Cylene the Goth has a new(ish) friend who works at Thorpe Park. Through her she’s discovered a sudden, overwhelming and apparently life-altering interest in theme parks. They’ve been to Alton Towers together (where Cylene spent the first day screaming and begging for it to stop) and Portaventura in Spain. ‘We should do something different’, Cylene said to me, different, that is, from our usual fare of coffee, complaining and charity shops, ‘we should go to Thorpe Park’. I have reached middle age never having been to a theme park, not a real one; never having been on a rollercoaster. The offer of cut-price tickets actually made it sound realistic. ‘Because I’m mad I can get disabled entry, too’, she pointed out, ‘so we can avoid the queues for the rides. You’d count as my carer. There are some advantages to being mentally ill.’ So together with the ‘nutcase pass’ it all amounted to quite a reasonable package. If I was ever going to do this, I could hardly do it under such advantageous conditions. OK, I said, much to Cylene’s surprise, and we went last Friday, as I was still on holiday.
The first ride took place entirely inside, in the dark punctuated by coloured flashes of light. It was unspeakably terrifying and I wasn’t sure I could actually face any more. ‘That was the easiest ride in the park about from the tiny children’s ones,’ Cylene pointed out. ‘Look, I’ll ease you into it gradually.’ By the end of a day of tension and terror I was able, by a colossal effort of will, to keep my eyes open all the way through the final ride, something I hadn’t managed before: it was, nevertheless, absolutely horrible, and the catharsis and exhilaration Cylene talked about I felt not a moment of. ‘Funny, I find I’m less frightened if I look’, she said, ‘it helps to see what’s happening.’
But the point of this post is not my own reactions, but my friend’s strange epiphany. Cylene is a newcomer to this world, too. Back in Albuquerque as a child her parents promised to take her to a theme park, then drove straight past it and went somewhere else. It was by no means the most horrible thing they did to her, but it was an act of wanton betrayal she has nursed through the intervening quarter-century. Now I see this usually misanthropic soul whose imaginary landscape of comfort is a post-nuclear-apocalyptic ruin – happy. At one with the world. ‘That’s park life’, she explains. She has thrown herself imaginatively into the park experience, and can reel off statistics on ride usage and the characteristics and approaches of the different manufacturers who actually make the things; but that’s the kind of impressive commitment she customarily applies, to everything from perfume to the history of handbags to acrylic paint for her art work. More strikingly, the park is now for her something of a spiritual space. ‘I’m interested in the presentation, the engineering, the whole way it works. No other species has done anything like this. It’s a place that simply exists to make people happy, harmlessly. Here I don’t even have a problem with children being around because they’re all focusing on something else.’ I hadn't really thought of any of this: it's a set of remarkably benign insights. She’s decided she would quite like to work in ride maintenance, and it might be very good if that could happen.