Showtime: what the future holds for Scotland's travelling showpeople
Philip Paris flicks through old photos on his phone.
“This is 1993. That’s me driving onto the fairground at Hamilton. And that was the big showman’s caravan that we had. That was the children’s bedroom, there,” he says, pointing to a window at the back of the 12ft-wide vehicle. “This was our bedroom at the end, and this was the bathroom. I sold that about 18 years ago.”
Paris is almost completely lost in his memories as he continues to scroll through dozens of pictures and reminisce about the former home he shared for so many years with his wife, Hayley, and their three children as they travelled up and down the country.
Born into a family of travelling showmen, Paris has spent most of his life on the road, driving from site to site across Scotland, supplying the kind of candyfloss memories that every child growing up in a small Scottish town will cherish forever.
But things are a lot different now.
The fairground business, like any industry with roots dating back to medieval times, has had to adapt to the changing market of the 21st century, and the days of generations of families travelling around the country together are all but gone for a lot of showpeople.
My generation is probably the last generation where when you attended the fairs, your home went with you
Now, most have some form of permanent residence in static caravans or prefab buildings – situated within what the community calls “yards” – to give families a base, and they travel to fairs in smaller caravans, staying overnight only when necessary or when the commute is too far.
Paris, who has recently been elected as the president of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain – the first Scottish president since the 1950s – says he is probably from the last generation of showmen who travelled around in large caravans for weeks or months at a time with their families and admits the fairground community has “suffered” in recent years.
“It’s not the same as it used to be. There’s not the same community spirit,” says Paris. “When you’re on the fairs, if it’s close enough to Glasgow, most people will not stay the night, whereas we used to all be there together. The young lads would be out having a game of football at the end of the day.”
And although he acknowledges that times change, there is a tinge of sadness about the loss of what went before.
“I’ll be honest, I do miss the big caravan,” he admits. “We had it built when we were engaged. It was built at Haddington and it wasn’t finished when we got it as we didn’t have enough money to finish it, so the inside of it, for the most part, I did myself.
“My generation is probably the last generation where when you attended the fairs, your home went with you. If you were at Hamilton for two weeks, you went to school in Hamilton.”
But he adds: “With the best will in the world, you were never going to get a great education like that. I’ve had a reasonable education which stands me in good stead. I haven’t got any qualifications at all, but I realised the value of it, and I’ve encouraged it. One of my daughters has been to university and has a degree and has a good job now.
“Nowadays, it’s about the necessity for children to get a better education. My children travelled with us up until they went to secondary education. It was evident when they went to secondary, in order to get to where they wanted to be, it was never going to work travelling back and forwards.”
But it’s not just the changing approach to education and putting down more stable roots that has contributed to the decline amongst the community and dwindling number of showpeople in Scotland.
They have struggled to compete against modern technology, which sees most homes kitted out with entertainment systems and games consoles, reducing the need for young people to seek thrills at funfairs. Combine that with a rise in fuel prices, and the erratic approach to obtaining a licence in each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, and the financial burdens of operating funfairs stack up.
It is the latter that is the subject of a proposed new bill in the Scottish Parliament which is designed to reverse what is seen as a massive injustice and hopefully, will put the future of the industry on a more secure footing.
“The situation we have at the present time is we have 32 local authorities all charging 32 different prices for basically the same piece of paper to say you can open a funfair,” explains Paris. “They also have timescale differences, differences in who can object and for what reasons. It’s got to the stage where it’s unworkable.
“In Edinburgh, your normal person who has two or three rides, you’re talking thousands of pounds for a licence. You can go to other places and it will be £300/£400 to put the same thing on. If the amendment goes through – which we are very hopeful of – it will be a level playing field where it’s one fee for everywhere, and it’s the same timescale and everything else is the same.”
The plight of Scottish showmen has been picked up by several MSPs who are members of the Scottish Showmen’s Guild cross-party group – and in particular, the group’s convener, Richard Lyle, who put forward a member’s bill, the Funfairs Licensing (Scotland) Bill, in an attempt to simplify the rules and bring all fees in line with each other.
I don’t think it’s a dying industry, I think it’s changing
“The bill basically brings a three-month application down to a month, sets a fee of £50, which can then be increased in line with inflation, sets that showmen can nominate two sites and also sets that food vans are under the individual licence,” says Lyle.
He points out that showmen south of the border currently get a better deal than their Scottish counterparts, paying just a minimal amount for a licence and having a shorter, simpler application process.
