very diplomatically to get in there. As a rule they were poor, there was so much poverty back then, it almost always went together. So in those days, if you gave a guilder for ten fleas, you had a whole pot full for twenty guilders.” Behind the already treacherously kitschy painted fafade was a hard life and a lot of poverty. “The fair has improved now, though,” says veteran Willy Klijs. ” In winter they went to work, those operators of the small tents. They went to work in a factory or they walked by with trade. It was ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and hard work for that. It was much harder work than now, because such a car scooter too, they press a button and the whole roof goes down hydraulically. They only need two staff sometimes.” Gone, too, are the cabinets of curiosities (at the time for fun and entertainment) and the games of nature. Giants, dwarfs, Siamese twins, dog girls, fish-skins, women with double pairs of breasts: anyone who still encounters them at the fair is deceived. From an ethical and aesthetic point of view, they no longer belong at the fairgrounds. Fairground operators did not treat these attractions very gently. Is it because of the title An intoxication of freedom that Jansen barely pays attention to the bestial and chained existence of these creatures? They often had to settle for a pen or cage behind the tent while waiting to perform and were fed along with the trained bears and monkeys. People did not and do not just come to the fair to scare, but also to release their aggression. They can do so at the boxing-ball machine that indicates whether we are dealing with a baby-force or body-builder strength, the shooting gallery, the ball-throwing or – a vestige of the old carnival – the head of Jut, an attraction that owes its name to the robber-killer Hendrikus Jacobus Jut, unmasked in 1875. A fairground boss must have been so upset about the dastardly way Jut robbed a lady from The Hague and her maidservant of their money and lives that he set up a beating machine on the fairground square with the invitation: “Hit him upside the head, that Jut, beat him to death.” Is this one of the strong stories from the borderland of fabrication and reality of rich fairground life, or was it feigned indignation on the part of the fairground owner in question, introducing an attraction that had been known to our eastern neighbours for twenty-five years as “Hau den Lukas”?