JOHN CULINE recalls his childhood. Born in a caravan, left school at the age of 11, taught by his sisters to read and write, sent to Hull – and back? – to help their Yvonne on the bingo stall.

“After that I was on the roller coaster,” he says. A proper interviewer would have asked if the roller coaster were physical or figurative or both.

Swings and roundabouts, anyway.

The Culines are travelling showmen, the family name long familiar at fairgrounds throughout the North-East and beyond and with a tradition, he supposes, going back 500 years to the mummers.

“We’re not kings or queens,” said the Victorian playbills. “We’re the marvellous Culines.”

Now 71, John’s been an official of the Showmen’s Guild – what might be supposed their trade union – for 42 years, steps down next month after a three-year term as national president, was a Labour councillor for 18 years and town mayor in 2004-05 and the following year was made MBE for services to showmen and to the community.

In November he spent a fortnight criss-crossing the country, attending the annual meetings of the Guild’s ten sections.

On Saturday he launches From Fanfare to Funfair, a “dramatised” account, travellers’ tales, of the family history from 1822-1950 – “a narrative that reads like a Hollywood movie script,” says the flyer.

Family members range from Madame Culine, who in 1853 had “danced a hornpipe in real fetters” on the corde elastique, to Alice Culine, who crossed Bridlington harbour on a tightrope and to Cliff, his father, who appeared with Buffalo Bill on Durham Sands.

Still his family work the fairgrounds. Still he dreams of spring when, rather like a character from The Wind in the Willows, his thoughts turn to the open road.

“When the nights get lighter and the breeze starts to freshen, that’s when I get itchy,” he says. The Culines don’t wake up and smell the coffee, they wake up and smell the diesel. The shows, as they say, must go on.

THE natal caravan was at Jubilee Park in Spennymoor, the town where he and his wife Davina – they met at the Town Moor Hoppings in Newcastle – have long lived in a spacious static caravan at the end of an industrial estate.

Their five daughters and 14 grandchildren love it, too. “I couldn’t live in a house, not for a million pounds,” says Davina.

Spennymoor folk, however, are reckoned the only ones to pronounce the family name Cu-line. The preferred version is Cu-lean (thus justifying today’s headline.)

Thoughts of a book arose 30 years ago when John researched his Uncle William, said to have been missing in action on a French battlefield during World War I while with the 18th Durham Light Infantry. John discovered that he’d been killed in April 1918, aged 21, that his name is on the cenotaph in Fatfield, Washington, and that his medals had been sent to his mother.

“I just think that Granny Culine wouldn’t accept he was dead. She probably put the medals in the bin. Every night she left the light on because she expected him to come home.”

The book was completed eight years ago and will be published by the World’s Fair, the showmen’s trade magazine. “They’ve spent all that time checking the facts, I think even they couldn’t believe some of it,” says John.

“It starts in 1822 because that’s how far back I have the evidence. When Madame Culine was on the corde elastique I have the playbill, when Alice walked across the harbour I have the cutting from the Bridlington Free Press.

“I wanted to do the story, to bring these wonderful people back to life. After all this time I’m looking forward to reading it myself. I can’t remember what I wrote.”

Research has also revealed that Chris Edwards, the man who recently sold Poundworld for £60m, is also part of the extended family. “He used to be a distant relation, now he’s my full cousin,” says John.

His presidency, he supposes, coincided with the most difficult time in the Showmen’s Guild’s 130-year history when the Competition and Markets Authority challenged the way that the Guild went about its business.

Broadly, the Guild regulates the fairground industry, addresses health and safety issues and disciplines those who step out of line. “I can be fined up to £15,000 if one of my family is out of order and often it’s more than one at a time,” says John. Effectively, the authority accused them of running a closed shop.

“The roughest ride of my life,” says John appropriately, and no less appropriate that he never seemed to stop travelling.

“It was horrendous,” says Davina. “John was up and down to London for meetings at the drop of a hat. It really took it out of him.”

It ended happily. “They said our rules needed to be more transparent and they helped us rewrite them. We all benefited,” says John. “The Showmen’s Guild has never been in better shape.”

A RECURRING theme, however, is the image of the fairground operators – not least the erroneously perceived association with the television series Big Fat Gipsy Wedding.

“I greatly respect the English Romanies, but not some of the others,” says John. “Showmen are a cultural minority, gipsies are ethnic.”

Since the new book takes the Culine story only as far as 1950, when his sister was born in Hartlepool, might it be assumed that an autobiography will follow? Might the great traveller even put his feet up?

Dad ponders, daughter Stephanie interjects. “We’ve bought lots of pots of paint, lots of nuts and bolts, all ready for when he stands down. Dad will always want to work.”

John’s a mite disingenuous. “I think of my life as being very boring,” he says, and then reconsiders. “Maybe I haven’t done badly for someone who left school at 11.”

Wherever it takes them, they’ll always come back to Spennymoor. “We love the town, never want to leave it, but I’m sure there’ll be opportunities to keep involved,” he says.

Might Mrs Culine be entitled to a little treat, a cruise perhaps, when finally the whirligig slows? They had one on the Queen Elizabeth for his 70th birthday, he says.

“Honestly, we were the youngest ones on board. The entertainment was knitting and crochet classes or the sciatica and pain relief clinic. Even the disco had two violinists.”

And the fairground? “We’ll just have to wait and see,” says the admirable Mr Culine. What goes around comes around, no doubt.

John Culine will be signing copies of his book at Spennymoor library between 9.30am-12.30pm on Saturday, December 8. From Fanfare to Funfare is also available from Waterstone’s and other leading bookshops, via Amazon or from – price £14.50 plus £2 p&p.