It was dark, eerily so, in the Docklands in London. Save for a woman sweeping up ahead, we felt like the only souls wandering the streets at this hour. As we approached her, she stopped sweeping and turned towards us. She looked older than I imagined her, her clothing tattered. A hard life. As we drew nearer, a sinister smile came across her sooty, lined face. She was missing a number of teeth.
“‘Allo Guvnah!” she said as she doffed an imaginary top hat toward my companion. And then her eyes settled on me. She looked at me in my finery and inhaled sharply as we passed by. “Ooooooooh! ‘Allo dutchess! Lookin’ so luvleee…”
We took a quick left, leaving the seedy docklands of London behind us, and emerging into brightly lit Pickwick’s Place, a town square replete with stalls selling roast beef, bangers and beers. My pocket buzzed. It was my friend, P. She had texted to say she was enjoying the dancing at Fezziwig’s Christmas Party. We found her in a sea of well-dressed people waltzing along the dance floor under the watchful gaze of Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort.
$30 had gained us entry to this magical place, the annual Dickens Fair, and it was worth every shilling.
The Dickens Fair: a whole other world
The Dickens Fair was held in the basement of the Cow Palace in suburban San Francisco, with its low wooden ceilings and and dark interiors. Entry to this world was via a large black velvet curtain. The curtain acted as a time machine, and we emerged into the magical world of 1860s London.
It was a feast for the eyes with perfectly costumed ladies and accompanying gentlemen, red coats, little boys in tweed caps and little girls with perfect ringlets. Even the smell of the place was intoxicating, with wisps of pine needles, shaved wood flooring, cinnamon almonds and old books. It even sounded more perfect than I expected with live chamber orchestras playing music and surprisingly authentic-sounding English accents.
Passing along the Grand Concourse, there were shopkeepers selling their wares – everything from books, to hats, to instruments, and Christmas decorations. There were fortune tellers ready to read your palm or your cards, artists to sketch your likeness, and German inventors flogging their wares (with some side commentary about not liking the English idea of an empire). You could splurge on a new bonnet, an antique pendant, enticing perfume, and even a pewter jug for the man of the manor.
It was marvelous to wander in and out of these shops, where the shopkeepers were surprisingly welcoming of people handling their goods and were happy to engage in some friendly banter. In the windows of the Dark Garden (offering “the finest Victorian corsetry and underpinnings”), live mannequins modeled the ‘latest’ in women’s undergarments, much to the delight of passing (costumed) lads.
The entertainment was not confined to the numerous stages. It was all around, and it was done well. From long lost friends reuniting in Nickelby Road, to a band of little pickpockets under the watchful gaze of Fagin, to well dressed women debating whether to enjoy a pot of tea with scones and jam outside the Tea Shoppe. Over 700 costumed extras were part of the event, but the joy was in not knowing who were the actors and who were just spectators who dressed up for the event. It seemed as though everyone was part of the action.
We stopped by Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse for the ‘adult’ show that included some witty beer-swilling ditties, can-can dancers and plenty of double entendres with accompanying gestures. Children’s entertainment was located in the diagonally opposite end of the fair, at the Pennygaff Theatre, the Carousel and the Punch & Judy Theatre. In Tinsley Green, there were stalls where kids could craft fairy houses and where pint-sized contestants had a chance to ‘Flip the (chimney) Sweep’ into the chimney to win prizes.
You could spend hours (even days!), in this place and still not see everything on offer. Aside from the obligatory London pubs with their fine ales and hot spiced mead, there were plenty of ‘local’ gastronomic options such as roast beef, turkey, hot meat pies and fish’n’chips. There were stalls selling scones, puddings, roasted chestnuts, strawberry shortcakes, and even one selling warm cookies & cold milk. Bless!
Melting my cold, cynical heart
I tried to put my finger on what exactly was so marvelous about the Dickens Fair, what captured my imagination and made my face sore from grinning from ear to ear. It felt like a theme park for the young and old, but one that was more real (even accounting for some of the American attempts at the ‘English’ English) and even better than those that exist year round. The magic was that this one was exclusive to a particular time of year, inclusive of all (young, old, dressed up, non-dressed up, those with mobility issues etc) and most of all, it was fleeting.
I’m not a person who really embraces holidays and all that subscribing to such events entails: I’m pretty much a scrooge. I don’t decorate, I don’t really purchase or give many gifts, and I don’t really participate. But living in this world of unbridled enthusiasm for Christmas at the Dickens Fair — even for just a handful of hours — was enough to (start to) melt my cynical heart. I started to take joy in listening to Christmas carols and in learning holiday tunes on my cello, I did my shopping relatively early, and I actually looked forward to celebrating the event with my American family and friends.
But the best part of the Dickens Fair was the sense of belonging. I’d felt as though I’d found my people, my tribe. For a few weekends a year, these people — my people — donned the attire of yesteryear and let their imaginations run wild. I wanted so desperately to be a part of that. And I’ve already started planning my attire for next year’s event.