July 27th, 2007

Penny In The Slot

When I was a kid they had these wonderful automata in the seaside amusement arcades.   They were big, glass-fronted boxes with miniature tableaux inside- representing  churchyards, haunted houses, Fotheringay castle or whatever- and you'd put your penny in the slot (an old penny about the size of a cartwheel) and the thing would spring to life- sheeted ghosts would emerge from graves, doors would fly open to reveal hideous apparitions, or the executioner's blade would fall and Mary Queen of Scots' head would flip off- on a curved steel rod painted red to represent the spurting blood.  Oh,  they were wonderful!

I had to screw up my courage to view them. Ghosts, skeletons, executions- this was seriously scary stuff.

I guess they dated from around the beginning of the last century- maybe they were even older. Come to think of it, they were almost certainly older than the peepshows (representing the next stage in technology) with their 20 seconds of Chaplin offcuts or their parade (now that was a formative experience) of Edwardian ladies with their tops off.  All of them could have done with a lick of paint, but the drabness, the dustiness, the creakiness was part of the experience.   Not only were they scary, they were venerably scary- like a story by Sheridan Le Fanu or M.R. James. And then they all disappeared- in a single season- to be replaced by those horrible, glitzy, greedy  fruit machines. I missed them- and still miss them- terribly. 

I expect most of them got trashed. Gambling machines turn up in auctions, but the penny-in-a slot automata almost never. It's as if they'd been wiped from the record.