Covent Garden Hat Fairs in 1973-4
The queues outside the theatres and cinemas in London attracted street performers back in the 50s, mostly musicians, some dancers. A younger crowd started to appear, as the singer-songwriter thing started to happen in the early 60s - people like Don Partridge doing one-man band, Don Crown and his busking budgies, etc.
I don't quite know when the street life turned in the direction of magicians and jugglers and clowns. Myself, I had partied in the park in the late Sixties, but then went travelling for a couple of years. When I returned I had evolved a little comedy juggling and magic show, and quickly added some tumbling and slapstick, but there were no real venues for such a thing, and the street markets found me a little weird, so I was delighted when Mike Dean organised a community street festival in the embattled Covent Garden area, and negotiated with the authorities that anyone could (for the two days) arrive, put down a hat, and offer their act or display.
I was part of a commedia/clown troupe called The Raree Show, and we did quite a lot of community and street work, so we were comfortable with the idea. I also did my solo show, and (in the second year of The Covent Garden Hat Fair) a duo with Justin Case called Foolproof. It was an invitation to experiment.
In addition to music, you could have found crafts people, poets, and people like me starting out the trend to New Variety and New Circus. One of The Barrow Poets was there, and wrote a charming piece for the New Statesman, about the experience of taking part in this seminal event.
Hats in the Air
'The last week was lost a Merkin in the Coven-Garden,' reads a scurrilous little item in a 1660 news sheet. This week I saw not merkins, alas, but practically everything else was in evidence, as a vast assembly of people enjoyed a neighbourhood festival and hat fair to mark the gradual but inevitable extinction of Covent Garden. It was as a hat fair entertainer that I attended, a simple matter of performing free, and then collecting money in a hat. It's an exhilarating experience. My first taste of street busking came on Saturday, with a fellow Barrow poet, Susan Baker. We had planned some material; she had brought her violin, and I a topper decorated with balloons.
We wandered, lonely as a couple of clouds, in and out of the jazz bands and pop groups seeking a good site. There didn't seem to be one. Wherever we were, there always seemed to be some reason for not starting.
At last we diagnosed this reluctance as sheer terror, and dumped our gear on the pavement in James Street, where we stood. Susan tuned up and played a reel. When she had finished we had a crowd. I said a comic poem; we did a piece together, very jokey. They laughed. More jokes, more laughter. Bigger crowd. The adrenalin is going. Susan plays very boldly. I speak our as if addressing a large meeting. But it was getting too easy. So Susan played a Vivaldi movement. The crowd grew. I said Blake's London (How the chimney sweep's cry/Every blackening church appals). They listened, applauded. A Barrow colleague appeared down the street and spontaneously joined in.
A few more pieces and we signed off and took the hat round. They paid and drifted off to find Toby, the acrobatic juggler, or my brother Julian Chagrin, doing his hilarious mime, or food, drink, the children's street, the belly dancer. Later, we did another street gig. I teamed up with my brother and did a two-man minishow with him, indoors. And in the evening the full Barrow team did a rumbustious programme at the White Swan in New Row.
By late evening megalomania had set in and I determined to make real an old fantasy of mine, and tell The Miller's Tale: in public, in full, and in the original. I arranged a pitch and a time and on Sunday afternoon carried my vast paperback to the King Street piazza. To my astonishment there were people there, waiting to hear it. I opened my book, introduced myself, and started. A drunk or drugged heckler inquired the colour of the miller's pubic hair. I told him red, and he drifted off, apparently satisfied. I read the story, and most of my smallish but gradually growing crowd stayed the full 40-minute course. Half way through, a band started up. I spoke louder, hammering out those magnificent words. The listeners crowded closer. The comic climax arrived, and yet again, Geoffrey Chaucer, deceased long before the birth of the now dying Covent Garden, made us laugh. The topper, now devoid of balloons, went round and supper was assured.
From then on events seemed to kaleidoscope. I did a one-man indoor programme, carried the hat for other performers, did a spot at a music hall, and was offered a pick through boxes of old theatre costumes, was given left-over food and booze to take home. I watched the organisers sweeping the streets, saw a member of Recreation Ground moving her motor-bike to allow space to a gigantic fruit lorry that crept like a fictional monster through the narrow streets.
Near midnight, I walked along Shaftesbury Avenue anachronistically attired in bell-bottom cords, 18th-century gentleman's jacket, and topper. Some French tourists asked me the way. A white balloon blew slowly past the shop fronts and lifted out into the traffic, breathtakingly avoiding destruction. As in a mirage a huge red bus came into view. And it was going my way! Gathering my packages I chased it, caught it at the lights and jumped aboard. The hat fair was over. But no. My neighbour spoke to me. 'Thought it was you. Glad you got on. Saw you doing your poetry. How was the White Swan? I'm in the theatre too. I do costumes.' She fingered my brocade sleeve. 'That's a lovely bit of cloth. Bet you didn't get that for nothing. Well, goodbye.' She got off. The festival was over.
© Gerard Benson 1974 New Statesman 13 September 1974