The Tunbridge World’s Fair is a metaphor for life. Everyone knows that. That’s why it’s the “World’s” fair, not simply “the best country fair in the Western Hemisphere.” No, Tunbridge is bigger than that.
Shakespeare certainly understood this. Not many people know this, but his famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech was inspired by attending the World’s Fair back in the 1560s. This was a few years back, but his words are just as relevant now as ever. (Editor’s note: the Fair actually celebrates its 150th birthday this year.)
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
The Bard got it exactly right! There are seven distinct stages you go through in attending the World’s Fair.
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
They’ve cleaned up the Fair considerably in recent years. A few years ago there was a lot of “mewling and puking” that took place on Saturday night as the greasy turkey legs and onion rings mixed together with way too many beers from the beer hall. Shakespeare, however, was referring to the young families who like to wheel their infants on the midway, because you’re going to see everyone you know, so it’s a great chance to show off the your cute kid.
Favorite food at this age: maple creemee, spread over entire face
Favorite attraction: the animal barns
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
School has started and the Fair is like a last reprieve of the freedom of summer before you settle in for the long haul. Make the most of the last gasp of freedom. Assemble your friends into a pack and buy one of those bargain tickets that let you ride the Tilt-A-Whirl as many times as you’d like. Except, it’s not the Tilt-A-Whirl anymore. It’s the Barf-a-tron, or something like that.
Favorite food: Corn dog, pizza, bloomin’ onion … you’ll eat anything
Favorite attraction: The rides
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
Suddenly things get complicated with the introduction of the opposite sex. Instead of screaming like a lunatic on the rides, you have to find activities to share with someone whose idea of a good time at the Fair is entirely different from yours. Once I was approached by an attractive young lass who showed me a colorful, feathery adornment in her hair. “Your son bought this for me. He’s so-o-o sweet.” (Her feathery adornment was actually a roach clip, but I did not feel a need to tell them that.)
Sweet? The same kid who went the whole summer without changing his underwear? The same kid whose idea of witty humor is to make milk come out his nose? Sweet?
The downside of this phase is that you can blow an entire summer of lawn-mowing money trying to win the plastic kewpie doll made in China all to impress that special someone.
Favorite food: Fried dough is safe. Anything that doesn’t make your breath smell bad.
Favorite attraction: You know, the Ferris Wheel really isn’t so dull, after all.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
(Note: a “pard” is a large feline, smaller than a lion)
The Fair has always been a place where hormones course freely. Now you are old enough to do those manly things that show you to be good prospective breeding stock. You can wear that tank top that shows your tattoos. You can play liar’s poker in the beer hall. You can drive in the demolition derby. You have arrived.
Favorite food: Anything that can be smothered in hot sauce.
Favorite attraction: The hammer and the bell.
And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part.
This is the stage I was at when the young girl told me how sweet my son was. Mostly what you do in this stage is reach for your wallet and dole out your hard-earned cash. “Wise saws,” indeed. You don’t enjoy the rides any more. The games are a rip-off and the prizes not worth the money, and while you still like the junk food, you note that there’s now a booth selling vegetarian wraps.
Favorite food: What the heck, it’s Fair time, I’ll have the Italian sausage, with peppers and onions.
Favorite attraction: The giant pumpkins
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
So, it’s come to this. What’s this about a “shrunk shank”? I’m not sure I like this.
You’re spending less time on the midway, no time on the rides, and you’ve just spent an hour asking questions of the guys at the Civil War encampment. You tell tales of Euclid and Priscilla Farnham. You’ve sampled the switchel and can’t figure out why vinegar-flavored soft drinks have not caught on in this country. You think the Larkin Dancers rock!
Favorite food: The big dill pickles in the museum.
Favorite attraction: The guy making wooden shakes by hand.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Your son, now in his own round belly stage, wheels you around the Fair. The sights, the sounds, the smells are much the same as the first time you came to Tunbridge. You ask if he’ll get you a maple creemee. You smear it all over your face.