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A Shout From The Attic: Black Bottom

...The Black Bottom Clown disappeared from sight, and we wandered to our homes musing on what we had witnessed, trying to make sense of the world of grown-ups. They could be so strange. No wonder we didn’t quite grasp who or what our parents were, what it was they wanted us to do, and what it was they wanted from us. Life was a puzzle without a solution...

Ronnie Bray recalls the day when, as a schoolboy, he saw a peformance by a one-man band. For more of Ronnie's life story click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. Read also his engaging Letter From America columns.

It was a brief but inspired performance by a man with an extraordinary costume, a Heath Robinson array of musical instruments, an extraordinary amount of talent, but no licence. He appeared at the junction of Water Street and Springwood Avenue when school was loosing, and an appreciative crowd of children gathered to watch his performance. He could not have been soliciting funds because it was wartime and children didn’t have money, so maybe he was honing his performance before taking it before a paying audience. The policeman appeared as if summoned by magic and brought the magic to an end.

I had never seen a one-man-band before. He was funny, making jokes as he played and jumped about, causing hilarity among his supportive young audience.

Across his bottom he had sewn a piece of black oilcloth. At one point he shuffled on the pavement, hitching himself along on his behind by kicking out his legs, keeping the rhythm going, then, jumping to his feet, he asked “Do you want to see a black bottom?” He turned and displayed the oilcloth. Some of us knew that the Black Bottom was a dance from the 1920s, and some didn’t, but everyone laughed.

It is never much use arguing with a policeman, especially when you are in the wrong, and the entertainer in the clown outfit knew it. Protesting submissively and feebly, he did as he was ordered, shuffling off in an attitude of defeat but with the air of a man who was used to it. There is something about sadness in a clown that hurts. Probably because clowns shouldn’t be broken-hearted.

Clowns are the insouciant dispensers of jollity to others, often at their own cost. That is the art of a clown. Their vocation is to make others feel better and forget their cares for a season, often when they themselves are burdened with the weight of a world of personal worries and broken dreams, of such magnitude that many never smile when out of motley. Clowns hide their tears behind grotesque make-up, devoting themselves to their performance, feeling in the applause and laughter the adulation they may have failed to secure in their common lives.

For these and other reasons clowns merit special dispensations as part payment on the debt we owe them for taking us out of our sadness into a world of gaiety and hilarious just-couldn’t-happen nonsense.

I see the clown as he shambles down Springwood Avenue, followed closely by the policeman. The policeman’s body language showed he knew his action was unpopular. I see the children as they melt away from their hero of a moment ago, feeling that something essential was gone from life.

Clowns make me incredibly sad, for I have looked behind their masks, and seen the pain behind their smiles, the grief behind their laughter, and the despair behind the comic brilliance of a people that, probably more than any other, knows what it is to be sufferingly human. When the laughed-till-it-busted audience winds its way out of the Big Top and return, cheered, to their homes, then the clowns make their way to their vans or lodgings, often with heavy hearts, as if the cost of lightening the burdens of others is that of adding the burdens they lift to their own hearts and onto their own shoulders.

One summer when Billy Smart’s circus came to Greenhead Park, we had three clowns stay at our lodging house. Joey, a dwarf clown, told with acerbic realism how he felt about the crowds that he made laugh with his antics. “They laugh when I am performing, he complained, “But when they see me walking home, they call to each other, ‘Oh, isn’t he little!’ ‘Look at him!’ ‘He’s a dwarf!’ as if I had no feelings, no heart.” He never smiled, his lugubrious face betraying his distress. And this was the pain of his life. A life he was forced into by his stunted growth, where the only occupation available to such as Joey was either in a freak show, or in a circus as part of the honourable company of clowns.

The Black Bottom Clown disappeared from sight, and we wandered to our homes musing on what we had witnessed, trying to make sense of the world of grown-ups. They could be so strange. No wonder we didn’t quite grasp who or what our parents were, what it was they wanted us to do, and what it was they wanted from us. Life was a puzzle without a solution.

There was Another who loved children and who was moved on by constables, even as He sought to make our lives better than they could be in any other way. He took the cares of the world into his own heart, He took our sufferings, suffering Himself so that we could find blessed release from the sorrows of our lives, and know joy forever.

Such as Him, those like Joey, and the ilk of the Black Bottom Clown, are never understood by those whose restrictive vision prevents them seeing the big picture, whether it is inside the tender hearts of children, deep in the heart of a sombre clown, or inside the love of the pure heart of a Being whose very name breathes love as it confers surcease of anguish, dispenses peace of mind, metes out hope and reconciliation, as it brings a smile to the face of a troubled child, cheers a nation, and saves the world.

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