Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Barnet Fair

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I HAVE been at Barnet Fair on the great day of all - the ~ Costermongers' Carnival; I have talked to many of those participating in the festivities, but as any narrative of the events must greatly depend on colour and phraseology, I think it better that the story should be told to you in the terms and answers given to the friendly inquiries I made of one in particular among the confraternity.
    "Barnet Fair comes on a Wednesday, and, of all the days that are in the year, there is not one that can come up to it; leastways, I mean with the thousands wot move in that spear of life the same as your humble servant. Christmas isn't nothin' to it. There's nothin' stirrin' at Christmas. There isn't nothin' in season but ice cartin' and holly and mistletoe; and, though the last mentioned as a pictur looks very well piled up in a barrer, it isn't werry festive servin' it.,. out in pennorths, and everybody so stronary awaracious arter the bits wots got lots of berries on to 'em. No; Christmas time ain't a jolly time for the costermonger it's a starvin' time. It's a time when, symbolikle speakin', the wolf scratches the door open and walks off with anything wot he can stick his hungry teeth into. Easter and Witsun is a little better; but then a man is glad to make the most of his yearnins to make up for what h'is gone back. I got back, and I ain't ashamed to own it. The wolf wot I was speaking of, after eating up mine and the missus's Sunday togs, [-305-] to say nothing of a green and brass fender and our American clock, ackshurly entered the stable and seized on the pony for rears of rent; and, if it hadn't been for my brother Joe, wots in the coal way, and consequently doing werry tidy in the winter time - but I'm diwergin' from my subjeck.
    "I'm in the fish way myself, consequently Wednesday suits me to a tick. Wednesday ain't a fish day among our customers. It's a rum thing, but poor people don't take kind to fish - not naturally kind, I mean. They'll hold off from it as long as they've got ha'pence enough to get a scrag of meat at the butcher's; and so, d'ye see, as the Saturday night's wages generally hold out till the middle of the week, it ain't no use inwestin' heavy in fish, till Thursday or Friday, when my customers is down to the knuckle-bone, as the wulgar saying is; so, as I said before, Wednesday couldn't suit me better if it was made to measure for me. Not that I should stop away from Barnet, even if the day didn't fit me. No fear. It's only once a year, and even Guy Foxes have their day once per annum. It's uniwersal, from the New Cut, Lambeth, to Dog-row, at Mile-end. It would be good for weak eyesight to find a stall or a barrer that day from one end of Brick-lane to the other.
    "There's two ways of going to Barnet, like there's two ways of doing everything. You may take the rail for it - but that's not my way. I ain't a proud cove, but, cert'ny I should look down on any one that I knowed as was capable of keeping up the anniwersary in that shabby kind o' way. Mind you, I don't hold with extrawagance; and though it was all right havin' them four new spokes put in the barrer wheels (Joe Simmon s wife being a hounce or two heavier than a hinfant, and my old gal rapidly growin' cut o' that silf-like figger she had when we was courtin'), there's no denying, as it was werry much like pomp and wanity, havin' the wehicle painted yeller with a picking out of green. But her mind was bent on havin' every thing to match her shawl and bonnet, and, as she tenderly remarked, [-306-] bless her hard workin' 'art: 'We don't kill a pig every day, Samuel:' wich so touched me that I went the whole annimal, and had it warnished as well.
    "It was a neat turn-out, cheerful without being owdacious. The sun was shinin' brightly, and we wasn't squeezed for room, being only four in a barrer, which is better than being so crowded that you are obliged to sit on the prowisions, to say nothing of the temtation to get the two-gallon bottle empty, and chucked out as an encumbrants before you're five miles on the road. It's a longish trot between Mile-end and Barnet, but long before we got to Whitechapel Church there was wisible signs of the horsspishus occasion. There was carts and wans, and regler four-horse drags, loaded and looking as 'ansome as many a time I've seen my barrer when there was a glut of collyflowers, and they was goin' reasonable, and all in the highest of spirits, as might be seen from the way in which many of em had already got their paper garlands round their hats, and horsehair mustaches and jolly noses. I likes to see it. There is a lively sarsiness about it that aggrawates the perlice without givin' 'em sufficient excuse to be down on yer, which is very comfortin' to be'old; but I beg it to be understood that it isn't what in superior langwidge might be called 'nobby.' It's a hindication of a mind not much above pennywinkles or creases, or any of them lower branches of the purfession what's hawked in baskets. No reglar pony-and-barrer coster would behave as sich. Him and his missus, if he's got one, should on such an ewentful occasion be a pair of patterns and examples to the uncultiwated, and let em see, without cheeking 'em or appearing to be toffs, what is the spectable thing to do. It's better to have a drain at home, if it's only half a pint a rum amongst four, before you start, and then you can blow your bacca and enjoy the lively chaff you meets with in the crowded parts of the roads like a gen'leman. We only made five halts on the road; the last one being more for the sake of getting a bit of raw steak [-307-] for Simmon's eye that he got in the heat of argyment with a cat's meat man wot threw a turnip at his missus, just the t'other side of Whetstone.
