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The Scrivener: Spangles And Sawdust - Part Two

Brian Barratt, whose enthusiasm for circuses is evident in every sentence, introduces us to some famous Big Top characters, including Lord George Sanger, well know for his Genuine White Elephant, a pachyderm which harboured a huge secret.

For more fun with words visit Brian’s Web site www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

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A famous name in the world of spangles and sawdust was Lord George Sanger, one of the traditional circus owners. He became well known for his Genuine White Elephant which later turned out to be freshly painted each day with white paint.
Sir Robert Fossett's circus, another great name, was a disappointment to me in the late 1940's or early 50's. It advertised something like ‘thirty horses in the ring at one time’ and I counted a mere dozen or so. I had not yet become accustomed to the lavish claims made by showmen, and felt so annoyed that I considered writing to the owners and complaining.

The title ‘Sir’, like Sanger's ‘Lord’, was assumed for sheer effect in true circus tradition, too.

During the 1960’s, on holiday from Zambia, I was privileged to see Chipperfield’s circus at Nottingham. In its day, it was one of the really big shows. I believe the Chipperfields are still active in animal work and welfare in Britain, although there has been some controversy in recent years.

I saw Fossett’s again during a visit to England in 1987. It was, I think, one of the few old tenting circuses still on the road. One of the clowns was an elderly chap who remained seated throughout his acts. His shaking hands indicated Parkinson’s Disease. Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina. Le gente paga e rider vuole quà.*

Back in my childhood days, Ringlands featured Khayam the Great. My fascination at an early age with magic and mystery gave rise to high expectations of the claim that he would be Buried Alive For Ten Minutes. He was lightly wrapped in a ‘shroud’, and placed in a ‘coffin’ of more than ample proportions. A few spadefuls of soil were thrown over him, the box sealed, and we held our breath.

I didn’t hold mine for long... he emerged a few minutes later, and I realised that the whole thing was a fake. But it was fun. At the same show, the music was supplied by someone playing elderly gramophone records in the corner by the artistes' entrance. One record was so scratched that he took if off the turntable and smashed on the ground in fury.

On 16 June 1950, I went to Winship and Sons circus. I noted in my diary that it was a one-pole tent — this would have been a critical comment, as I expected a decent circus tent to have two king poles. I also noted that a sixteen-year-old boy took part in the trapeze act, did a tightrope act, and was also a clown.

Early teenage years brought the realisation that the many people in spangled costumes were the same few people who performed various acts. They also sold the tickets and programmes, showed you where to sit, cleared the ring after each act, and cleaned up afterwards, ready for the next show. It isn’t an easy life.

* “On with the motley and whitened face. The public pays, and comes to be amused.” Pagliacci.

© Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt


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