[Hey – I’ll get back to hyperventilating about Antarctica shortly, I promise, but here’s a short digression I wanted to write up while I’m catching my breath.]
Okay everyone, raise your hand if you’re a Ren Faire junkie. It’s okay – you’re probably sitting alone at your breakfast table while reading this, at Starbucks or at your desk at work. Or maybe on your iPhone, waiting for the train. No one’s going to know what’s up – they’ll just see you sheepishly raise your hand for no reason and think you’re a little weird. Which you are, so it’s fine. But hey, so am I.
There, I’ve said it – I’m a Ren Faire junkie. I look forward to late summer every year, when I can dig to the back of my closet for the poofy shirt, jerkin, breeches, floppy hat and tall leather boots. And I’ll drag Devon and the kids along for a day of tromping around in the dust eating questionably-prepared meat pies, turkey drumsticks and overpriced beverages, sitting on straw bales to watch an afternoon of over-the-top slapstick and swordfights. There’ll be the artisans with row after row of gorgeous and compelling Stuff I Don’t Need (but will probably buy anyway – “as a gift for someone”) and lots of incidental small talk with strangers, all sporting fake English accents even worse than mine. And of course, the obligatory jousting tournament, done up like a World Wrestling Federation match with chain mail and swords. Why on earth do I crave this sort of thing? God knows. But I do. And now that I’m out of the closet on this, I’ve got to tell you about my latest fix: the Dickens Fair.
Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Some marketing genius has figured out how to give us yet another fix of our collective addiction, has figured out how to Take My Money (please!) for another opportunity to dress up in ill-fitting clothes, eat bad food and buy the same useless junk – and we can all even use the same (or close enough) stupid fake English accent. Yes, it’s the Dickens Fair – a celebration of Victorian London put on each weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s held indoors at the Cow Palace (for those of you not from the Bay Area, yes, that’s what the place is really called), an enormous pavillion about 10 miles south of San Francisco used for rodeos and basketball games.
As I said, it’s just like the Ren Faire, except you’ve got stovepipe hats and hoop skirts. Theater troupe urchins run through the crowd and are nabbed by their compatriot shopkeepers for impromptu on-the-street drama, and the dance halls are filled with all sorts of music and demonstrations. There are wandering carollers and buskers, sea chanteys and occasional processions of royalty. And I’ll dare say the food’s a lot better.
But I’ve got to say that my favorite part of the Dickens Fair – by far – is the Adventurers Club. It’s a room set not far from the center of the venue done up like a proper Victorian salon. All are welcome to come and go, to converse with and listen to lectures, readings and demonstrations by luminaries of the time: Rudyard Kipling and an unnervingly convincing Edgar Alan Poe reading from “their latest works”. Isambard Brunel might buttonhole you to tell you about plans for his latest steamship, and you might get to try out Charles Wheatstone’s latest invention: the practical electrical telegraph and discuss how it will open an information age and create a world of “electrical commerce”. This last visit I ended up chatting at length with Colonel Cody, visiting from the States for a command performance for Queen Victoria herself. Behind us, William Holman Hunt or one of the Rossettis was leading a roomful of kids through a pre-Raphaelite drawing session.
It’s all silly fun, but it is fun. And educational. Maybe what I love about it. As Devon is fond of saying, any sufficiently advanced learning is indistinguishable from play, and the Dickens Fair is pretty playful. Weird, but playful.