Napoleon, it is said, derided the English a “nation of shopkeepers”. Although he picked up the phrase from Adam Smith, who used it in a slightly more complimentary fashion. And anyway, shortly after that whole spat, the industrial revolution really took off, and shopkeeping became secondary. Eventually, even manufacturing got boring, and finance became the thing. And so retail today only counts for about 10% of the UK economy.
Granted, that’s a lot higher than the EU average of 4.2%, but still, it’s hardly enough to justify the ‘nation’ jibe (which the French still pull out from time to time). But I think that there’s something in the blood that makes a lot of the English hanker after being involved in the retail trade. And since the little-guy shop has largely been muscled out by the larger chains, there’s less scope to get involved. Sure – you can volunteer at a charity shop, but even then there are only so many of those.
So that, I believe, is the reason for the abundance of fairs. Between antique fairs, county fairs, agricultural fairs, craft fairs, and even medieval fayres, there are oodles of stalls in all sorts of places all over the country at regular intervals. And each of these fairs attracts a certain type of person, that has been naturally selected over generations to be able to fit right in.
Take the Medieval fayre, for example (yes, they do tend to spell it like that, bless ’em). These usually take place at an old castle (Ludlow, Kenilworth, etc), and consist of stalls selling food and crafts usually somehow, slightly, connected with something vaguely medieval. Mead is an old favourite. Leather goods with Celtic designs. Lots of jewellery. Chutneys and relishes. But in among these ordinary stalls will be the Subculture stalls – those selling reproduction weaponry. And medieval clothes for those involved in the battle reenactments. For the sort of people who take this stuff seriously – and there are many that do. We spoke to some people who spend their weekends going from fayre to fayre across the country, dressing up like 10th century Norsemen, or 11th century Normans, or even 5th century Britons.
Similarly, the antique fairs attract a certain subculture as well. On the one hand, there are the usual suspects – the nice old furniture, the clocks, watches, crystal, Royal Doulton figurines, silver cutlery. But there’s a fringe of slightly more bizarre group of people who frequent these places too. The collectors of old railway timetables, for example. Purveyors of old-fashioned telephones made to work on modern exchanges (yes, I admit that I bought one of these). A stall selling railway official badges – little brass strips saying “Conductor” and “Engineer” and suchlike.
These fairs are a fantastic place to observe people. I like wandering around trying to figure out what sort of person would buy something from that stall, and then waiting and finding out. It’s a fascinating mix of people selling things because they’re interested in what they sell, because they need to make a living out of it, or because they just want to have a stall somewhere, and will put anything out just for the experience. The interaction between those three groups of sellers, and a similar grouping of buyers makes for a cultural treat on the people-watching front.