Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sideshow Alley

Yesterday the Big Squid, Little Squid and I went to the Royal Melbourne Show.

I was amazed by the rides, because they were all so extreme. Apparently the thrill of swooping up and down on the Pirate Ship (always my favourite) or having your neck dislocated on the Zipper is no longer enough. Now almost every ride involves going up insanely high in the air then spinning in several different directions at once while plummeting at sickening speed, offering the illusion that you are about to be smashed face-first into the ground. The machines were spectacular - but I decided to keep my bratwurst inside my tummy, thanks.

Little Squid (who is taller than me, for the record) is not one for rides, even of the tamer sort. And being the smart young man that he is, he took the view that the showbags were "a world of crap" and was much more interested in the animals. Me too. The last time I went to the Show I was a very small kid, and my favourite thing there (and possibly in the entire world) was the baby chickens.

But the thing that interests me the most about the Show now is something that has largely disappeared: Sideshow Alley and the culture of the old-style Showmen. Last year when I was writing the second Antonia Cutlass Book, Operation Weasel Ball, I did some research into the very colourful - and largely hidden - history of carnival sideshows in Australia. Amazingly, there was almost nothing published on the subject, though there was plenty about the American equivalent. Luckily I did find one fascinating book called Sideshow Alley, by Richard Broome, which included plenty of first-hand accounts of life in the sideshows that, as recently as the late fifties, were the most popular feature of the Australian fairgrounds.

I loved writing Operation Weasel Ball, and it was a particularly enjoyable challenge to write the character of Big Tim, an elderly gent, under five feet tall, with a mysterious past as a Showie. Presenting the lost world of the sideshows - a world which modern audiences will inevitably view with some ambivalence - to a readership of eight- to twelve-year-old kids was a delicate business. But (and maybe there's a bit of the Showman in us scribblers too) I think I pulled it off.

So yesterday I tried to peer past the high-shine slickness of the Extreme Rides, and catch a glimpse of the old ghosts of Sideshow Alley. But of course they eluded me. I'm only a mug punter, after all, and those Showies guard their secrets well.

PS... apparently I am going to be on Radio National tomorrow (Monday) at 10 am, on the Book Show, talking about Gatsby. They pre-recorded it a while ago.


Anonymous said...

Posting this again here

Just heard you talking on the Book Show, I did notice some great reviews in the papers but this interview convinced me to buy a copy of your Great Gatsby, I've since found several of the drawings on the net and here at your site
as I ordered a copy...

Nicki, I just want to say your drawings are truly wonderful, they bring to mind the imaginings I have never imagined, and Wallace Stevens who wrote

'the imagination, the one reality in this imagined world'

which is a good comment on your work so far,
I'll write after I get the book and let you know.

Robert Adamson

Nicki Greenberg said...

Dear Robert

Thanks so much for this. I tried to respond to your email as well, but it bounced from both your addresses.

I'm so glad that my interpretation of Gatsby has snared your imagination - and really hope that you enjoy the book.

Just had a quick look at your site (I'll go back later when I'm not at the office) - and I'm mighty impressed. I think that poetry and picture literature have certain things in common - an idea that I'd like to talk to you about sometime - but that is a ramble for another day.

Anyway, I hope you get my reply email - and thanks again.


PS - love the picture of the cat sniffing at the enormous fish!

Anonymous said...

am listening to it now...

Ian T. said...

Nicki, the latest episode isn't there yet, but here's the link to Sunday Arts. Did it get broadcase anywhere this week? Maybe it's been delayed...