By Nick Pelling

Traditionally, fairground folk have not had a good press. They have generally been seen as travelling types who somehow live a ‘dodgy’ sort of lifestyle. But a closer look at the people who run the fair on Hastings pier reveals a more subtle and interesting community who bring Hastings something rather special. The fair on the pier is run by Gary and Jolie Smith and their extended family, and they are working long hours – on rainy days and scorching days – to craft something not just for fleeting tourists but something affordable for the families of Hastings.

It is tempting to see Jolie as the matriarch of the operation but she is keen to point out that everyone in the family has their pennyworth. Nevertheless, her husband Gary asserts that “she’s the brains” behind the fun. Both Gary and Jolie come from fairground families with a long pedigree of hauling amusement from town to town. A great grandmother was one of the first women to be a so-called lady boxer. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Jolie is a tough-minded woman with a ‘live and let live’ philosophy. Intriguingly, she writes letters to parliament calling for people living this traditional way of life to be recognised as ‘showmen’: for ‘showmen’ to be an identity on a par with ethnic distinctions. (I pointed out that some might say that ‘showmen’ is a sexist term but she is curtly dismissive of such Guardianesque concerns.) Jolie is proud to say that she has “never lived in a normal house”. She adds that “the only home I like has wheels on it, and it rocks me when it rains.” But she also says that she did look at renting in Hastings only to be shocked at the rates. Instead, she commutes in every day from her caravan in Medway. 

But Jolie is also trying to do something different with the Hastings pier site. They negotiated closely with James Tovey and Mustafa Abdelhadi of the Music First Events group (who have had control of the pier’s offerings for some time) and put together a set of rides aimed at local families with younger children. The price per ride is modest. They have also tried to create something that offers much for children with special needs. This is not a fair with the usual deafening disco din: the sound and flashing light level is kept low and some areas, such as the soft play cage, are quiet and welcoming to all little children. Jolie is very sensitive to the impact of sound and vison because one the younger children of the fairground family has autism. She is also aware that local older residents do not need a huge backbeat to make a cup of tea. 

Gary and Jolie describe their familial workers as “the family of the pier.” Including sisters and cousins, there are 16 children of the pier, ranging in age from 1 to 18. Out of school time they help out, have a laugh and, above all, learn the business. Gary is the hands-on partner in the duo: Jolie tells us proudly that he actually built the 9-hole crazy golf course last winter. On the day I spoke to him he was about to drive to Scotland to pick up a new ride. It will be an exhausting heavy goods task, but Gary seemed unfazed.

The hours of work are undoubtedly long: Samantha, controller of the little plane world, said “we only go home when the people go home.” Wisdom her father had passed on. And income is unpredictable. On top of that the costs are high and regular inspections and insurance updates can be suddenly crippling. It is in many ways a precarious lifestyle and not made any easier by unthinking popular prejudices. In my view, Hastings is fortunate in having a family passionately devoted to the deeply serious side of the amusement game. Perhaps people who moan about going round in circles at the office should try actually running a merry-go-round. 

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