Hall of Mirrors, 1964 by John Burnside

One of the stupidest things I have done (sorry Mum), which was brilliant, was walking through Coventry’s fairground at night, about one hour after dropping the freshly picked ‘magic’ mushrooms from the ‘Common’ land next to it. For those of you who have partaken in both activities separately, I hope you can imagine the heightened synesthetic experience that engulfed me.


Image by Sam Leighton*

I never liked the fair (maybe that’s why I did the mushies); I was too scared to go on the major rides, a poor shot with my gammy eye for the different shies, and the music was invariably shit. The main thing I found interesting were the people who worked the stalls and rides. This was before I had any knowledge of their history and what now has become a somewhat jaundiced and discriminatory view of their ‘ways’ (sic).  They were outsiders that owned this island of fun which lit the sky for a week and echoed across the city; one lad stood out, covered in Man United patches, with straggle grease hair, he spun the waltzers with the girls in, or deftly stepped between the dodgems cars to keep the traffic flowing. All of course in the days when health and safety were the antithesis of the fun and therefore ignored.

JOhnBurnsideFairgrounds have been part of the ‘bread and circuses’ of poor and working class amusement since medieval times. I think for everyone they evoke personal memories of their childhood and a shifting sense of history. This is certainly the case in John Burnside’s darkly evocative poem Hall of Mirrors, 1964, where “the perfumes that passed for summer/in towns like ours/touched, now, with the smell of candy floss/and diesel.” But this is not ‘a fairground so much’ and the colour that one associates with a fair is outshone by his mother who is wearing,her rose-print/sundress, antique-green/and crimson in the off-white /fabric, some new flora growing wild /in infinite reflection.” For those who have read John’s brilliant memoirs, it is often his father’s presence that is the contrast, and here in this early memory, his appearance is borne in the image of the son, or at least how the son feels his mother sees him there, “a squat /intruder in the garden she had made, /blearfaced and discontent, more beast than boy, /more fiend than beast.” But the problem is for the boy and his burgeoning self-awareness and fear of what he may become – a burden on his mother; “like my father, lost/and hungry, and another mouth to feed/that never quit its ravening.”  As John has said of his mother in the poem, “In one way, she was my real mirror, she let me see myself as someone who could have a different kind of life, but then she also added to that her own hopes and fears for me, which is an old story, I guess, but no less poignant for that.”

What memories do you have of the fair visiting your town or village; good, bad, happy, sad? No need to answer whether they were hindered or enhanced by the ingestion of any recreational stimulants.

John Burnside was born in Dunfermline, Fife on 19 March 1955, and grew up in Corby, Northamptonshire where his father moved for work. His family was Catholic. He studied English and European Languages at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, and worked for many years as a computer analyst and software engineer. He became a freelance writer in 1996, the same year he returned to live in Fife. A former writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, he now teaches at the University of St Andrews. He is a novelist, memoirist, and poet of many collections, where he has won the Forward and TS Eliot prizes.

Hall of Mirrors, 1964

Quam angusta innocentia est,
ad legem bonum esse.


It wasn’t a fairground so much;
just an acre of clay on old man Potter’s land
where someone had set up shop
to amuse the locals,

mayweed and trampled grass beneath our feet,
the perfumes that passed for summer
in towns like ours
touched, now, with the smell of candy floss

and diesel, and the early evening dusk
made eerie by those strings of famille-verte
and powdered-citrus light-bulbs round the stalls
where goldfish in their hundreds probed the walls

of fishtanks for the missing scent
of river.
That day, my mother wore her rose-print
sundress, antique-green

and crimson in the off-white
fabric, some new flora growing wild
in infinite reflection, while I turned
and turned, and couldn’t find myself until

she picked me out: a squat
intruder in the garden she had made,
blearfaced and discontent, more beast than boy,
more fiend than beast.

That wasn’t me, of course; I knew as much;
and yet I knew the creature I had seen
and, when I turned again and saw him
gazing back at me, ad infinitum,

I knew him better: baby-faced
pariah; little
criminal, with nothing to confess
but narrow innocence

and bad intentions.
The backrooms of the heart are Babylon
incarnate, miles of verdigris and tallow and the cries
of hunting birds, unhooded for a kill

that never comes.
I saw that, when I saw this otherself
suspended in its caul of tortured glass,
and while I tried pretending not to see, my mind

a held breath in a house I’d got by heart
from being good according to a law
I couldn’t comprehend, I saw
– and I believed my mother saw –

if only for a moment, what I was
beyond the child she loved, the male
homunculus she’d hoped I’d never find
to make me like my father, lost

and hungry, and another mouth to feed
that never quit its ravening.
A moment passed;
I was convinced she’d seen,

but when I turned to look, her face was all
reflection, printed roses and a blear
of Eden from that distance in the glass,
where anything can blossom, Judas tree and tree

of knowledge, serpents gnawing at the roots, the life
perpetual, that’s never ours alone,
including us, till everything
is choir.


Reproduced by kind permission of the author. Hall of Mirrors, 1964 is from his collection “All One Breath”, published by Jonathan Cape, 2014.

*Sam Leighton’s images can be viewed here


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