The freak show and the circus

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In Copenhagen I visited two very different sorts of gardens.

1. The botanic gardens.

There is nothing girly about appreciating flowers. This idea is just a symptom of an era where the world around us is so safe and tedious that we have to look inside ourselves for insecurity. Take the rose garden, for example: a place where for centuries adventurers, soldiers, statesmen and scientists have found their equilibrium. Its pointlessness is its point. Beauty for its own sake. When I am old, along with lying to children, eating a lot of liquorice and wearing glasses of extreme size (either very large or very small, I haven’t yet decided), I will grow roses.

My favourite is an antique rose at the top of our garden back home. It is called a Madame Isaac Pereire, and is a huge, cabbage-like, pinky-purple bloom that is reputed to be one of the most fragrant in the world. It has a strong, complicated smell, more like old-fashioned perfume than that of a normal rose. If I visit home when it’s in bloom, my mum often picks one and puts it in a glass in the kitchen, and you can smell it the moment you enter the room. When the ethical Puritanism that is already beginning to encroach upon the pages of the Guardian and the bookshelves of Borders takes a more secure hold on our generation, no-one will take the trouble to grow anything so useless, instead planting carrots and chickens and things like the TV chefs tell us, and it will be a pity.

I digress, as ever. The Copenhagen botanic gardens have a vast collection of useless plants, but the real big hitters are to be found in the greenhouses at the top of the grounds. They centre around a huge glass palm house, with a high, domed roof that barely manages to contain the towering, wide-leafed giants of distant continents. Wrought iron spiral staircases lead up to a walkway round the inside of the dome, and sometimes you have to squeeze yourself against the misty glass to get by where some plant has stretched out its damp tendrils, spilling twisting branches and tiny purple flowers over the railings. On the ground floor I picked my way through curled-up fallen leaves like the gigantic, plump larvae of some colossal insect, past a name plate for a Mexican vine called ‘Monstera Deliciosa’. The air is thick, and there is a faint smell of mildew and sweat. I saw a panama hat plant, something that looked suspiciously like tobacco, and ferns with leaves so wide that a cat could hide under one.

Venturing out of the main chamber, one tall side greenhouse is full of flowers and fruit trees. The smell is perfumed and foreign, heavy with jasmine and something more acidly sweet that I couldn’t place. Oh, and the unmistakeable odour of fishtank. One plant has leaves with neat lines of raised lumps down their centres, like the ritual scars of tribes in the jungle. It is a sort of botanical freak show, a bit like those ‘spectaculars’ of Victorian England where some rake would come back bankrupt from his travels, put on a pith helmet and charge the curious public to stare at a couple of his foreign concubines in provocative clothing and some tat he’d picked up at a market in Istanbul. In fact, with its twirling white-painted ironwork and shining glass, there is a sense of old-time Victoriana about the whole place. Most of the plants have at least one and often several skull and crossbones markings on their name tags.

2. The Tivoli gardens.

Originally a circus I think, the Tivoli pleasure gardens have lots of flowers and lights, but that is not the point of them. Tivoli is really just a massive fairground, with dodgems, waltzers, roller-coasters, log flumes, pirate ships, helter skelters, stalls, spritzers and balloons. It is however rather unfamiliar if you’re used to our English theme parks. Run by well-mannered, often attractive Danes, the rides appear moderately safe and many of the punters are wearing sleeves. You can even win at the stalls – I saw someone do it, then I did it myself. At penny fall, as it happens. I won 40p then rashly gambled it away again. You can get food that isn’t a burger or a hot dog. Not that there is anything wrong with burgers and hot dogs, of course, but I seem to have eaten rather a lot of both lately. When you buy sweets, they come nicely packaged, not in freezer bags. The balloon vans and fire safety vehicles are done up like ornate vintage cars. It all seems like some sort of strange fairytale, as if from the Pen of Hans Christian Anderson himself.

Fortunately there are things to reassure you that this and the Leeds Valentine’s Fair are still distant cousins. A comfortable number of forearm tattoos, for example (Vikings are Vikings, after all). Also, even if they are winnable, many of the prizes are quite crap. I was going to have a go at one of the shooting games until the guy in front of me shot pretty well and won a tennis ball. A number of people are also drunk, and as at fairs across the world, there is always in the background the sound of desolate wailing as an escaped helium balloon temporarily breaks a little heart.

It’s an odd, rather sweet mix of travelling fairground and long-standing city fixture. Old couples stroll arm-in-arm by the lakeside; teenagers who have spent a very long time applying clothing and cosmetic products to make themselves look like they have spent the afternoon in a washing machine mill around in large, aimless groups; girls in their twenties with poker-straight hair and too much makeup pretend to ignore blokes with white shirts strutting around them like John Travolta, while at foot level lecherous pigeons do the same; children scream and career round your kneecaps, bombed off their faces on the e-numbers that lace pretty much everything you can buy; city boys with scarves over suits buy comically-sized bottles of champagne, and slightly older professional people with serious faces sit with plastic glasses of beer under the fairy lights.

It’s actually a rather lovely evening out, in a twee sort of way, with ‘Rock Fridays’ (I saw a band called Carpark North, who are apparently quite famous, and all wore shiny bomber jackets) and lots of jazz and classical concerts too. If there was one tiny criticism I would make it is that the place could do with at least one bacon sarnie wagon, but I am aware that this is an unreasonable demand.

Oh, and I kept an eye out for balloon sellers in headphones. I know James Bond threw him out of a plane in the 80s and that anyway the fairground was in Vienna, but you can’t be too careful.

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