Today is the second and last day of St Giles Fair here in Oxford. A popular saint in twelfth century England St Giles is the patron of the parish that developed at that time around the northern end of the wide road towards Woodstock and Banbury outside the north gate of the Anglo-Saxon city. As his feast day falls on September 1st it was in past centuries a good time at which to hold a fair to buy and sell as the autumn set in. Many towns held fairs at this season - most famously Winchester - but not many survive. In Oxford it still does.
Here St Giles' Fair is very much part of the life of the city, but not especially of the University, which is not up at this time of year. Oxford, happily, has not, like my home town of Pontefract did in the interwar years, exiled such a fair to waste ground away from the centre but gives up the whole of St Giles Street - still the main route into the city centre from the north - over to the Fair on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday following September 1st.
Picking one's way through a wide rage of ever more spectacular, noisy, flashing, and not infrequently, frankly terrifying, rides and sideshows, not to mention the pervasive smell of the cooking of burgers and hot dogs, gives a new quality to walking to and from Mass on these days. What St Giles - a hermit and then an abbot - would make of it is open for speculation, but it is, nevertheless, and even if the people attending never give him a thought, a celebration of him.
To my mind, what is also good about it, firstly, is that it is a living tradition - loud and
vulgar it may be, but it reasserts a popular way of letting off steam and enjoying oneself. Last nights drizzle and rain did not appear to be damping that.
Secondly, it is really heartening to see so many families there - fathers and mothers taking their children to the fair, rather as I was fifty years ago. The fair may be garish and dressed up in the latest modern fashion, but at heart it is as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. In a simple and unsophisticated way it reasserts popular family values, and long may it do so.
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