Who's Who 14: The Immaculate Carousel (An Introduction)
No two men were more fascinating in the world of model fairground construction than Nigel Fairfax and Jacob T Kilburn. Not that you need me to tell you that. We live in different times now. Fairfax, Kilburn and the whole Tempo Generation are no longer the controversial figures they once were. We have come through far more interesting times since then. Times they held open the small, to scale door open for; waving them all through to a better future.
The bleak realism of 70s model fairgrounds. The dizzying highs of 80s fairground construction, with its synth soundtracks, dry ice and flashing spotlights. The more urban centric flavour of the 90s Brit explosion.
Now, in the 21st century, the world of model fairgrounds has witnessed even greater change. We’ve had the first female winners of a Golden Helter Skelter. The first model fairgrounds of colour. The first transgender dodgem rides and now, as technology catches up with the art form, we’re seeing the start of a VR boom.
Things were very different back in the nineteen fifties. The world was still held under the lingering shadow of two world wars and there was a driven sense of nostalgic conservatism surging through the model fairground scene. The most popular designs offered something comfortable, something familiar. Summer scenes of happy, smiling model couples. Their small, to scale children running between attractions.
Although there was a growing sense of discontent. An underground movement of more political model fairgrounds. They sat uneasily over tiny, sculpted blitz craters. The men and women nursed perfectly painted wounds. The children were pale and thin, cautious of the little clowns. These fairgrounds told uncomfortable truths; truths not everyone wanted to hear.
Nigel Fairfax had always been an outsider. Maybe it was because he’d been raised in a bomb shelter. (The first time I heard him talk about this in interviews, I’d assumed it was just one of his deadpan jokes. But, as we learned with the release of the fantastic Fairfax biography ‘See the small carousel turn’, it was far from an offhand remark.)
Convinced that her darling son would be claimed by some callous, Nazi sneak attack launched after VE Day, Harriet Fairfax would not let her only child stray from the air raid shelter until he was twenty one or married. She took his clothes and food to the bottom of the garden. She did her best to him teach through the metal door and left him with only one toy to amuse himself. A train set. As Fairfax said in his final interview,
“Model trains, they’re just the gateway drug.”
His friend, occasional lover and frequent nemesis, J.T. Kilburn was a very different man. Kilburn was older than Fairfax and had signed up to fight in the war at the brash age of twelve. He’d painted stubble over his young cheeks and kept a small toy pipe clenched between his teeth at all times. It was enough to fool most people.
Whilst serving in Europe, Kilburn grew into a gangly, quick tempered youth. He became fascinated by three things. His holy trinity. Women, opium and model fairgrounds. He would make his early fairgrounds out of whatever he could find. Spent bullet casings, scorched pieces of brickwork, stolen model fairground sets. He’d sell these strange, mutilated early works to his fellow soldiers and spend his takings on prostitutes or drugs.
It couldn’t have been an easy life. He ended up getting one lady of the night pregnant. He married her soon after and, together, they attempted to raise their son.
Sadly, as was famously documented in the fantastic 70s movie ‘A Ferris Wheel for His Tombstone’, Kilburn would end up decapitating little Barnum whilst he and Ava were fooling around high, playing a quick game of Revolutionary France. The terrible tragedy served only to push Kilburn deeper into his spiralling despair, generating some truly terrifying model fairgrounds.
It wasn’t long after his return to England, working as a travelling rat catcher, that Jacob first encountered Fairfax. Nigel had finally escaped his mother’s bomb shelter and was stumbling through the streets, seeking the nearest hobby shop.
The two men struck up a fast friendship. One that would change the world of model fairgrounds forever. Although, it wouldn’t be easy on either of them. Kilburn could only work when high or truly offending people, which led him into the dangerous world of cult celebrity.
By his later years, he’d become a parody of himself. He’d appear wild and drunk on television chat shows or be expected to make a spectacle of himself at model fairground conventions, constructing his ‘beautiful monstrosities’ out of the contents of the nearest recycling bin or fast food kitchen scraps.
“Nigel had the right idea,” he’d famously say during his appearance at Live Aid. “Die young. It limits the potential for mistakes.”
In this book, I want to focus on the close and the deeply troubled relationship between Fairfax and Kilburn. I want to compare their styles and really look at why the world remembers Fairfax as the ‘jazz riffing saint of the model fairgrounds’, whereas Kilburn will always be its far out, nightmare shadow. Talking with teeth clenched, as if he was still biting down on that little toy pipe to fool us all into thinking he was ‘respectable’.
I think a lot can be learnt from their passionate, vivid correspondences, which were usually written on model shop receipts or the backs of discarded, unstudied instructions. Here’s a small sample of a lost letter I found during my research, written on the torn back of a box for model tilt-a-whirl.
Nigel sent it to Jacob not long after his famously autobiographical model ‘On the side of the road’ caught the public’s attention. Much to the irritation of the Avant Garde Kilburn, who was hiding out in Mexico, constructing tiny freak-shows from syringes and dead insects, ready for his legendary masterpiece ‘Naked Burger Van’.
He loathed the simpering way the world began to faun over his friend and made no bones about it. Here’s what Fairfax had to say in reply.
“I heard what you said, friend. Friend-o. You’re no friend, Jake of Hearts. Jake of Clubs. Jake of Spades and Needles. You’re no friend of mine. Friend no more. You’re nothing but The Enemy now. A demon. A grey little demon who sat upon my shoulder, until I cast you off. I don’t need your inhuman warmth no more. Not now that the spotlight has seen me. I leave you to be rounded up and hung from some whipping tree. Buckled from your habits. Parts of your nightmares still glued to your fingertips.
“It’s time you saw. Time you saw, raw, before the gory noose tightens around that lying throat of yours. Time you saw who you betrayed, Jake of Tricks. Jake of Judas. We spoke of futures, but you didn’t listen. Too stoned. Too stoned, turned inward on yourself. Making fickle models from your twisted bones. Straining shapes from your fractured stained glass eyes and imperfect organs.
“It’s time you saw. I’m going to make a model fairground that sets this world alight. I will show them wonders, at the right scale. I will blow their minds. I will tell them all about their brood, clear and empty headed, and they will understand. They’ll see the haunted houses. The rifle ranges. The slow dance of old Lady Ferris wheel. They’ll hear the whispers that creep away from my immaculate carousel and then they, Jake you Snake of Treachery, will understand themselves.”