Boxing Day means a lot of things to a lot of people - cricket, barbecues and alcohol chief among them - but in my home town it also means the annual arrival of the carny. This is no classy affair à la Silvers Circus, though, or even the ferris wheel that sits on the banks of the Yarra. What this particular travelling entertainment troupe has to offer includes rickety ring-tosses, dodgy dodgem cars, pitiful prizes, creepy clowns and malfunctioning merry-go-rounds. Not to mention them colourful carny folk - more Cooder and Spud than Siegfried and Roy. It's a ritual that has been occurring in the town for over a decade now: wealthy holidaymakers reluctantly allow their over-hyped kids to risk life and limb on the various attractions, all at a premium cost, leaving before the drunk tweens arrive after dusk to spin out and spew up on something - anything - that rotates really fast.

OK, I realise that so far I've painted a pretty bleak picture, some of which may be exaggerated (
for example, I cannot confirm that there have ever been any significant injuries), but in actual fact I find the carny's arrival strangely thrilling. I put this down to aesthetics. The rides/deathtraps are old - ancient, even - but with that comes the faded hand-painted glamour that probably used to represent real excitement (and, to kids who don't know any different, still does). The gaudy colours and gratuitous lights combine with the pervading do-it-yourself ethos to create a kind of vulgar beauty, at once distasteful and irresistibly charming. This aesthetic is consistent throughout all kinds of carny and circus culture, from Luna Park to HBO's stunning but underrated drama Carnivàle.

Every aspect of the carny has an old-world (albeit sleazy) charm, which is especially evident in the details. It's one of the few (only?) entertainment sites that hasn't been overhauled with modern, sleek technology, and like the visual aspect, this is true right across the carnival/circus spectrum. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that across decades and continents, the style hasn't significantly shifted from its fundamental principles. I wonder whether it's more to do with economic factors than an intense correlation between its look and the idea of old-fashioned fun. Maybe both.

And then there's the clowns. Those rows of ominous heads (made even more menacing thanks to a childhood peppered with repeat viewings of It) turning ever so slowly, daring you to reach your hand into their engorged mouths, are a reassuring staple of any carny worth its salt. They're also my favourite carny fixture, and if ever I have a camera in tow when I come across them I find them hard to resist. And maybe they hold the key to another reason I love the carny - unadultered nostalgia. Because who hasn't tossed plastic balls into rotating decapitated clown heads (or been too afraid to) in order to win a nasty plastic made-in-China prize at some point in their childhood? Remember? Wasn't it great?

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