Philip Allingham was born into respectability. His father was a writer, his mother was a writer, his older sister Margery went on to become one of Britain's most popular crime novelists. Young Philip, sadly, distinguished himself at very little - unless you count flunking his Oxford entrance exam in heroic fashion as an achievement. What Philip did possess, though, was an uncanny ability to "read" people, and one day in 1927, tired of failing in a succession of boring, dead-end jobs his family connections had found for him, he decided to put that talent to use.
"Cheapjack" recounts Allingham's efforts to earn a living as a palmist and fortune-teller, initially in the pubs of London and then as an itinerant showman at fairs and markets the length of the land. It's a tale of rogues and charlatans, gypsies and fairground folk, tick-off merchants, pitchers and waver-workers. Allingham recalls his adventures among a cast of memorable characters - Three Fingered Billy, a hard-drinking Geordie, the Little Major, a walking encyclopaedia of every fairground trick in the book, and the appalling Alfie Holmsworth, theatrical "agent" to the gullible and deluded.
More than that, "Cheapjack" is a fascinating slice of social history. Studded with rich fairground slang, it evokes a pre-war era when every community had its thriving market, entire towns shut down and went on holiday during their "Wakes Weeks", and working people took their enjoyment collectively at the fairs and festivals that marked the passage of the seasons. It's a world that's all but disappeared now, but one that lives on in Philip Allingham's poignant memoir, which is often touching, occasionally hilarious, and never less than thoroughly absorbing.