    "We didn't drive right into Barnet, being otherwise purvided. We drew up under a hedge a yard or two out of the traffik, and got out the meat-pie and that, with the new dawg's-paw horsecloth for a table-cover, and picknicked in a manner that I wager made 'em wot stood round a'most bust with envy. A werry comfortable hour that was. We was not alone under the hedge. There was several other parties wot I had met at the markets wet had brought their wittles; and, bein' friendly and open to deal, it was a chunk o' pie for a bit o' cold pickled pork, or a cold baked tater for a cold biled 'un, or a ingun for the worth of it in cheese, as fair and friendly as possible. After which, and the rest of the' beer wot was in the bottle, we was in a proper frame of mind to get towards the fair. There was only one thing that clouded my cup of 'appiness goin' along, and that was the sight of them Manor of Barnet fellows outside of the Queen's Arms. Three of 'em - two with p'liceman's staffs, and one - him wot had the toes peepin' out of his boots and was smoking a dirty short pipe - that carried a sort of little barber's pole, striped blue arid white, with 'M. B.' lettered on it. I knew 'em again direckly, having had wot was werry nigh a row with 'em on the Monday, when I bought the werry pony wot I'm driving now, and was bringin' him home. It was all about payin' a penny toll, and all who had bought a horse had to pay it, and everybody kicked at it. No pike - no giving you a ticket - no nothing; only him with the dirty short pipe that looked like a drover out o' work, and the other two chaps in their shirts and trousers, and with their sleeves tucked up and flourishing them staffs as though goadin' of you not to pay the penny, so that they might get an excuse to have a shy at you. I don't object to tolls when it's all reglar and there's a pike to show for it - and I spose it is reglar since the perlice [-308-] allowed it; but swelp me goodness ! if I was a lord of a manor, and I wanted to screw a penny out of a poor cove wot couldn't afford it, I would contrive to put by enough out of the profits to alter the cut of them toll takers."
    "I never approaches Barnet Fair but I feels proud of the purfession I belongs to, and grateful to my country. I believe it does me a jolly lot a good, and kinder clears off the bile that twelvemonths at wariance with the perlice natarally afflicts a cove with. I ain't always proud of my country and them as governs it, and anybody that has been fined twice - once five, and once fifteen shillings - because his honest barrer was called a 'obstruckshon,' can enter into my feelings; but when I comes in sight of Barnet Fair I feels my werry neckhankesher growing too tight for me, because of what Simmons ses is the emoshuns swellin' in my throat. Here, I ses to myself, is a trybute to the wirtue of the British Costermonger! Bartlemy had its fair, but it was 'bolished. Camberwell had its fair, and quite a 'spectable class went to it, mecanicks and their families, but somehow it grew ugly, and it was 'bolished too. Then there was Greenwich. Gents went to Greenwich with tall hats and collars and cuffs, and females dressed in the wery height of fashion, but Greenwich was 'bolished. The townpeople complained of the orful goings on, and the perlice was down on it. But our fair, the fair wot's kep going by the London costermonger, is as flourishing and rosy as ever. A proper sort of fair Barnet is. It's snug, in the fust place. It's so down in a hole that you might clap a lid on the top, of it and shut it all in. Then there's nothing stuck up about it; no doing the grand and playing the lady and gen'leman; a good solid cut-and-come-agin kind o' fair; a pleasant mixshure of the comforts of home with the amoosements one has got a happytite for. It's a hexcellent place for grub. You can buy a cooked bloater all hot and a chunk of bread for threeha'pence, or you can go as high as eighteen-pence for a feed off the joints and unlimited wedgatables. [-309-] We had had our peck; but really, comin' on a booth where there was werry tidy-sized thumb-bits of bread and bacon and a pint o' beer for fourpence, it looked so nice that Simmons and I went in and had a snack just out of hadmiration of the thing, while Mrs. S. and my old lady took a turn on a roundabout which was worked by steam, and played a organ.
