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A tough lesson from Sideshow Alley ... to Trump's tacky world

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There’s much to love about country shows: the sounds of children squealing on daredevil rides, the bark of sideshow touts and the scent of groomed animals.

But a long time ago, in the west Victorian city of Hamilton, the show dissolved one year into anguish.

My father drove us in from the farm and proudly handed over a 10-shilling note. 

It giddied me. Ten bob! In 1959, it would grant me entry to a whirl of wonders: Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent, a country and western concert, knife throwers, magicians, the world’s strongest man, freak shows. Rides on whirlygigs and cha-chas, a packet of sweets and a saveloy in a roll. At least.

My father set me free and wandered off to the cattle judging. I was eight years old. They were easygoing times.

Overwhelmed by choice, I was taken in by the creative spruiking of a fellow with oiled hair and a ducktail outside a tent painted with scenes of wild animals, a young woman in a swimsuit and a magician in a top hat.


“Come and see our young beauty sliced in half by a crosscut saw,” he bawled. And for extra impact, he promised “you might even see a fight to the death between a crocodile and a giant python".

It was irresistible.

A fellow in the ticket booth snatched away my 10-shilling note, handed over a ticket and informed me he didn’t have any change right away.

“I’ll bring you your eight bob when you’re inside,” he promised kindly. I’d been charged two shillings - one fifth of my entire stash. Poor choice. It also meant I didn’t have a penny to my name until the nice man brought my change.

There was no python or crocodile. A magician placed his female assistant in a coffin-sized box, cut it in half with a saw and the young woman emerged, intact and smiling, to much acclaim from the other suckers who had handed over money for the spectacle.

There might have been rope-twirling or axe-throwing and maybe a card trick or two, but I have no memory of any of it.

I sat in dread anxiety as the minutes passed. No one appeared with my eight bob.

The show finished. I approached the ticket booth. The man who had taken my money was absent, and another fellow was in his place. He knew nothing about money owed. I hung around, fighting tears.

“Piss off,” said the ticket seller. The spruiker with the ducktail said he’d call the police if I kept on about him owing me money. “Little liar,” he hissed.

The next hours were misery. I looked with hopeless desire at the saveloy and fairy floss stands and tried with no success to peer through gaps between dust and canvas at sideshows featuring yodelling cowboys, sharpshooters and the famous tattooed lady.

Eventually, I took myself off to the grandstand to watch, for free, horses and riders flying over jumps.

My dad found me there. As we headed to the car, he wanted to know how I’d enjoyed the show.

“The best,” I said, making up a string of stories about sideshows and death-defying rides, blood spilled in the boxing tent and an expensive lunch.

How could I admit to my foolishness?

I’d let a fraudster take me down and steal my dad’s gift. The sense that it was my own fault lingered for years, and I never told my father what had happened.

The knowledge that opportunists lurk, surrounding themselves with manufactured excitement and laying traps for the gullible with vastly exaggerated promises was, however, a worthwhile lesson.

Those who swindle with false hope, get-rich-quick scamsters, religious hucksters, the purveyors of medical miracles and political frauds ... they’re all of a type.  The carnival smarty who took down an eight-year-old child was simply a bottom-feeder of the breed.

But what of whole communities and even nations that gaily toss in their futures with opportunists who, in a massively upscaled version of that carnival spruiker from a country town showground, offer the world and deliver ashes?

Consider the masses in Britain who allowed themselves to imagine, on the promises of the likes of the odious Nigel Farage and the fop Boris Johnson, that a simple “exit” from the European Union would deliver Britain wondrous control over its borders and destiny, a better economy and home-county cultural freedom.

The EU, however, is the world’s biggest trader, responsible for 16.5 per cent of global imports and exports. Britain, then an economic basket case, fought to get into this market in the 1960s to give itself a future, happily crushing Australia’s agricultural industries in the process.

You’d have to be as naive as an eight-year-old handing over all his cash to a stranger to imagine Brexit will end well for Britain.

And now, a narrow-eyed megalomaniac named Trump, greasy ducktail and all, is laying the future of his nation - and particularly that of his working-class supporters - on the delusion that a global trade war will deliver them from history.

Will they, when they discover the misfortune Trump is setting up to leave them, ever allow themselves to admit they willingly let an opportunist sucker them into the tackiest sideshow on Earth?

And that, being adults, they should have recognised he was never going to deliver, for he was never more than a showman just passing through?