“I actually posed as a showman and phoned about 40 English councils and basically was told, pay £22.50, apply five days in advance of your funfair, or you can just make a donation to charity.
“Funfairs and showpeople in Scotland have been up against it and as far as I’m concerned, this will open up, encourage and retain funfairs for quite a number of years. It will safeguard their livelihoods.”
Paris is hopeful that if passed, the bill will help to inject new life into the industry, something which he is passionate about, particularly in his new role as president of the Showmen’s Guild, but also on a personal level.
His great grandfather, Felice Parisi, was an Italian immigrant – his name was later anglicised – who moved to Scotland in the late 1870s and “somewhere down the line ended up travelling on the fairgrounds with a fish and chip cart”, according to Paris.
His father married the daughter of William Codona, who was part of the famous funfair family who opened up the now defunct Fun City in Portobello, Edinburgh – Scotland’s first permanent amusement park – and Codona’s Amusement Park in Aberdeen, which exists to this day.
Paris’ dad, also called Philip, died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 52, but he knows his father would have been proud that he continued to work in the fairground business and that he has achieved the highest-ranking position within the Showmen’s Guild.
“I lost my dad when I was 18,” he says. “Of course, since then, I’ve got married and I’ve got my kids and I’ve got a granddaughter and I’ve done a lot of things. Time goes by and you think to yourself, ‘I wonder what my dad would have thought about this’, but I do know that if he was alive today, he would be the proudest man in Scotland. I’m proud to represent the community.”
Paris has been involved with the Showmen’s Guild for a number of years and was president of the Scottish section before being chosen to represent showmen across the UK.
Working with MPs at Westminster and MSPs at Holyrood, the guild protects the interests of its members and works hard to ensure that travelling showmen are not discriminated against through legislation or that their ability to make a living isn’t compromised.
But one thing that the guild hasn’t been able to change, despite its best efforts, is the stigma faced by travelling showpeople, particularly in the age of social media where people can hide behind their computer screens or phones to spread fear, lies and abuse.
“You get all this stuff going round on Facebook and social media, from people saying they don’t want a funfair,” Paris explains. “They say, ‘you won’t be able to walk your dogs because these people are well known for stealing people’s dogs’, or ‘I wouldn’t want to walk my children past those caravans because you don’t know who’s in them’. Who’s in them is us and our own families – we’re not interested in anyone else’s kids. This is the kind of stigma that’s attached. You can imagine how upsetting it is.
“There was a Taggart programme a few years back which caused us quite a bit of upset. The background was that there was a fair in Glasgow where a young girl had been found, murdered, outside the fair, and she had been murdered because she wasn’t from a fairground family and she got involved with a showman’s son, but he was promised to the MacGregor family, like some kind of arranged marriage.
“I can assure you that there’s never been, and never will be, anything like that in our community. I actually spoke to one of the producers at the time and said if you had just taken the trouble to listen to the real story, you’d find it much more interesting than what you make up. We’re just normal people. There’s a lot of discrimination.
“It makes it worse when sometimes you get local politicians siding with local residents against us because they want to be seen to be on their side, that they’re backing them up, and it’s not acceptable. If there’s a big problem with a fair that can’t be sorted, then you won’t be invited back. That’s the fact of the matter. If it’s causing too many problems, you just won’t get your licence.
“I think some of the public, and some politicians as well, think that we drive along the road and think, there’s a nice site, let’s just pull in there and operate a funfair. It’s never been like that and certainly never will be.
“We are not the same group as, for instance, Gypsy Travellers. And I don’t say anything derogatory about Gypsy Travellers and I make a point of that, it’s just that we are travelling showpeople and that’s what we want to be known as.”
Paris estimates there are around 200 families still operating funfairs in Scotland. And with 4,000 members of the Showmen’s Guild across the UK, he is still optimistic about the future of the fairground business.
“I don’t think it’s a dying industry, I think it’s changing,” he says. “There are some people within our business that are on the up and are accumulating a lot of equipment.
“I think there will always be people who want to be in it. There’s people who have two or three sons who are all interested in the business and want to move things forward. There are still some Codonas but at one time, they were at every fair. The name dies out. It makes me feel sad, to be honest.”
So what does the future hold for Paris, whose three children have all decided to take different paths in life, away from the funfair business?
“It’s a lot of hard work,” he replies, pragmatically. “There’s a time when you’ve got to say, enough’s enough. We run an embroidery business alongside the funfair so at some point, that will probably take over.”