    "It isn't a fancy fair by a long ways, that wot is here at Barnet. It's all as real as two 'apence for a penny. It wouldn't do if it was. The eddication and sperience of the costermonger is of a kind that spiles the play of his 'magination. Therefore there's no gipsies telling fortunes. Ha, ha! Just picter my old girl being got over by an old guy with a pack o cards, and chisselled out of sixpence, to have her 'tivity cast. She'd find summat harder than a 'tivity cast at her if she was to try it on. Just imagine one of that old lady's male relations trying the three-card trick, or prick in the garter, or the one little pea' on one of us! They know better than to try it. They may hang about the outside of the fair and try to catch a Johnny Wopstraw or two, but they never try it on the lads of our school. You might walk through and through the fair and not meet one of the gang in question if you looked for him. There's hardly one of us lads that couldn't give any on 'em a chalk and then beat 'em at the game he was sweetest on. It is that as keeps Barnet Fair so wirtuous. I did see one lark of this pattern. One of them sleight-of-hand young men that work the purse and money trick. He was up on his stool with that pouch wot's got such a awful lot of 'arf-crowns in by his side, and his cuffs tucked up and his decoy in his hand, patterin away like a steam-engine, and trying to conwince them wot was listenin' how werry foolish they was not to grab at the chance of buyin' seven-and-sixpence, placed in the purse before their werry eyes, for the ridiculous sum of 'arf-a-crown. Simmons and I stood by, and Simmons jogs me, and ses, 'Blest if there isn't Long Ned Spankers' boy a listenin' with his mouth open,' and the willain [-310-] will nail him sure as eggs ain't chickens!' And sure enuf there was young Ned - he's as long a'most as his father, and stiffish built for a lad of seventeen, but a awful fool at business. I was sorry to see it, for his father's sake, but I ses, 'Let him bite if he's green enough; p'raps it'll do him good.' So the young man with the purse kept the game up; of course he had spotted young Ned, and talked at him till he'd almost talked him off the little 'ead he's got. At last the lad pulled out his 'arfcrown. 'Look here,' ses he, 'let's have no mistake about this ere; the seven and sixpence is in the purse?' 'Listen for yourself; can't you hear it jinkin'?' ses the chap. 'It ain't a swindle. Mind yer, it won't be good for you if it's a swindle,' said young Ned. 'It won't be good for you, you mean,' grinned the young man; 'catch hold.' And young Ned did catch hold, and parted with his two-and-six. When he opened the purse there was three pennypieces in it. 'Where's the three 'arfcrowns ? he asked savage-like. 'Ah, that's the trick,' grinned the young man with the purses. 'Oh, is that the end of it?' asked young Ned, with a twist of his wisage that made me hope some good of him. 'That's the end of it - unless you'd like to have another shy,' returned the aggrawatin' fellow, laughing with the rest. It's the neatest trick you ever see, I'll wager.' 'I'll back the one I'm goin' to show you for twice the money,' said the young barrer-man; and makin' a spring at the chap on a stool, he had him down and with his head in chancery afore you could count six. 'The sitiwation was embarrassin,' as they say in the newspapers; and swearin' that it was all a joke, the purse dodger gave him back the 'arfcrown and sneaked off rapid. I hope his father won't read this, for on condition of young Ned spendin' a shillin' in a couple of pots of beer we promised not to tell him.
    "Then there's the shows. Barnet Fair sets a example in that line sich as other places of public amoosement might get a wrinkle out of. Women's tastes ain't like men's; their ideas of enjoyment being natarally more delikit. At Barnet they manages [-311-] to suit all parties, and gives em a opportunity of pairin' off so as to suit their tastes. For instance, while the missus went to the wax work, me and Simmons was in the next tent having a game at skittles; then we took a turn in Sluggers' sparrin'-booth, while the ladies passed a pleasant 'arf-hour in the Star Ghost carawan and got their blood froze for a penny, which, considerin the 'eat of the afternoon, wasn't dear. After that, by way of restorin' their sperits, they went to see the four-legged duck and the big-headed child and the livin' skellington; Bill and me meanwhile enjoyin' ourselves in a wan where there was a Kaffir eating live rats; by which time we was ready for tea and a relish with it.
    "After that, findin' ourselves in cheerful company, and a fiddle comin' in, we had a song and then a dance. Lots of dancers, and werry glad we were that beer was sold on the premises, and I believe we should have kep' it up later than we did, had not that confounded cat's-meat man that Simmons fell foul of in the morning poked his ugly 'ead in, on which Simmons, who had got the liquor aboard, wanted satisfackshun for his black eye. That was only fair; so while the women found their shawls they settled their little difference outside, after which we ordered the barrer, and by means of steddy drivin' and stoppin' to breathe the pony at every place that had a sign-board hanging out, we managed to get back to Mile-end just in time to get a partin' drain before the houses closed."