White Noise
Made in White City

An Evening at Shepherd's Bush Funfair

Irvin's funfair at Shepherd's Bush Green is back, and the noise and bright lights are prompting both misgivings and delight. As we explore play this month, Caroline O'Donoghue spent an evening amidst the candyfloss.

WORDS – Caroline O'Donoghue
PHOTOS – Gavin Day

“I feel bad and I feel good at the same time,” says Illias, aged nine. His eyes are glowing as he looks up at the ride he just departed. It's the Tornado, one of Irvin Leisure’s most popular – and most terrifying – rides. An upside-down claw swings its captors high into the air, giving a dozen screaming customers a blurred, technicolour view of the funfair as they’re suspended high above Shepherd’s Bush Green.

“It feels like you’re in space, and there’s no oxygen up there,” Illias elaborates, his hands on either side of his face. “I nearly dropped off!”

“Do you want to go again?” I ask, waving my stack of ONE FREE RIDE tickets at him. Illias looks at his mum, Asma, an aspiring beauty blogger from Somalia. She nods, a sheaf of gold eye shadow covering her lids. “Yes,” he grabs one of my tickets and runs off to re-join the queue for the Tornado.

Shepherd's Bush Funfair white city

His mother and I watch him being strapped in. She tells me that Illias is the oldest of five: three are here today, and one baby at home is being watched by her sisters. Her passion for beauty is literally written all over her face. Highlighter, contouring, eyelashes, lipstick: a single mother of five achieving this level of pageantry on a Tuesday evening feels like a miracle. But then again, this is the funfair, a place where children get thrown into the air for £2.50 a go. Why not have miracles?

As Illias is carried once again into the sky, I wonder whether he has seen the city from this vantage point before. He and his family live too far west for The Shard, and I doubt the £20-a-head entry fee is feasible for a family of six. 

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Some fuss has been made over the Irvin funfair’s arrival in Shepherd’s Bush Green. The Shepherd’s Bush Blog insists that the fair's presence for a month is a step too far, and has questioned before if it's worth the disruption: “What with a daily distribution of litter, a generous helping of winos, and now ash dieback killing the trees, the last thing Shepherd's Bush Green needs is huge lorries to smash up the pathways and the turf even more.”

While it's undeniable that lorries, 50-ft high rides, and snack stands are bound to leave a mark on the green, it feels unfair to class the fair itself as merely another addition to the long list of things compromising Shepherd’s Bush. Litter, winos, dieback... surely a fair is a distraction from these things, rather than an addition?

Like all play spaces, funfairs tend to be viewed with either suspicion or doubt as to why they're necessary in the first place. Playgrounds, as Darran Anderson points out, can fall victim to the "demands of the traffic lobby, health and safety bureaucracy coupled with an increase in litigation, and the rise in land value which redefines the city as a machine for exacting profit."

I speak to Nigeal, who is visiting the funfair with his girlfriend Anita and her three children. It is not going to plan. Anita’s youngest daughter is fighting like a tiger, insistent that Nigeal not be in a photo. “He’s not my dad!” she insists, tugging my hand, as though she was sent by management to straighten out a misunderstanding. “He’s not family!”

Nigeal shrugs, embarrassed, but trying. That seems to be the common thread between everyone I talk to today: everyone is trying. To hold it together, to get along, to have a night of pure silliness. He and Anita tell me about the food project they’ve set up together, Caribbean Street Food, which teaches at-risk teenagers in the area how to cook, cater and thrive in the food business.

“There’s never been much around here for families,” says Nigeal. “Before Westfield, we used to go to the park with other families. Now everyone goes to the food court.” And while Nigeal sees this as a positive – people, he says, have become far more adventurous with food – it's obvious from looking around that the fair is unleashing a kind of behaviour that isn’t encouraged in a shopping centre.

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I talk to Yvonne, who I meet as she’s stumbling off the Waltzer, giggling with her two kids, Amariah and Isaac. She's with her kids, yes, but she's also 'kidulting' in the purest sense of the word: reclaiming her childhood through her own children.

“I haven’t been on that since the eighties,” she says. “I didn’t know it was still terrifying.” 

Amariah and Isaac are natural models: they don’t 'say cheese' and gurn like most kids. At eight and nine, they seem to have an intrinsic sense of what a photo should look like. Yvonne is from White City, but has only moved back to the area recently: her marriage having just split up, she’s giving Amariah and Isaac a slice of the childhood she had. One with laughing, and Waltzers, and looking your best at the fair. 

Shepherd's Bush Funfair white city

Shepherd's Bush Funfair white city

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