Nathaniel Hawthorne on the Greenwich Fair

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Our Old Home, 1870

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Till a few years ago, the first three days of Easter were a carnival season in this old town, during which the idle and disreputable part of London poured itself into the streets like an inundation of the Thames— as unclean as that turbid mixture of the offscourings of the vast city, and overflowing with its grimy pollution whatever rural innocence, if any, might be found in the suburban neighbourhood. This festivity was called Greenwich Fair, the final one of which, in an immemorial succession, it was my fortune to behold…

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This unfragrant crowd was exceedingly dense, being welded to­gether, as it were, in the street through which we strove to make our way. On either side were oyster-stands, stalls of oranges, (a very prevalent fruit in England, where they give the withered ones a guise of freshness by boiling them), and booths covered with old sail-cloth, in which the commodity that most attracted the eye was gilt gingerbread. It was so completely enveloped in Dutch gilding that I did not at first recognize an old acquaintance, but wondered what the golden crowns and images could be…

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What immensely perplexed me was a sharp, angry sort of rattle, in all quarters, far off and close at hand, and sometimes right at my back, where it sounded as if the stout fabric of my English surtout had been ruthlessly rent in twain; and everybody’s clothes, all over the fair, were evidently being torn asunder in the same way. By-and-by, I discovered that this strange noise was produced by a little instrument called ‘The Fun of the Fair’—a sort of rattle, consisting of a wooden wheel, the cogs of which turn against a thin slip of wood, and so produce a rasping sound when drawn smartly against a person’s back. The ladies draw their rattles against the backs of their male friends, (and everybody passes for a friend at Greenwich Fair), and the young men return the compliment on the broad British backs of the ladies; and all are bound by immemorial custom to take it in good part and be merry at the joke.

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But this was far from being the sole amusement. There were theatrical booths, in front of which were pictorial representations of the scenes to be enacted within; and anon a drummer emerged from one of them, thumping on a terribly lax drum, and followed by the entire dramatis personae, who ranged themselves on a wooden platform in front of the theatre. They were dressed in character, but woefully shabby, with very dingy and wrinkled white tights, threadbare cotton velvets, crumpled silks, and crushed muslin, and all the gloss and glory gone out of their aspect and attire, seen thus in the broad daylight and after a long series of performances. They sang a song together, and withdrew into the theatre, whither the public were invited to follow them at the inconsiderable cost of a penny a ticket.

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Before another booth stood a pair of brawny fighting-men, displaying their muscle, and soliciting patronage for an exhibition of the noble British art of pugilism. There were pictures of giants, monsters, and outlandish beasts, most prodigious, to be sure, and worthy of all admiration, unless the artist had gone incomparably. beyond his subject. Jugglers proclaimed aloud the miracles which they were prepared to work; and posture-makers dislocated every joint of their bodies and tied their limbs into inextricable knots, wherever they could find space to spread a little square of carpet on the ground. In the midst of the confusion, while everybody was treading on his neighbour s toes, some little boys were very solicitous to brush your boots..

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Can’t wait for Greenwich Fair as part of GDIF2014!

P.S. For more history on Greenwich, you might want to check out Art History UK‘s Greenwich tour coming up in a few weeks – lots of Greenwich fun facts to be had!


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